Monday, June 22, 2009

The horse racing debate

Link's Secret (one of our OTTB's) and Silver Bonanza Bar (my pony horse) on the hotwalker at the Calgary Stampede track

Cheval, one of the fillies in our barn, going head-to-head

Cheval in the paddock. Note the lip chain she is wearing - this filly had a lot of dangerous behavioural issues. This filly, despite a lot of potential, would not run well. Turns out, when her owner finally put the money out to have her knees checked out, that she had bone chips in her knees. She returned home as a broodmare.

Over the past few years, the racehorse industry has been under critical scrutiny by the public. Scrutiny propelled by accidents such as the Eight Belles breakdown. I worked on the Calgary A-track for two seasons - 2007 and 2008, so here is my take on the matter:

Eight Belles

I used to defend the racehorse industry with lines like: "well the horses love to run!" and "they live a great life!"

By all appearances, these horses have the best homes possible. They are regularly exercised - they're some of the fittest athletes in the world. They're groomed daily and eat high-quality feeds that result in sleek coats. Most do love to run, and what better chance to do what they love, than to run on a track? Many receive chiropractic, massage, and/or acupuncture care, all receive regular farrier care as well as vet care, available 24/7.

But what about the mental and emotional side of things?
Let's take a look at various aspects of the racehorse's world. First...

The stall:
These horses are, as I mentioned, some of the fittest athletes in the world. They're also fed very large amounts of concentrates, high amounts of starchy feeds, so as to provide them with the energy essential to running. The high amounts of concentrates combined with the intense physical fitness results in one very high-energy horse. Locked in a stall. These horses can spend up to 23 hours 45 minutes inside their stall on a rainy day with a closed track, to 23 hours 30 minutes a day inside their stall on a day they are galloped. Horses in the wild will graze up to 16 hours per day and can travel up to 80km in a day. Here is an interesting article on horse behaviour, written by RIRDC Equine Research News on Dr.Paul McGreevy (DVM). Being cooped up in such a fashion, a racehorse often has little horse-to-horse interaction and experiences none of the playtime a horse in a more natural environment would. The restriction of a stall can create an unhealthy horse emotionally. The horse is hyped up from having nothing to do in a small box all day, daily, which creates vices such as weaving, stall-walking, cribbing, or general acting up. Then we reprimand the horses for doing so, as if it were their fault - crib-collars, a slap on the shoulder, stud chains, lip chains, twitches... Studies also prove the lack of exercise during stall time, the long periods of time standing in stalls in lieu of keeping muscles, ligaments, and tendons in motion, can be harmful and detrimental to a horse physically. Especially when that horse is then asked to perform at their peak, thereby placing those muscles, ligaments, and tendons under extreme stress, after such long periods of inactivity.

Your typical shedrow. This is one side of a long-barn at the Stampede A-track - about 25 stalls (just on the one side).

Your typical Thoroughbred stall. This is Link's Secret as a four-year-old, one of our OTTB's.

Wye Red, our successful stakes runner at the time

Lala Boom. He was trucked in from Phoenix, Arizona. He came to us abused beyond a doubt and never having had a break from training and racing the past few years. He blew both front tendons soon after we got him - turns out it wasn't his first blown tendon. Update: we later purchased Lala Boom (summer 2010) and have him at home.

The feeds:

Such high energy feeds create a high-energy horse that is then locked in a stall 24/7, detrimental to a horse's mental and emotional well-being. It's no wonder Thoroughbreds get the stereotype of being hot! Since the beginning of the digestive tract cannot handle more than a few pounds of grain, much of it is tossed to the hindgut. In the hindgut, the digestion of large amounts of starches results in lactic acid, which lowers the pH in the hindgut and produces toxins. Toxins that can (and do) result in colic or founder. Another effect of the grains fed to Thoroughbreds involves the high amounts of protein. Such high levels are excreted as ammonia (just take a whiff of one of these horse's stalls). The process of filtering so much protein is hard on the kidneys, not to mention the fact that breathing in that ammonia is not exactly optimal to the horse's lungs (who cannot escape the toxic fumes thanks to the stall, even when cleaned thoroughly and regularly).

The track itself:

Many horses love to run, particularly those bred to do so. My Quarab comes from running horse bloodlines on the QH side and I can attest to his absolute love for running. On the other hand, we have one OTTB that is obsessed with running, and another who could care less. Another point to make is that these horses are forced to run, often regardless of weather conditions. It's not like when my Thoroughbred Link bombs around the pasture at Mach-9 - he is doing so by choice: when he wants, as fast as he wants, as hard as he wants, wherever he wants, and on whatever surface he wants. He runs when the ground is solid, but does not whenever the surface is too icy or slippery (instead, he insists on snorting and blowing around the arena, lol). When the weather is good, the track is great. However there was many a time I walked a horse over to the paddock on a hideous track - hard as concrete beneath pure slop as slippery as any skating rink. When the track surface was deemed "too bad", the track was closed, but how bad does it have to get before it is deemed in too bad condition to race? Some A-tracks, and especially many B-tracks, are particularly notorious for having poor surfaces that predispose horses to a breakdown. Some of these tracks are well-known to have an increased number of breakdowns every year, as compared to other tracks.

The Stampede track, sealed so as to maintain its integrity for tomorrow's races, after days of rain.

The breakdowns:

Not every breakdown is publicized. In fact, the vast majority are not. The Edmonton Northlands track could, some years, have one death during morning gallops every week. I can recall a number of times the Calgary Stampede track (also an A-rated track) was closed because we'd lost a horse. Never mind the breakdowns that did not involve euthanasia; bowed tendons and hairline fractures or bone chips are common, particularly at some barns. Some bowed tendons are recoverable, but most racehorse owners are not willing to put the time in and wait. The horse is thus either retired for breeding or sent to auction for slaughter. A few responsible owners step up and allow their horse to heal before finding an appropriate home for them.

After the track:

Proponents of the racehorse industry claim that most racehorses meet new careers after they leave the track - careers as dressage horses, eventers, jumpers - etc. While some do, many - even most - young, talented athletes instead meet another fate: the auction block. The auction is not a kind place to a Thoroughbred fresh off the track. Though these horses have been ridden under-saddle and are comfortable with a rider, they typically know virtually nothing else other than to run forward. It takes time, patience, and dedication to re-train them. In addition, some are emotionally and/or mentally wrecked horses thanks to the unnatural conditions they are kept in on the track and sometimes also due to mismanagement. This further sets them up for trouble after their track career because these horses might require a high level of re-training your average horse owner does not have the experience and knowledge to provide. Lastly, many of these horses are injured or have former injuries, and potential buyers are scared off by the fact of not knowing whether or not the horse has had a prior injury that could limit a future career. Owners further exacerbate the problem - most regard their horses solely as a financial investment, even the owners who bred and raised said horse. They take little to no responsibility for their horse once it leaves the track. We acquired one of our own OTTB's from his multi-billionaire owners because they could "no longer afford to feed him" if he wasn't running. No effort was put in to advertising him or retraining him (despite their grandsons, who ran the place, having full ability to do so and this horse being a very easy re-train). Instead, I got a call from his trainer, my former boss, asking me to call this horse's owners if we were interested. The owners told us to pick him up before September 15th, the date of the next local auction, or he would be in the sales ring that weekend. They were fully aware he would go for meat (just as their other horses had) and even sold him to us for meat price. I later ran across another filly bred by this farm who had almost met the meat man but had been purchased (for $350) by a caring individual. Nothing wrong with this horse, a very nice animal who would have been very easy to re-train. Her dam went to meat at that same auction. A little effort on the part of these horses' owners would have gone a long way to their having a successful second career elsewhere.


Many of these horses are bred on the basis that they can run, on bloodlines, rather than correct conformation. We had one filly who, as a 3yo, wound up with a hairline fracture on a front knee. This filly had terrible conformation, down to no bone (it wasn't a wonder she broke down on us). Her owners continued to push her to train until it became evident even to their blind eyes she could run no longer. So she went home to breed, based purely on her bloodlines and the potential she had shown prior to the breakdown. This is the reason for the long backs, terrible feet, and other known Thoroughbred conformation faults. Faults that lead to breakdowns and unsuccessful careers in any industry. On another note, so many Thoroughbred foals are pumped out each year that we create a surplus of horses - a surplus that has nowhere to go but France, on a dinner plate.


Check out the latest Western Horseman issue for an article (Futurity Fallout) on the results of training horses at a young age. Training a horse (lightly!) at the age of two has actually been proven to result in a longer-lasting, healthier career for said horse; it has the benefit of strengthening muscle, bone, tendon, and ligament. Actually competing at that age however should be dependent upon the horse itself. Racing places a huge strain on a young horse, much moreso than simple training, and each two-year-old should be taken on a case-by-case basis - some horses are ready for it while others most certainly are not. Most trainers are willing to consider each youngster as an individual and adjust their program accordingly, but many owners - seeking that financial gain, are not. They will push the trainer, who is forced to push the horse, even entering the horse in races themselves when the trainer refuses to do so. The physical stress and strain of the training itself depends upon the trainer and the exercise rider, in addition to husbandry and track surface quality. Some trainers will take a horse along slowly, building up muscle and athleticism in a safe manner for the horse, but others do the exact opposite. Ultimately, the young horse, rather than being developed into a stronger athlete, becomes more prone to a breakdown. Many young horses are worked much too hard too fast.


Beyond the obvious, there are other inhumane occurrences that occur at the track. Horses legs being frozen via ice and chemical means just prior to a race so that they cannot feel their legs when they run, resulting in a faster time from said horse. These chemicals and of course the ice, are not banned substances. Chemical irritants being used to badly "blister" a horse's legs. The racetrack is fraught with tradition and superstition, and the horses are the ones to suffer from this lack of common sense.

The other side of the coin:

This is not to say that horse racing has to be the way it is - it can be done in a much more humane fashion. For example, starting these horses from the ground up at home, prior to the horse reaching the track, will only aid said horse at finding a suitable home after its racing career. It will also make for a better-rounded horse at the track, which makes for a horse that is easier to handle and so less likely to be handled roughly by grooms. Level of training and competition should be based more upon the horse itself than on financial gain. Owners need to recognize that their horse is an athlete that requires financial investment - we acquired our other OTTB when he ran increasingly poorer last year. Turns out he was running poorly because his pelvis was excruciating far out of alignment. His owner had refused chiropractic treatments for the horse when he was racing on the track. The 'before' and 'after' in this horse was unbelievable. Traditions also need to be replaced with common sense and practical, current veterinarian advice. Feed programs should be evaluated by nutritionists so that the horses are fed sufficiently yet not over-fed. Owners need to step up to the plate (most do not even know the head of a horse from a tail) and ensure their horse has the best chance at a second career after racing. Also, track conditions - I feel, need to be more rigidly assessed and owners and trainers need to be better prepared to scratch a horse due to poor track conditions, in the best interests of the horse. Training also needs to be assessed so that horses are brought along slower and gentler. Horses stalled all day need to be taken out more often and have the odd pasture break here and there throughout the year from racing. They need mental stimulation in their stalls - toys, licks, etc. There are a lot of corners that are being cut in the interest of financial gain, but this is not the way it has to be. Interestingly, when the horse's best interests are served, you create a healthier, happier athlete that will in turn perform better and thus produce better financial return.

Racing doesn't have to have the bad name it does. Sadly, it seems to greatly revolve around monetary gain and human greed rather than the best interests of the horse, but this is not a mandatory qualification. Trainers and owners can, however, take it upon themselves to be different - to treat their horses respectfully and humanely - to set the bar higher. So I have to say that the entire industry is not deserving of criticism, though a lot of it is. Save your criticism for the trainers and owners who actually deserve it, and - better yet, try to set a good example and/or make an impact on the industry where the best interests of the horses - rather than humans - are served.


OldMorgans said...

Well written. What are the chances that anything will seriously change for the better? Are there enough people who want the changes for the good of the horses?

Equus said...

Thanks OldMorgans! I don't know what those chances are. Unfortunately, human nature seems to dictate the chance to likely be low. On the other hand, as much as I despise extremist groups such as PETA, those types of groups - through public pressure and such, may in time tip the scales in the favour of change. I suppose only time will tell.

There are many people, including some breeders, trainers, riders, grooms, etc who strive for the best interests of the horses, I'm just not sure it's enough...yet?

OldMorgans said...

The tipping point will, I think, be eventually reached. Much is different just in my lifetime. Will the major changes happen in my lifetime? I just don't know, but do doubt it.

Equus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Equus said...

I believe you're right. Ever seen The Day the Earth Stood Still (remake)? At the risk of being laughed at (lol), it IS a good example of how we as a society funcion. We don't change until we are pushed to do so, until we are threatened. Hopefully that tipping point occurs sooner rather than later, for the sakes of the horses.

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