When I worked on the track, I was privy to observing a lot of what I would consider to be horrors – things practiced that were in the interest of human greed rather than the horse’s best interests. One of the things that hit me was how many of these very talented (and often sound and sane) horses met the meat man after their career. I can recall one horse in particular who really struck me as a talented individual. He was a good 17 hands as a 3yo and had been started late – rather than starting him on the track as a 2yo, as most individuals do, his owners and breeders had instead opted to start him as a 3yo (as they did all their horses). He was very striking – tall, handsome, huge bone, great conformation, flashy colour. Unfortunately he did not run as well as his owners had hoped, so they eventually sold him (completely sound throughout his career) to his trainer. Who later traded him to the meat man. This was a horse worth a good $5,000 or more (with further training) at the time, a horse for whom a lot of jumpers had expressed interest. He was eventually sold to the meat man.
Our own OTTB’s were headed to similar fates when we purchased them. My own OTTB was headed towards a possible career as an allowance or stakes horse when, in his 4yo year, he started to run poorly. He would return to the barn after a race (having kept up with the pack) without hardly a drop of sweat and hardly breathing hard – it was like he was not even trying out there. This is a highly competitive horse with a lot of energy who had previously been very successful. So the owner started running him once a week, thinking the horse was perhaps too hyped up by the time he raced every two weeks that he was not running well. Didn’t work. The trainer suggested the horse see the chiropractor who made regular rounds through the barns. The owner refused for financial reasons (this is the same - very well off - owner who ignored a hairline fracture in a mare’s knee in the interest of continuing to run her – he refused to even x-ray her for the longest time, because it was “too expensive” to do so). So, the horse continued to run and run, until he hit bottoms at the A track. So the owner took him home, with the intentions of running him later at the B track (by that time, the horse had a bad case of ringworm). I noticed his absence immediately and called his owner with an offer. I knew if the horse went to the B track, he was likely to break down and at the rate he was performing, he was headed for the meat man soon. Finally we negotiated a deal and we brought Link home (waaay way over-priced, by the way…). First thing we did was have a chiropractor out, who determined his pelvis to be terribly misaligned and likely the cause for his poor runs. She put him back into place and immediately (literally, that day - I had a lot of trouble holding him back after that, where before I had had to encourage him forward into a canter even) his desire to run and effort in doing so had returned – because he no longer hurt! Link has turned out to be a fabulous horse, though working with him has not been without its challenges, as he came from the track with a lot of emotional “baggage”. My mom’s horse we purchased as a 3yo who just did not have the desire to run, so he returned home to his (multi-billionaire) breeders and owners. I received a call a month or so later from his trainer, who told me that Sonny was being shipped off soon. Sonny reminded me a lot of a horse we used to have and had a look similar to my mom’s previous Thoroughbred, so I took her along with me with the intentions of showing her the horse for her own purposes. The minute she set eyes on him, she fell in love. The owners told us that if we wanted him, we had to come by and pick him up prior to the next auction else he would be in said auction. They were well aware he would be going for meat and so only requested meat price for him. This is a horse who is now 5 and who is teaching a fearful older re-rider, like a perfect gentleman (with very very little re-training). In fact, he is also currently being ridden by two intermediate riders, one being a 10yo girl whom he really responds to. He is a gorgeous horse with nearly flawless conformation and with the potential to attain high levels in the hunter or dressage arenas (particularly the latter, he has got fabulous movement).
The above stories are far from unique. I can list off so many more, just off the top of my head. So many of these horses are never given a second chance, despite having the potential and talent to continue on in a second career. I have personally seen at least half a dozen horses since auctioned off for meat by the same multi-billionaire breeders who owned and bred Sonny; all horses with similar bloodlines and thus similar minds and potential to him. Nevermind the thousands out there I am not even aware of! The money is often there but for whatever reason, the incentive is not. It is really too bad because a great deal of these horses (most, if not all), have the talent and ability to go on to some sort of second career. So here is my short list of possible solutions to the problem of talented off-track Thoroughbreds being sent to auction and meeting the Mexican-bound truck. Any more thoughts on the issue?
- Make permanent notes on these horses’ registration papers – grooms, trainers, breeders can make a permanent note (with name and number/other) on the horse’s registration paper that expresses their interest in purchasing the horse after its career on the track. Of course this could leave said people open to extortion (the owner could ask for a higher price knowing the horse is wanted rather than sending it out for meat price) though, but hopefully the best interests of the horse could be placed above all. This could allow owners an outlet and good home for their horse after its career though, with little effort on the owner’s part.
- Registration fees, a portion of bets, a portion of a horse’s winnings, could be placed in a fund directed towards rescues, that particular horse, an association that governs the placement of these horses after their career, whatever may be, but ultimately a way of providing a financial means of re-homing these horses after their career at the track. The money could be used toward re-training, care until a new home is found, etc.
- What if these horses were started on the track as 3yo’s rather than 2yo’s? Perhaps less would retire unsound, thus allowing these horses a better chance at finding a suitable career after the track.
- Incentives for rescues/rehab – I am not sure what type of incentives, but perhaps rescues/rehabs themselves could obtain some sort of (association/governmental) incentive(s) for taking on retired racehorses and re-homing them. The owners/breeders of said horse could also receive some type of award/incentive if they choose to re-home a horse successfully rather than sending it straight to the auction.
- Track bans (and enforced!!) to those who choose to auction off a racehorse or sell it privately to the meat man (I can recall of numerous horses who met the meat man without a middle-man, without leaving the track – they were dealt directly to the meat man for whatever reason, without even the auction or such chance in between).
- Regulatory bodies established (or branches of the current bodies) that check in on a re-homed racehorse after specific time periods, to ensure the horse is truly re-homed (this occurs already in places in Great Britain, so it is obviously possible).
- Promotion of good breeding and training (through incentives, education, and enforcement).
- Exposure – a body or such that exposes available retired racehorses to the general via some sort of medium, such as a website.
- EDUCATION!! A great many horsemen do not even realize so many of these talented horses are going to slaughter, what their care/re-training all entails, or their suitability to various careers.
It is pretty sad we have to provide incentives for people to take proper care and responsibility for their horses, but I suppose that is how the world operates unfortunately. I think ultimately we need to look at what works in other countries and industries; there are some extremely successful situations in other countries whereby they have entirely eliminated retired racehorses being sent to slaughter. It is not that I do not see the importance or necessity of horse slaughter, however most of these talented horses certainly deserve a second chance after serving our own uses and benefits!