The following essay was submitted by a longtime industry exercise-rider. For various reasons, this person has asked to remain anonymous.
Please allow me to start off by saying that I am not any level of bleeding heart activist. I enjoy eating meat and I fully believe in using horses for work and recreation. I have a job to earn my keep and I see no reason why most horses can’t earn their keep as well. With all that being said, it is my observation that horseracing practices are senseless mental and physical abuse. They are a near perfectly measured formula for destroying the animal mentally and rendering it useless even in the unlikely event that he survives the relentless physical pounding that kills the majority of his peers.
Everything that is standard practice in this industry, from the tiny boxes they are kept in, the high protein diets they are fed, the hormones they are injected with, down to their daily training regimens is a no-fail recipe for the absolute destruction of this delicate animal. We mass produce these nervous and frail animals with absolutely no regulations or standards and we discard them just as quickly.
There are no rules that regulate how long a horse can remain “in training” without a break. “In training” entails being locked in a 12 by 12 box for 23 hours a day, coming out only to jog and canter in circles around a racetrack for 15 to 20 minutes. This is followed by being walked, either by hand or on a walking machine, for about 30 minutes and then it’s back to the box until tomorrow.
In order to understand how damaging this is to a horse’s psychological (as well as physical) being, it is essential to understand the nature of a grazing herd-animal. A horse is very much like a deer, designed to live in large families, constantly ambling around and ingesting small bits of grass and roughage. They seek comfort in large, close-knit herds where they, as prey animals, keep watch over one another and provide physical affection and companionship. Deprivation of this natural state brings on a host of stress and anxiety induced behaviors.
Have you ever been around or seen footage of young children in an orphanage? Being deprived of a mother’s affection, they often rock themselves for comfort, sometimes violently. Some tap their heads against walls or their bed boards. Some even develop unusual, compulsory vocal or breathing ticks. Walk down the shedrow of any barn and you will see horses displaying all of the aforementioned symptoms. Most commonly they weave back and forth in their doorways; some find room to actually pace back and forth or even tread little circles around the inside of their tiny boxes. Often the horses weave and pace so incessantly and aggressively that it causes lameness issues in the animal and digs deep holes in their stall floor. Not only does this make for a very uncomfortable bed to lie down in, it also churns all their urine and feces into their costly “bedding.”
I have observed desperate trainers try all sorts of tactics to stop these counterproductive behaviors. They “decorate” the stalls with old car tires, orange road cones and giant beach balls to avert the circling and pacing, usually to no avail. I have seen horses bloody up their ankles frantically pacing and weaving over the top of the tires as though they weren’t even there.
Another common habit they develop, called “cribbing” or “sucking wind,” is when the horse bites down on the stall door or the edge of the feed bucket and loudly sucks air into his belly. Some “cribbers” do so because they are not being provided with adequate roughage (grazing animals are designed to constantly digest small bits of roughage) and filling their belly with air can simulate the feeling of being full. Others crib purely from boredom and anxiety. This compulsory habit can cause a plethora of health problems and the solution is a rigid, leather choke collar that fastens tightly around the horse’s throat and jabs painfully into his esophagus whenever he moves his head or neck a certain way. This is often effective and a majority of trainers leave this apparatus on for the full 23 hours that the horse is stalled.
One horse I encountered years ago (at a very prestigious track) had been “in training” for seven straight years. He had not been allowed outside in a pasture or even a small paddock for over seven years. He was nine now and his career was coming to an end. Whenever turned outside in a paddock he would run, panicked and screaming wildly until he was bathed in sweat. Having a quiet and calm horse in the next paddock over or even in the same paddock with him offered no comfort.
I turned that poor gelding outside every single day that winter. I even tried two different kinds of tranquilizers, but he never once stopped frantically running and screaming – not until you brought him back to his box. I never left him outside for more than a hour for fear that he would explode his heart or break a leg off. Before I left at the end of the season the owner/trainer swore to me that he would keep the gelding as a pony or a barn ornament. I just try not to think about it.
In general, horses are affectionate and deeply sensitive animals. When removed from their natural environment, they become like dogs and thrive on attention. Walking down a racehorse shedrow can often feel like visiting a city animal-shelter where all the dogs stare at you longingly, begging for your attention and interaction. But because of the stress of track life, many horses grow bitter and afraid of humans. Can you blame them? They pin their ears and gnash their teeth at everyone who passes their stall. In turn, trainers and grooms slap at them, call them awful names and handle them with anger and aggression.
You see, aside from the starry-eyed young girls who run away to join the “circus” because they genuinely love horses, the racetrack is a catch-all for drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, and other undesirables. These horses who develop poor attitudes will likely be handled by short-tempered drunks. You can certainly imagine what happens when a suffering, frightened filly aims a well-deserved kick at a hung-over ex-con for hurriedly raking too stiff of a brush across her sensitive belly. I’ve seen “cranky” horses slapped, kicked and punched. Sometimes this cycle continues until a horse becomes labeled as “savage.” “Savages” will not only bite and kick but will run at anyone who comes near their stall. Some will throw themselves on the ground whenever they’re tethered up for grooming. And the cycle continues.
Do you realize that there is no one appointed to go around the barns at night and just check on the horses? No one checks to make sure the horses have water, food and bedding. That job doesn’t exist, at least at the tracks I have worked at. Horses go all night standing in a box with no water or hay. Maybe because the owner/trainer is down on his luck and can’t afford any bedding this week or has to ration his hay. Maybe the trainer in the next barn got drunk and passed out early, before he topped off water buckets for the night, and now all ten of his horses have no water until morning. Oftentimes that same trainer will send those horses out to gallop the next morning still without having given them a drink. Just imagine what kind of horrors are being ignored at the cheaper tracks. No need for me to imagine, I have seen it.
Then there is the whipping. In general, when a racehorse turns for home he gets the living shit whipped out of him. Whether he is in first or last, limping or sailing on air, he gets whipped. In recent years, they have added an extra 1/4″ of foam to the “business end” in order to make it more “humane.” This is total bullshit and here’s why: a whip is usually 2 1/2′-3 1/2′ sections of fiberglass fishing-poles (wrapped in colorful plastic string or leather) and a 1/2″ thick foam-popper on the end that is covered in patent leather – for the comfort of the horse, I’m sure. Is it possible that part of the reason racehorses become sour – rearing up, flipping over and sometimes even killing themselves in avoidance – is because they anticipate the whipping? For an animal of flight, a prey animal, having a rider on your back continuously whipping or spurring even through you’re already running as fast as you can – in a stampede, in front of a screaming audience – certainly must seem like punishment.
In my 20 years in this industry, I have been licensed in eight different states; I have rode at training facilities in most of these and in four others as well. I have “broke” (got them ready to ride) over 100 yearlings and have personally snapped the legs off of two separate horses by galloping them whilst they were knowingly unsound. Both were euthanized on the spot. I am aware of a few other horses whom I have mortally injured. One horse whom I killed particularly haunts my memory.
We were out galloping and I felt something pop and he began to limp. He was a really kind and gentle guy. I hopped off and led him back to the barn. I watched that horse stand in his tiny, hard stall with no feed or bedding for nearly a week before the “meat man” came through on his weekly run. At which point, this gentle, trusting animal was loaded, limping, onto the trailer where he was shuffled around hungry, afraid, and in pain for another week before being shipped to the slaughterhouse.
There is nothing glamorous about this “sport,” no matter what country you’re in. Any time you mass-produce animals as commodities, there is going to be cruelty and death. That’s a fact, and to focus on just the drugging is a total cop-out. Actually, if you saw how these horses lived you would advocate them having more drugs. Taking away Lasix and pain-killers is increasing their suffering and worsening their already horrible quality of life. Having seen and lived this for 20 years, it is my opinion that horseracing simply needs to go away.