Jo Anne Normile is a former breeder and owner. Upon becoming disillusioned with the racing industry, she left and founded CANTER – the first organization in the country to take Thoroughbreds right from the track to safe havens. After leaving CANTER, Jo Anne co-founded a second successful horse rescue – Saving Baby Equine Charity. These and other racing-related experiences were put to print in the memoir Saving Baby – How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption. The book was featured in Reader’s Digest and garnered five stars from Barnes and Noble.
Jo Anne’s dedication to horses includes research on “equine self-mutilation syndrome” and compulsive behavior in formerly feral horses; she coauthored studies that appeared in the prestigious Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and The Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. In 2012, she coauthored the case study “U.S. Thoroughbreds Slaughtered 2002-2010 Compared to Annual Thoroughbred Foal Crop.” Jo Anne has also provided exhibits for a Congressional hearing on the use of drugs in racehorses and has been a guest speaker at equine safety conferences around the country.
Jo Anne was an early contributor to our “Shedrow Secrets” and is a member of our advisory board. Today, she addresses some of this industry’s tools of the trade.
“It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”
by Jo Anne Normile
If you were watching television in the 1970s, no doubt you remember the threatening voice declaring “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” as thunder roared, lightning flashed and in some versions of the commercial, wild animals stampeded. When we watch a horse race, the same outrage should be evoked as racing takes away from a horse everything natural to his way of life.
Horses are stressed by change. Stress and pain increase the likelihood of ulcers and colic. Every day, racehorses risk their lives as easily disposable gambling objects, no different than a deck of cards in a casino. If they are too slow or injured, it is likely that their first stop is being dumped into cheap claiming races to become someone else’s “problem” or worse – sold by the pound to a slaughterhouse. This unnatural way of life begins when they are taken from pastures to train when they are just babies.
Driven by greed alone, 18-month-old horses are “broke to ride” and are already in serious race-training at off-track centers or at the racetracks themselves. The sole reason: to get them into the lucrative 2-year-old races. Immature in body and mind, their natural development and ability to learn about the world around them is no longer in a familiar pasture with playful herd mates; on the contrary, they are typically stuck 23 hours in a stall, all alone – day after day after day.
Racehorses are forced to endure changes in their diets, stable mates, bedding and surroundings. They have changes in owners, trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, grooms and veterinarians. They must train on a set schedule – not the horse’s schedule. That training schedule is maintained with the assistance of whips for enforcement, and devices of control such as metal bits, tongue ties, shadow rolls and blinkers.
The young horse in training is given an hour outside of his stall, with every minute of that time controlled. A mix of horses are on the track training, but these horses have not interacted. They are not pasture mates nor do they ever get to enjoy romping together, grazing and mutual grooming. Their immature bodies now balance a whip-wielding rider and must maneuver closely-banked turns – not at their chosen speed or of their own volition. Juveniles forced to perform as if they were adults. Galloping hesitantly, scared and confused, weaving or lugging one way or the other, their movement is noted and the tinkering begins. It’s as if the trainers ask themselves: How can I further mess with nature and promote the lie that “horses love to race”?
Bits are pieces of metal – a “bar,” says the Daily Racing Form (DRF) – put in a horse’s mouth with reins attached, “by which he is guided and controlled.” Jerking or pulling the reins can cause painful pressure to the sensitive tissues of the mouth. With the clock ticking (to quickly get the horse into a race), the fastest way to try to win control is not through horsemanship but a more severe bit or other equipment.
The “run-out bit,” the DRF explains, “[is] a special type of bit to prevent a horse from bearing (or lugging) out (or in).” Why would a horse be “bearing out (or in)”? According to the DRF, “Deviating from a straight course may be due to weariness, infirmity, punishment by rider or rider’s inability to control mount.” There it is, racing’s open admission that they know these actions are the horse’s way of saying: “I am exhausted.” “I am sore.” “I do not want to race.” “I do not want to be here.” Nevertheless, the racers will do and utilize whatever it takes to override the horse’s natural instincts and his ability to react to surroundings.
Blinkers and Shadow Rolls
Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and they are set on the sides of the head, which gives the horse amazing peripheral vision. Being prey animals, they rely heavily on this vision. It is critical in assisting them to relax and accept their surroundings. Again, the standard procedure is not to take the time to acclimate a young horse with his surroundings, but add a stronger bit or more equipment such as “blinkers” to force control. DRF: “Blinkers [are] a device to limit a horse’s vision to prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him.” Blinkers are a facemask, with eye cups of various sizes, used to block the horse’s unique vision. There can be the extreme extension blinkers blocking all vision on one side, full cup blinkers, and eye cups that are smaller and considered “cheaters.” But the goal is the same: limit the galloping horse’s vision.
A “shadow roll” (usually lambswool) also limits the horse’s field of vision. Placed halfway up the face, it is ostensibly used to keep him from seeing and shying from his own shadow. But once again, it is messing with nature and the horse’s ability to react to his surroundings.
Horseracing is a deadly business. Why do they so severely handicap the horse’s vision? If blinkers are to “prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him,” then their goal is to NOT allow the racehorse galloping at breakneck speeds in a crowded field to react as he should with normal vision. Perhaps the deadly bumping, the tripping, the running into the rail, and the clipping of heels would happen less if the horses were simply able to see!
Trained only to gallop counter-clockwise, racehorses do not make a choice on how to best move nor are they symmetrical in development due to only training in one direction. Unnatural movement is compounded by the use of whips, bits, and vision impairments, and all of that is further exacerbated by the “tongue tie.” According to the DRF, a tongue tie is a “strap or tape bandage used to tie down a horse’s tongue to prevent it from choking in a race or workout.” Sounds compassionate, huh? In truth, the tie, which attaches to the lower jaw, is meant to keep the tongue from sliding up over the bit. Why is this important? Well, sliding the tongue over the bit would relieve the painful pressure caused by the bit, and that painful pressure is crucial in maintaining total control of the horse. Not so compassionate after all.
Planning on running in a local marathon? A jog around your gym’s track? I bet you will run free. You won’t be carrying someone on your back with a whip. You won’t have a painful metal bit stuck in your mouth. You won’t have your tongue physically pulled out and tied down. And you won’t be wearing a device that prevents you from seeing everything around you.
Do horses “love to race”? Of course not. They are prey animals running in fear for their lives. All of these tools – including the whip, which reinforces the feel of a predator’s claws raking their flank – are meant to control movement, to force a race. They are unnatural, but more importantly, they are cruel.