This morning, I present a guest post from Melanie Sue Bowles. Melanie is the founder of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, one of the nation’s oldest and most successful privately-run organizations for horses. Melanie has also authored three nonfiction books on the hundreds of animals who have found their way to the sanctuary. She is, in short, a true expert on equine nature, and I am grateful for her contribution.
“Rich Strike and the Systemic Barbarism of Horseracing”
by Melanie Sue Bowles
The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. A come-from-behind 3y/o colt, Rich Strike, won. What transpired as he was being led to the winner’s circle by outrider Greg Blasi was a revealing display of the systemic barbarism in the Thoroughbred racing industry.
This is not a reference to the cognitive dissonance from racing enthusiasts: apparently, it’s acceptable or at least “normal” for jockeys to beat their horse to get them over the finish line, but it’s not okay for the horses to be beaten once they’ve crossed it, as evidenced by the outrage on social media. Regarding Blasi punching the fractious colt? Was Blasi right? Was he wrong? Did his actions escalate or deescalate the dangerous situation? I wasn’t there and can’t answer those questions. But truthfully, that is not the conversation we should be having. Blasi’s behavior was a consequential distraction.
The conversation we should be having is how Rich Strike got into this situation. A situation where he was incapable of controlling himself, and as a result the young colt suffered egregious consequences. Is Rich Strike to blame? Of course not. He’s not to blame because he was failed by every single person who has access to his life. Everyone who perpetuates the systemic barbarism of the Thoroughbred racing industry – from the owners, to the trainers, to the grooms, to the jockeys and everyone in between, including the fans. All of them failed this horse. Just like the thousands of other horses who are being failed living in servitude at tracks and breeding farms all across this country.
How are these horses being failed? They are weaned too soon, and started under saddle too young. They haven’t had a chance to mature. They are stalled too much, enduring excessive isolation and confinement. They are not socialized; they never experience play or the important dynamics of interacting with other horses. They are not provided the training they need to be safely handled. The typical life of a Thoroughbred is stressful, emotionally and mentally traumatic, physically damaging, and goes against everything natural and everything horses need to thrive. They are stripped of the intrinsic right to participate in their own life. And they are just babies.
Race Day. We have a horse who is essentially still an infant. He’s at the height of rambunctious energy, he should be moving about with other horses, learning, growing, but the days beforehand – most of his life, really – he’s been locked in a stall. His sleep rhythm is on human time, not his own. Rather than natural grazing – something so crucial to equine gut health – he’s given large meals of high-energy feed. His testosterone is raging. Roll all this up and set him down on the adrenaline-fueled grounds of the Kentucky Derby. The noise, the frenetic activity, the smells. The hats. Oh, those hats. He can feel the nervous excitement of the people around him. He can sense the pent-up power of the other horses.
Rich Strike is being called a “storybook underdog,” an “inspiring hero.” He’s neither of those things. He’s the equivalent of a child who has been deprived of ANY natural movement, forced to work like a “seasoned athlete”; he’s ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he was relentlessly whipped to obey the only training he’s ever received: RUN. He won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period.
After the race, it was clear Rich Strike was ready to explode as he was being led to the winner’s circle; he bit outrider Greg Blasi and tried to ravage Blasi’s pony. Why? Because it was a perfect storm: the young colt is the equivalent of a child, ramped up on adrenaline and testosterone and high-energy feed, and he’s never been provided the training he needs to control his behavior.
And that is the systemic barbarism of this “sport,” and it will never change because owners and trainers don’t make money by allowing horses to mature physically and mentally and by allowing them to socialize and simply “be a horse.” Owners and trainers don’t make money by giving horses, especially stallions, the skills they need to be handled safely. All that is wasting time. And these young Thoroughbreds suffer, pay the price, because everyone around them has failed them.
Rich Strike won because he ran faster than the other horses. Period. Not because he wanted to be the next inspirational feel-good story. Believing that Rich Strike or any horse cares whether or not he won a human-derived contest is absurd and it is anthropomorphism at its worst.