Of Horse

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An Insider's View of the Racetrack
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An Insider's View of the Racetrack

Lately, I have been seeing the racing industry being vilified in the media. And many people, with no first hand knowledge, of racing, have read these articles, looked at the injury statistics, and drawn conclusions from this that are far from the truth. I would like to address some of these conclusions with some facts and figures from my own personal experience.

I would like to tell you a little about myself before I begin. I have worked on the track since 1976, mostly with thoroughbreds, but also, to a lesser degree, with quarter horses and a small amount of  Arabs. I have hot walked, groomed, galloped, but mostly ponied during my time on the track. I have never owned a thoroughbred. My pony horses have all been stock horse types- quarter horses, appaloosas, paints, and lately a couple of Percheron crosses. I have owned 12 pony horses over the course of my career. I did have to sell one horse who just didn't make it as a pony, but the rest I have kept until they passed away, or, after retirement,(usually at around 20 years old), gave them to friends with small children. And if my friends had not treated "my boys" well, I would have brought them back home and found another spot for them. I still have one of my retirees who is 29 this year. I consider my pony horses to be part of my family. So I would say I am typical of the people who come to this site in terms of feelings for my horses.

One of the charges brought against the racetracks is that the number of injuries (some of them life-ending) are too high. This is absolutely true. Injuries are a major problem in the industry. This is a concern to everyone on the track. And here are some of the things being done to address the problem:

 1. Horses are routinely vet checked on the day of the race. The horse must pass a soundness test in front of the Racing Commission's veterinarians on that morning. The vets will scratch any horse that does not meet their criteria for soundness.

 2. A Racing Commission vet is in the paddock during the races, and another is out on the track where the horses warm up before the race. Any horse that they feel does not look sound is scratched. The jockeys can also take their horse before the vet and request that the horse be scratched if the jockey does not feel the horse is sound.

 3. Young horses are routinely checked to see if their knees have closed. (finished growing.) "Open knees" are one reason young horses are prone to injury.

 4. The Jockey Club started an equine injury data base. Launched in 2008, this is a national database designed to track all racetrack injuries and outcomes, "in order to serve as a data source for research directed at improving safety and preventing injuries."

 5. The Jockey Club also started the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, which addresses issues such as allowable medication and track surfaces- both of which are contributing factors in injuries. While being limited in its ability to mandate in the area or equine health and safety, it has proven to be a successful lobby group, getting many beneficial changes in the industry.

 6.The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation has established a Welfare and Safety Summit which is dedicated to researching all issues relating to injury, including education for trainers and caretakers, track surfaces, shoes and shoeing, racetrack management, and veterinary services. This group is also looking into ways to find homes for retired thoroughbreds.

These are just a few of the things that are being done to help improve conditions for the horses.

Another charge is that, after racing, many race horses do not find suitable homes. Finding suitable homes for retirees is definitely another problem of the industry. One of the good things to come of all the publicity is that many nonprofit organizations have sprung up to help find homes for retiring thoroughbreds. In my part of the country, many of the racehorses can be sold for polo or for jumping. Also many of the pony people prefer retired TBs for pony horses. More awareness of this problem will bring more homes for the retirees.

Some people charge that the reason that there are so many injuries is that the people involved just don't care about their horses. This is absolutely not the case. That is like saying that no one cares about their cats or dogs because so many pets wind up abandoned, run down on the highway, or euthanized in the pound. Unfortunately, there are people who own horses (and cats and dogs) who are cruel, or negligent. But that does not mean that the majority are. All the horses at the track have regular vet care. The private practice vets make the rounds of their stables every day. The trainers check the horse's legs and feet as well as their temperature daily. A groom will take care of the horse's daily needs. Each groom is assigned his or her own horses to take care of (usually 4), and is responsible for cleaning the stall, grooming, saddling, bathing, feeding, and "doing up" their charges every day. "Doing up", means applying liniment or other substances to help keep the horses' legs healthy. After brushing, the groom will check the legs for any heat or swelling, apply the liniment, rub (massage) the legs, and wrap them in standing bandages. The trainers give much thought and care into deciding each horse's training schedule. Particular care is taken to make sure the horse is fit. "Fit" means he has been conditioned in strength, stamina, and air, and is physically fit to race. Months and months are spent conditioning a young horse or a horse coming back from a layoff before he is ready to race.

Another charge is that the people on the track are just in it for the money. This is not true at all. Most track people do not make a lot of money. Combine that with the fact that it's a 7 day a week job, many of those days 10-14 hours long, (many days worked in a split shift, so that the people only get 4 hours sleep at a time), and the fact that they're moving 2 or 3 times a year - and it should be clear it isn't the money that motivates them. Most people are in it because they love horses.

Another assumption is that because racehorses are not kept after they can no longer race, that no one cares about them. And I guess, at first glance, this might seem true. But think about it. Who sold you your horse? It was either someone in the horse business, who was making money at it, or it was someone who could no longer keep his horse, either because he couldn't afford the cost, or he no longer had a use for the horse. So how is the person who sold your horse any different than the people on the track who often GIVE their horses away in the hopes that they'll find a good home. It is a misconception to think that ex-racehorses are the only ones that are going to the killers. Before the slaughterhouses were done away with in the US, many horse people I know, went to the "killer sales" (cheap sales with killer buyers there). They were looking for inexpensive horses they could retrain into useful riding horses. And guess what? Even in a state with a huge TB industry, the majority of the horses being run through the sales were riding horses, not ex-race horses. The rescue organizations also usually have more riding horses than thoroughbreds to try and relocate. So while, finding homes for retired thoroughbreds is a real problem, it's not JUST a thoroughbred problem.

So to sum up, I have no problem with people being concerned about the number of injuries in our industry. It is a problem that needs more study and more improvements. I have no problem with people being concerned with the plight of the retired thoroughbred. The more people who are concerned, the more homes will be found for deserving racehorses, (and due to the publicity) perhaps for other types of horses as well. I do have problems with people characterizing the whole industry as unfeeling, greedy people who look at horses solely as money machines, because this is absolutely untrue. It's easy to stand outside and point fingers and condemn. It's harder to actually be part of the solution. So to all the people that say they're concerned about racehorses, I say put your money where your mouth is. Realistically, there is plenty you can do to help improve our industry. And true, pointing out statistics and bringing awareness to the problem is helping, but trashing the whole industry and its people is not. 

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I have been riding horses since I was two years old, and started earning money for riding while in my teens. After high school, I went to an accredited riding academy, and have done nothing but work with horses ever since I graduated (in 1973). I have moved all over the country with my jobs, worked with all kinds of different horses, and learned many different styles of riding. Currently, I am working as a pony girl (hence the pen name) on the racetrack in Louisiana. So, as you can imagine, I have had a very well rounded (still ongoing) education in horsemanship. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many knowledgeable people in so many different disciplines over the years. And now, I would like to share some of the things I've learned, with the readers of Of Horse.

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  1. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Great blog. Voted. This is one of many arguments in the horse industry alone. I suppose if you're on the outside, one's perception can be quite large as opposed to one's who are in the industry. I have enjoyed watching many a race, be in on track, cross country, grass, dirt. The rush of adrenaline, the thrill of the run... there's nothing quite like it.
    1. PonyGirl
      Thanks, Rene!
  2. autumnap
    Voted. I'm based in the UK and it's interesting to hear how things are done in other countries. We have quite a number of racehorse rehab centres over here now and wherever possible ex-racers are retrained for jumping, dressage or just hacking and are rehomed. Those animals who are physically no longer able to be ridden find a new life as companions. x
    1. PonyGirl
      autumnap, I'm glad to hear about the rehab facilities in the UK. I was confident that you had them, but with no first hand knowledge, I could only speak up for the racing in America. I appreciate your support.
  3. MReynolds
    Ponygirl, there should be more articles like this one that actually explaining the treatment of race horses. I love the races, and all the people I know who are involved -- owners, cool boys, grooms and others -- treat these wonderful horses like royalty. Many times the horses are associated with very large investments, and it would be absolutely stupid to treat their horses any way other than with high-quality, top-notch care. I will go out on a limb here and even state that race horses are generally among the best card-for animals in the equine world, in spite of the pitfalls that occur with these and other animals. Thank you for your insightful article -- I wish you weren't "preaching to the choir!"
    1. PonyGirl
      Thank you so, much! Your support means a lot to me!
  4. Chestnut Mare
    Chestnut Mare
    Voted. It's interesting to read this from an inside viewpoint a well-expressed article. I am glad you agree that there are way too many injuries and deaths in racing, and that something needs to be done about it. in my recent article where I pointed out the suffering racing causes to horses, I wasn't demonising everyone who works in the industry, I swear! I am sure, as you say, most of the people on the tracks do care about the horses. As you say, they are maybe not in it for the money, but the owners and bookmakers definitely ARE, so they don't care what happens to the horses! I just wanted to point that out. I agree that where there is a lot of money to be made there is always ruthless exploitation, not just racing. You might be interested in my latest blog, btw, Small Is Beautiful, check it out and please vote if you like it.
    1. PonyGirl
      Thank you for your input, Chestnut Mare. I appreciate it. In the states, you can only bet legally through pari-mutual betting. So I really don't know anything about legal bookmakers. The tracks are definitely there to make money, and some of the track owners don't seem to care about the horses or the horsemen. They would rather simulcast and not have to worry about live racing at all. Other tracks try to do the best for the horses and horsemen, but if the management isn't made up of horse people, they don't really understand what the horsemen and horses need. Some owners may only be interested in money, some of them are only interested in the prestige of owning a racehorse, some love the sport but don't really understand the horse, but I've met many, many owners that love and understand horses and make sure theirs are taken care of, both during their career and after. So I still can't blame one group of people. The issues involved are truly very complex, but hopefully some major improvements aren't too far away.
  5. jst4horses
    There was an HBO special series here at Santa Anita, the producers called it quits because so many of their horses died. Racing is for betting. Do not fool yourselves. I too have worked in the industry for now decades. There are many awesome trainers and owners, but a lot more who do not care. I heard a man tell his son "do not get attached, it is just an investment" when they came to visit a syndicated horse they had purchased part of. I have seen handlers who are working on someone else's card hit horses in the knee, or on the face with grooming brushes to make them behave. It cracks the bone, and often the horses die and jockeys or exercise riders are killed. The tracks try to be watchful, but it is hard. My son saw a man tie a young horse to a wall and beat the crap out of it (seriously, it pooped it was so upset) and he told the trainer to walk on down. His thanks, he had to leave that track and drive twenty miles to work each morning because the friends of the man kept slitting his tires, and breaking his windows and mirrors, and threatening him. The track's answer: the usual bully response. YOU, the reasonable person go somewhere else. The horse: it had kicked the man's wife HOURS before while she held it for a bath. This same track, when I was a young person, had few large barns. People owned one or two horses. Retired guys, or young college students were the grooms and hotwalkers. Those who did not make it and were let go, often went to the grooms or hot walkers to take home for the grandchildren. That is why the hillsides around us are filled with one or two stalls in the back of the house stables and we have our own horse parks. TWO of them. What is the answer? Take the super money out of racing. Several people go around buying the "best" horses, at extreme prices, so they can "win" the prestige stakes races. This was not the case when I was a teen and my friend's Grandfather was a trainer. Horses that sold for $300 now sell for three million. Yet I have seen a $2 million dollar horse, broken down, abandoned at another friend's lay up farm, and not the only one. My older son bought a syndicated horse (a stallion with amazing breeding) when their Kentucky hopeful broke down during a work in the rain where he flipped over. The syndicate did not want to spend the money to let him heal. He would never race again, what was the point they said. COLD hearted people breed these thoroughbreds and sell them for as much as they can get. Many do not make it past yearling cut before they are shipped to Mexico and slaughtered. The yards are too full of them, they do not get homes. They are considered "stock" and just sent off to slaughter. The racing industry needs to change it and get it more humane. Like Rene, I actually still like to watch the horses run. BUT, the stands are empty, racing has lost its greatness. I hope they would bring it back, and start by making it more humane for the animals.
    1. Chestnut Mare
      Chestnut Mare
      Exactly jst4horse. Money, money, money! To so many people in racing, the horses are just an "investment". It has to change.
    2. PonyGirl
      I don't know what kind of track you were at, jst4horses, but in the area I'm from, a groom would get fired in a heartbeat for hitting a horse in the knee. And no one else would hire him,either. That would be a MAJOR infraction. Plus I have seen far more amateurs with riding horses than racetrackers tie a horse up and whip it, because of something it did. Again, doing this is a terrible thing, but unfortunately it happens in all disciplines of riding, not just on the racetrack. On the few occasions I have seen this on the racetrack, it has been someone who trains one or two of his own horses (usually as a hobby), not someone in one of the better stables. If a trainer displayed such behavior, he would quickly lose his horses, because the other trainers would be calling the owners and telling them. And if it was a groom or gallop boy, he would be fired on the spot. Just because a horse is an investment, doesn't mean he isn't cared for. In fact a lot of horses who are investments are much better cared for than the average horse, simply because they ARE investments. They are worth a lot of money, and the owners have the resources to pay for top help and medical care. I'm sorry that you have seen such unpleasant things on the racetrack. I know this is an emotional issue for many people. But I totally disagree with the conclusions you've drawn from what you've seen.

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