The Disposable Horse

In the high stakes game of “the sport of kings” gambling takes place at every level of the process. From finding the right nick between a mare and a sire’s bloodline, to lobbying on behalf of a Horse of the Year choice, odds for success are weighed and acted upon. The betting in horse racing is not limited to the windows at the tracks nor the online bookie experience.

One of the best ways to increase your chances of producing a stakes winner is to have as many entries as possible to leverage the odds in your favor. One of the best ways to do that is to create as many trainable foals as possible and point them towards the starting gate. While the triple crown races get the lion’s share of whatever press is available for horse racing the fact is most people involved in the sport make their money in the less visible races where their horses plug away at coming in ahead of the herd week after week month after month.

They start them early in order to not have to wait any longer than they have to to start realizing a profit from each ‘hay burner’. They begin training them young and running them hard before their bones have matured, before their joints have ‘closed’. Inevitably they set these horses up for mechanical failure from the first day they take to the track. Ultimately many race horses become semi to totally crippled, suffering from bone, joint and irreversible traumatic tissue damage at a young age. This sets them up to be almost worthless on the open market. That’s the physical. On the mental side of things not whole lot of compassion goes into mentally preparing individuals for the rigors of racing life. From being thrust onto a trailer (many for the first time in their lives) to be rushed into a stall during a sale surrounded by hundreds of similarly scared yearlings screaming and smearing runny poo all over their stall walls too – to being ‘started’ at the ripe young age of two (more like one and a half for most of them) their fragile sense of selves is slammed up against the harsh rigors of human expectation with nary a thought for how the horse is processing all of non-horse communication. Often they are an emotional mess when they are finally released from this system.

Phew. Not pretty. Now to be sure – there are EXCEPTIONS to this process. Not all owners and trainers are monstrous in their expectations (there is one sparkling soul who is a good friend of mine who is a most notable exception) – but pretty much all of them do get the horses started at that tender age of ‘two’. So in some ways this gentle abuse is system wide and creates broken in body and mind individuals who are unfit to race any more, and most having not enjoyed a whole lot of success are probably equally unfit to be bred anyway. Thus every year the United States churns out 70,000 new foals for whom this will be their fate. Say 10% of them become winners – that leaves 63,000 misspent ‘also-rans’. Emotionally fried, physically done in – these equine treasures, the containers of dashed dreams of their former human caretakers are now thrust upon the open market and left to fend for themselves as they vie for the attention of whatever monied young girl lucky enough to have the resources available for her owning her very own horse. Now the race is for their very lives, to be bought and shepherded against the able-bodied backyard bred quarter horses, half breeds, no-breeds and well bred others (Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, to name but two).

So what are we to do? Who is to blame? How many horses can equine rescuers absorb into their system? How many horses can we tolerate going to slaughter? Oh, you didn’t know about that? Yes, the horses that can’t be gainfully employed, the ones not lucky enough to live out the rest of their some-odd thirty years in one way or another (as ‘lawn ornaments’, show prospects or trail buddies) are sold at a per pound price at livestock auctions held in every continent and sold for their meat. And maybe that’s acceptable to most people, but the manner in which they are transported to their final comeuppance is not kind, it is not humane, and it is often worse than terrible. It is abuse to the nth degree and has caused those familiar with this process to blanch at associating with the concept of being of the same species as the humans who carry this process out.

So is it overbreeding that makes so many horses disposable? Is slaughter an acceptable option? Is it more acceptable if it is conducted humanely? Why aren’t more people angry about this? Why are rescuers so overburdened? Why aren’t rescuers demanding more accountability from those who are flooding the market with these broken horses? Where do we start fixing this? How do we encourage better stewardship for these gentle souls who have carried humankind towards higher levels of accomplishment? Don’t we owe them a better deal?

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4 Responses to “The Disposable Horse”

  1. I agree that all of us who care about animals/horses should be angrier and we should demand accountability from those who are flooding the market. But how and what can we do? I’m the founder of one of the longest existing facilities for horses in need in the US. I can’t spend any more time on the phone and networking on the computer than I already do…I’m taking care of 71 (previously) unwanted, abused and neglected horses. The horses already here are my focus and they are where all my energy goes. When people ask me if we could use volunteers at our sanctuary, I say, “Thank you, but no…what we DO need is people to help shut us down…put us out of business…help stop abuse, over-breeding, report neglect, help educate new horse owners on proper care…convince your friends to stop backyard breeding, COMMIT to the horses you already own, YES, even the unrideable ones, speak up, step up…” and so on… I believe in the power one person has to make a difference.

  2. Melanie, I think what’s needed here is impact from those who would seek to volunteer using their voices – educating others on some of the core issues here on your behalf. I would love to see “micro-volunteering” for example, where volunteers who wish to help your sanctuary do things like send out tweets on your behalf, or post blog posts on behalf of your horses and otherwise start leveraging the power of the internet on behalf of you folks ‘in the field’ literally and figuratively. As you know http://www.equineconnection.org has been created to help bring people like that together with people like you to start building these information bridges – so you can retire because someday there will be no need for rescue per se. We need to do some rabble rousing, and start rattling our keyboards that these days are mightier than any sword ever.

  3. Hi Melanie & Others:

    I agree that more work should be done to make people aware of the reality of the situation that many racehorses face, but I remind you that we must stick to *REALITY*. not our emotional perception of what is going on. Purposely tugging on heart-strings with semi-factual information may stir things up and get people interested, but at what cost?

    I appreciate your efforts, and would love to see all horses live long, happy lives too… but I also think that emotions and “rabble rousing” can lead to unintended consequences….

  4. Emily – the movement NEEDS the bridge building input of people like you to help temper emotional flare ups. I absolutely woke up with a bee in my bonnet – and though I stand by my opinions as being heartfelt for me I do hear the validity of your wanting to harness some of that energy in more productive ways. For me, I found I had to get emotionally invested in order to pop up and start DOing something with those emotions I was feeling. That’s why I created that site mentioned above and would LOVE to have you be a part of it.

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