True Vocations

Horses hate running.

Running a horse is intrinsically wrong and goes against their deepest nature.

We may race horses for financial gain, but deep down we know that we are sinning against these animals who would all be better off in the show ring or off making babies.

This is the vibe I’m getting from a lot of people, racing enthusiasts and otherwise.

It’s annoying when it comes from the uninformed; it’s a bit more frightening when it comes from people who are actually interested in, let alone engaged in, the racing industry. The tipping point, for me, is the reaction to the 12-year-old mare who has returned to galloping at Keeneland after a nine year layoff. Not that the stewards want to further investigate the mare before they allow her to race; they have a responsibility to protect their business model (i.e: the betting public) and not allow some sort of side stage act to muscle its way into the spotlight of their track. The issue comes from people’s comments on the issue, most recently, querying when this crosses the line into animal abuse.

I find this troubling, since there is no indication that this is anything other than a healthy, sound mare.

Is there a segment of the racing community who honestly feel that horse racing is, at its heart, abusive?

There is always a flurry of commentary whenever horses are retired: “Well, thank God he wasn’t injured,” or “Great that he’s getting out now before he gets hurt,” as if there is some sort of expiration date that we’re all running our horses against, an assumption that the things we do to them are unnatural and wrong and will hurt them. Racing is a horse enthusiast’s most guilty pleasure, because the media has told us for years that racing kills, maims, and destroys the most swift and beautiful of our animals.

I don’t see this relief expressed when great event horses are retired. Here are horses, often retired racehorses, that are asked to be racing fit, to jump logs bolted together with railroad stakes, and to compete under the same conditions as a racehorse: from a 12x12 stall at a competition grounds, with little to no provision for turn-out. They are iced and poulticed and medicated and provided with therapeutic shoes and magnetic treatments and massage and chiropractics. They are injured and go out to pasture for six months and return to compete again. He’s not a full Thoroughbred, but Ringwood Cockatoo completed Rolex in the top 3 - at age 18. Would you consider a five-star event maybe just as tough as a race? They try their hearts out in this as in anything else. It’s what horses do

Let me assure you that I feel no guilt over racing my horses.

Racing, to me, is the most natural expression of the horse. It is their competitive desire to be in front, to be leader of the herd, to be the most swift and, in basest evolutionary terms, the most fit to carry on the bloodline. The fastest and most sure-footed horse is the horse that lives the longest when the wolf pack is at their heels. Their very natures compel them to gallop. Go and observe a paddock of horses for an hour or two. Someone will burst into a canter at some point. It’s what they do.

Let me say that I do not think jumping, or dressage, or barrel racing is wrong for horses either. But bear with me when I point out that horses in a field are rather less likely to perform a series of tempi changes, or to jump a 3’6” course, or to wheel around three barrels are quickly as possible, while they are turned out in a field. Horses run. Horses race. It’s what they do.

And so when someone pulls a moderately successful horse out of retirement and says, let’s go back to the racetrack and give it another whirl, I fail to see what the problem is. How is a carefully managed 12 year old different from a carefully managed 2 year old? For that matter, which is more offensive, racing a mature 12 year old or an immature, growing 2 year old? Can someone please pick a battle and stick with it?

Let us look at it logically: if I retire a sound five year old Thoroughbred because he just isn’t winning anymore, and send him off to be an eventer, or a show jumper, he is going to be galloping miles and pounding on hard surfaces just as hard as he was when he was in race training. Possibly harder. Have you ever jumped a horse over six foot oxers on an unforgiving indoor arena surface? You want to talk about filling around the tendons in the morning. Have you ever ran a horse advanced level on clay footing after a two-month drought? Better bring extra ice and some spare muck tubs to cool those legs out with. How’s my 12 year old retiree galloping a couple of miles a day on a synthetic surface looking now?

Racing is not, and should not be, restricted to the young. The wants of the breeding industry make it more likely to be populated by young horses. But that by no means should indicate a mandatory retirement age. And racing should not be considered any less of a long-term, worthwhile vocation for a horse than showing. Like carefully managing a show horse, a race horse can be carefully managed and kept happy, healthy, and reasonably sound. Horses have issues. Horses get hurt. It’s what they do. But they also love to run. And put their noses in front. It’s an unassailable fact.

It’s what they do.


GoLightly said...


Ain't that the bald-faced, (oh, but they should be wild and FREE) truth.

Horses love a purpose.
We've just refined what that purpose is.

I coulda sworn I commented here...

jengersnap said...

Excellent commentary. As an owner of both a 10 and 11 year old racer, I believe the horse's competitiveness and soundness answers the question as to whether they should still be running or not. It is indeed what they do.

Thanks for finding my blog, so I could find yours!

Union Square said...

Thank you for dropping by! As you can see, I'm of two minds about keeping this blog. I'm seriously considering moving it to WordPress and updating it once a week or so. It's tough subject matter to cover differently from anyone else. . .

BEST of luck with your horses. Congratulations on giving them such great careers. They wouldn't do it if they didn't love it.

Cassandra Was Right said...

Catching up on old connections, I came across this excellently-thought-out editorial. While I don't doubt that the owner of the mare in question (if it's the one I remember) has squirrels in place of a brain (is this the one that LOOOVES her horse and intends to keep her forever, but also wants to enter her in claiming races?) the idea of returning a healthy horse to racing seems perfectly rational. Why not, indeed? Like dogs, horses seem to want jobs. Put the lady to work doing what she probably loves.

Rising Rainbow said...

When I first began reading I wasn't sure where you were going. Horses not loving to run just didn't fit in my experiences with horses.

I think there are lots of things we ask horses to do that might be hard but that doesn't mean the horses don't love it and want to do it. The problem comes when the industry gets blamed for the sins of a few who don't really care about the horses. All they care about it money. There are those kind of people in every facet of this industry but that doesn't make the equine industry bad. Just those people and there lack of consideration for the horse is bad.