Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why Do Our Great Horses Keep Dying?

As if it wasn't enough that several top-level event horses have suffered mortal injuries during competition in recent months. Now the Kentucky Derby, perhaps the most hallowed horse race in America, has been marred by a death on the track. You might have missed the whole thing, because it occurred about a quarter of a mile past the finish line. The highly-regarded filly in the race, Eight Belles, finished a game second to the brawny Big Brown. But once the field galloped out-- sort of an opportunity for the jockeys to rein in and slow down the speedsters before turning around and trotting back to the barn-- Eight Belles stumbled and fell. She'd fractured both front ankles, to the point that the bones were protruding from the skin. And there, in the midst of the curve of the far turn of Churchill Downs, while crowds were cheering the return of the victor to the winner's circle, Eight Belles was quietly euthanized.

Why are we killing so many of our horses?

I know, "things happen" in intense, athletic competitions. Heck, human athletes get hurt all the time. Careers are ended when a ball player twists his arm wrong or takes a bad step and rips his knee. But you know what? Humans can make the conscious choice to step onto that playing field. They can verbally say to someone, "Hey, my ankle just isn't feeling right today. Can I see the doc'? Or perhaps I could sit this one out." And if a human athlete does get injured, it's for sure he doesn't undergo some x-rays or an MRI and then have a surgeon look at him solemnly and say, "I'm sorry, Joe, but there's nothing modern medicine can do for that broken bone or those torn tendons. Say your good-byes because we're going to have to euthanize you. I promise. It won't hurt a bit."

My little rant isn't meant to put any outright blame on the competitors who were riding horses that got mortally injured or the trainers who saddled them up and sent them into battle. I'm quite certain they're grieving beyond measure. However, I'll share a little analogy.

Several years ago I had a fairly common surgery. My doctor was just a big ol' sweetie pie fellow, the kind of guy who epitomized everyone's big brother. I liked him a lot. I ended up hemorrhaging during the operation, requiring a blood transfusion and ending up in ICU. He was absolutely distraught and I felt sorry for him. Once I was stabilized and coherent, I told him, "Look, things go wrong sometimes. It wasn't your fault."

He replied, "Cindy, you weren't bleeding to death when you went in to the operating room, so of course what happened was my fault."

Eight Belles wasn't dead when she started the Kentucky Derby, so...

While we'll never prevent every injury that happens to horses used in performance events, we should-- we must-- be able to minimize their occurrence. Instead, sadly, it seems that they're happening more frequently. Though there are few things more glorious than horse and human competing together as a team, whether it's in barrel racing, showjumping, western pleasure, endurance riding or horse racing, we as a horse loving society must do more to ensure that the risks are not too high simply so that our rewards are greater. So what if the time to finish the course (or the race) is not a record breaker, or if the jumps are a little lower or less demanding? At least our horses might be safer. And the unavoidable sports injuries that do occur will likely be less fatal in their prognosis. The blue ribbons and gleaming trophies will be so much more treasured if they aren't marred by tragedy.

Of course, this is only my opinion.

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Nancy said...

Oh Cindy, you are echoing the sentiments of horse lovers everywhere. I watched yesterdays race and my jubilation at the strong finish Big Brown made quickly was replaced by horror. I always have mixed feelings about horse racing.

When will people realize that we are racing and asking too much from our horses who are too young!!! They are babies - hell, their bones arent even fully formed. It's all about the money. If we just waited a year - have the Derby be for 4 year olds.

Once again i am just sickened by what we do to our horses. Yes, some horse are wonderful athletes and great competitors - but we dont give them a choice - we make them race or event even if they are off. And they can't tell us they dont want to, or arent up to it.

When will it stop?????

Anonymous said...

ya, i really don't like racing, yes, it is entertainment, but i'm sure the horses aren't loving it.

Anonymous said...

Racing is of now, a bad sport. The sad thing is it could be changed to be a great sport and less horses would be killed, but with so many regulations and people to get by before changing rules nobody is willing to try to change the rules to make it the safe sport we want it to be.

The horses love reacing. I don't know about you, but I've been to a race track for the morning workouts and the horses and pulling at the bits to get out there and run. The enjoy it. The problem starts when we have to whip the horses in the race, the horses should be running because they enjoy it and want to win because there competitive. And some horses are competitive enough to just run and win with out a whip.

I believe it should also be regular training for horses to spend atleast the first year of there lives in pasture. That would let them grow and develop, instead of being ridden right away. For training in the first year they could be taken for short hand walks everyday, without and maybe with a saddle. That would start them used to a saddle, but also let them grow.

Still, something needs to change about racing.

Anonymous said...

I agree with horse gal. Those horses love running- it's in their blood, and even if it wasn't, it's natual instinct to run. (You don't see wild mustangs just standing around all the time.)

I understand that horse racing is a sport that's been going on for years and years, but something SHOULD be done about the ages of the horses. Their bones really aren't developed that early, and that is why there are so many injuries. Horses are perfectly capable of running fast when theyre older and guess what? THEY'RE LESS PRONE TO INJURY. Duh!

There's also a lot that most people don't know about racing, all that goes on outside of the track with the drugs and nonsense. It makes one wonder- where is the sense of honesty, integrity, and fairness that used to dominate everyday life way back when? It's not just racing sports in general have a lot going on.

Don't get me wrong- I'm not anti-sports or anti-racing- I'm an athlete myself and do gymkhana with my horse- but I just wonder where morals went. Horse gal and Cindy were totally right in everything they said. Something has to change for the better. Racing is getting to be a very sobering sport and too many horses are dying.

Anonymous said...

I watched the races at Kentucky day all day on my television while fiddling around the house. After hearing the compelling stories of each horse in the actual derby, I grew quite fond of the 17 hand filly! I secretly wished she would win (or Smooth Air who was trained by the 70 year old man that had never had a horse in the derby). Big Brown's trainer made me angry with his boasting. When Eight Belles came in second to Big Brown I smiled...then was quickly saddened. My husband had to tell me not to cry! I was very upset that the decision was made in less than a second to euthanize the big girl. Maybe I have seen too many movies where the horses were not put down, but instead healed and then made great comebacks. I wish this had been the case. She was great!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Cindy. The eventing world is at a crossroads I believe. There are very smart invested people working on the issue and I know there seems to be no common thread that we can point to as the one problem we need to fix to make it all better.

Still, I think of the hours and hours of training we put into horse, how we constantly ask them to do things contrary to their nature and in the middle of it all is the unspoken promise on our part, “Do it anyway, it’s ok, I’ll keep you safe.” And then to fail?

Every major 3-day event recently has had serious injuries if not fatalities. It’s not ok, because this isn’t battle, it’s a SPORT. How do you ask your horse to trust you when you send them out, knowing they may wind up crippled or dead? I really think I’ve come to point where it’s not worth it. Fix the sport first, and then I’ll re-consider it.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with amy kelly. I am a huge racing fan but I would be totally for waiting until horses are 4 or 5 to start racing. I was disappointed when Big Brown won because I thought Rick Dutrow Jr. was much to arrogant in his comments, but thrilled to see Eight Belles beat 18 other colts. And I did cry when she broke down.

I love racing but after her and Barbaro, who I was also very attached to, I'm starting to wonder if its better to just read the paper to see who won.

Anonymous said...

Today was the first time I saw the tape of the race. How awful. I was watching when Charismatic was pulled up, and the jockey held his leg up. And I was thrilled that they saved him. Then Barbaro... I didnt watch this Kentucky Derby because I had the feeling I shouldnt. And I was right. They need to wait to race them until they're older. It is such a shame that they breed so many thousands of thorobreds every year, hoping to hit the "BIG ONE" and then they race them too soon. I cant watch. I used to watch horse racing tv a lot, just to see the horses when nothing else was interesting on tv. I dont watch anymore.
Its just not worth it.


Anonymous said...

Racing is a sport, and I personally don't think there's anything wrong with it AS LONG AS WE TAKE CARE OF OUR HORSES!!! Really, we should not be racing babies. There are some horses, believe it or not, who like nothing better than a good race, but I think instead of racing babies and potentially wreaking havoc on their underdeveloped bodies, we should race mature, full-grown adults.

Racing is as much an athletic sport as Reining, Western Pleasure, and Jumping; yet you don't see babies doing it constantly. Occasionally, yes, but they always get a good rest. Mostly, only the well-developed, mature horses are competing constantly.

Yet, for another side of things, Racing DOES utilize a TON of medical procedures. Like another person said, to many it's all about the money (though not always), and to make sure that they can win they have to make sure that the horses are physically sound. Think about all the equine veterinarians coming out of college; a lot of them become race track vets. After every race each horse is walked for maybe 1/2 an hour-hour, and then they are hosed down, ice packs are wrapped around their legs, and the horses are carefully monitored. The owner's money depends on the horses' legs, and they make sure that they're ok. Unfortunately, not every tragedy is avoided even with all these precautions.

I'm not trying to say racing is ok; in many ways it's not. What I'm trying to say is instead of just down-beating the whole of it, just change things so we're not totally ruining the horses for money. Instead of racing babies, leave them in the pasture until they're almost two, and don't do anything with them except for making sure that their groundwork is sound (meaning that they're used to people working all over them, desensitizing them, and will stand quietly for it; will lead quietly over almost any turrain), and only light riding/training until they're 5, 5 1/2. Only after that can you start racing them. Even then, give them breaks!!! Even a good athlete cannot compete successfully without damage to his body without resting it.

Sorry this is so long, I just had a lot to say on this subject. Thanks for listening.


Anonymous said...

Oops! Just wanted to add something to my last post: when you do start racing horses, make sure you do other things with them to so they know other stuff besides run crazy all the time.


Cindy Hale said...

I really appreciate all of your thoughtful comments. I think I'll have to address them on my blog...