The 132nd Kentucky Derby is being run later today. My shift starts at post time–I won’t know the results of the race until much later this evening.
Horse racing is a controversial sport. Thoroughbreds are delicate, high strung animals, with a body that triumphs over gravity and physics. They live most of their lives within the confines of stalls, released only for brief exercise and competition, in which they are expected to reach a high rate of speed and maintain it around the track. For the fortunate few horses that become superstars, a reasonably happy life may be possible. For horses who don’t do as well, a brief life punctuated by violence and extreme physical exertion, followed by a trip to the slaughterhouse, is in order. From birth, racehorses live with a death sentence–they can sign their own warrants with a severe injury, refusal to run, or behavioural problem. Even for champions, it’s not an easy life. While a horse is an expensive investment requiring high quality feeding and medical care, the actual day to day existence as a race horse cannot be pleasant. The stress of shipping combines with training tactics to put a lot of stress on the animal. Most horses are started too early, before their skeletons have finished developing, and this leads to injury. Racehorses are also heavily drugged with a variety of substances, legal and illegal, to manage performance. Heavy focus on creating the perfect horse has led to a number of genetic problems, many of which can be exacerbated on the hard tracks horses run on in the United States. Some horses are fortunate enough to be steeplechasers too, putting immense stress on their forelegs which often leads to devastating injury.
Few horses are “sent to pasture” to be used for breeding purposes–most are slaughtered as soon as they stop winning races. Despite the work of rescue organizations , most horses do not see a happy ending. The number of abused and unwanted horses streaming from the racing industry is simply too great.
I’ve had horses around me for much of my life, and have never ceased to be impressed by these amazing animals. Horses are intelligent, sensitive, and loyal. They also require a lot of work and care. And, unfortunately, like all animals, they are the victims of horrific abuse perpetrated by humans. Sometimes this abuse takes the form of neglect, compounded by poor education about equine welfare. Sometimes this abuse is deliberate, and brutal.
One of the first books related to animal welfare that I ever read was Black Beauty, Anna Sewell’s impassioned plea for animal rights written in 1877. Angered by the treatment of animals in all ranks of British society, she wrote the book from her deathbed and it has become a well known posterchild of animal rights writing. Sewell believed in treating all animals humanely, with kindness, and argued her point beautifully in Black Beauty. On the surface the story is simple–the life of a horse from youth to old age. But what happens to Black Beauty along the way is what makes the story–from kindly owners to vicious ones, loving care and deliberate neglect, Black Beauty shows his readers that animals do have hearts, and souls.
Cleveland Amory, another hero of the animal rights movement, founded the Black Beauty Ranch in 1979. Like me, he was heavily influenced by Sewell’s writing and it was Black Beauty who introduced him to the concept of animal rights. Now, the ranch encompasses 1,620 acres and animals of all shapes and sizes live there–most rescued from terrible situations. The Fund for Animals is among many organizations working to improve animal welfare in the United States, and awareness of animal rights globally. The Fund truly “speaks for those who can’t,” and is fighting hard to ensure equality for all animals, a task that sometimes feels like a losing battle.
There are so many issues confronting the animal rights movement that it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin educating people, but sometimes I feel more driven than usual to speak out. The Derby is probably the most famous horse race in the United States–a number of Americans who don’t follow racing as a sport are interested in the Derby, and this makes it a good opportunity to educate people about the racing industry. Racing is exploitation, and it is my hope to see horse and greyhound tracks banned in the United States eventually, but the first step is education and reform. Improving conditions for horses currently racing is extremely important in the short term, and I implore you to write to your government representatives and encourage them to author or sponsor legislation aimed at reforming the race industry.
Even if you bear no love for horses, or animals in general, surely you can agree that exploitation is wrong.
The Northern California entrant in the Derby is Cause to Believe, currently running at very long odds. California has a fairly sizeable racing industry, with several major tracks in the southern reaches of the state. Alas, when Cause to Believe retires, he will probably not be able to say that “I have nothing to fear; and here my story ends. My troubles are all over, and I am at home.”