The Kentucky Derby Tragedy

"There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse" is a quote by Winston Churchill often erroneously attributed to Ronald Reagan. But after this weekend's Kentucky Derby, it could be said, "There's nothing worse for the inside or outside of a horse than life on the track."

I've been writing these past few weeks about horrendous and fatal equine accidents in the sport of three-day eventing. I own seven hunter/jumper show horses and maintain my own 40-acre horse farm.

Eventing is much less well known to the public than thoroughbred racing. While artificially difficult courses in that sport take the lives of far too many majestic creatures, statistically the track is much worse. Life on the thoroughbred track is often tantamount to torture for the horses. The slaughter of Eight Belles at Saturday's Kentucky Derby--and I do mean slaughter--should give pause to everyone who ever patronized horse racing. Coming one year after Barbaro's horrid end, Eight Belles's sacrifice should stand as undeniable proof to anyone who ever had doubts about the vicious conditions under which these horses are raised, trained, and forced to race.

One Jim Squires, identified at the bottom of his article in today's New York Times as a thoroughbred breeder, wrote an unusually honest piece about the dangers faced by thoroughbreds:

...the horses we raise are not as sound as they used to be. The thoroughbred horse is one of the most fragile creatures on earth, an animal with a heart and a metabolism too powerful for his bones, digestive and respiratory systems, one too heavy and too strong for the structure supporting it... The concern about the safety of our racetracks is also legitimate. People are trying to do something about that. It is indisputable that more catastrophic injuries occur on dirt surfaces--too often on the pitifully few days that the world is paying attention to our sport.

There are several things that must be done immediately to spare further equine abuse and death. Mr. Squires touched on some of them, but not all. Yes, new forms of artificial track footing, which have been mandated in California, should be mandated nationwide. Why has this new, more forgiving footing not been put into use everywhere? The answer: money. Since thoroughbreds are no more than money machines for most owners and trainers, these profiteers should be forced to fork over some of their winnings to improve track safety.

Second, the trend toward breeding thinner-boned thoroughbreds should be banned immediately. Horses are bred for speed, which often means thin-boned legs. The thinner the bone, the more easily it breaks. Horses with broken or fractured legs don't always have to be "euthanized" (I prefer the term slaughter, since that's what it really is). They're often killed when owners decline the alternatives: huge veterinary or board bills to keep injured horses standing in hoists for a year or more to allow their bones to heal.

Third, we should ban the racing of 2- and 3-year-olds so popular on the U.S. track. In Europe, horses are typically raced later, when their "growth plates" (leg bones) are fully formed and they are less prone to injury. Greedy Americans don't want to spend the money to keep the horse "hanging around" (to wit, not earning money) until they are 4 or 5 years old, and so we race them before their legs are strong enough to handle injury.

Then there's the life these horses have while training to race. The routine I am about to explain is used by some, not all, owners. Care varies greatly from farm to farm and trainer to trainer. I have worked with grooms and farriers who came off the track. The stories they tell are horrifying. They've described how horses are pumped up on "sweet feed" full of processed sugar. Sweet feed in large doses makes horses nervous, violent, even nuts--like kids overdosing on chocolate. But horses are already 1,200 punds of insanely nervous energy.

Many horses are forced to live 23-7 in their stalls, except for the hour or so per day when they are exercised. The human equivalent would be tying someone to his or her bed for 23 hours per day, only letting them out to run for an hour. Wouldn't you go crazy under those circumstances?

Many track horses are never turned out in pasture or on grass. Horses need large grass pastures to run around. They are herd animals and should be turned out in groups so they can socialize with other horses. Owners and trainers fear horses will get kicked or injured in group turnout. But an isolated horse is like an isolated human: miserable.

While these conditions are bad enough, I have heard stories about sadistic treatment by especially vicious trainers that make your gut spin. One farrier told me he watched while a trainer hobbled a horse (chained together his front and hind feet so he couldn't move), pushed him to the ground and placed him under a tarp in the 90-degree heat. This, so he could break the colt's spirit, because the horse was proving to be difficult to train. This trainer literally tried to "bake" the life out of the colt. He didn't mean to kill him, because that would have cost the owner money. But he did mean to destroy the horse's spirit and to torture him. Others stood by at the track where this took place and did nothing.

Then there are the drugs. Horses are routinely drugged to mask injury and run on damaged muscles or bones. A good friend who used to work on the track once said, "I'd ask my friends why they kept injecting these horses who possessed great breeding? If they were so well bred, why did they have to be shot up with all kinds of drugs to run?"

I hope Eight Belles's death serves as something more than a one-day news story. I hope her sacrifice causes every fan of horse racing to stop patronizing the sport or betting on the mounts until major reforms take place. Congress is now working on legislation to ban horse slaughter at the three remaining slaughterhouses in Texas and Illinois. Canada's animal welfare groups are working to ban slaughter there, too. Horse slaughter should be banned. But so should overbreeding of thoroughbreds, quarter horses, and all types of equines. If horses weren't overbred, we'd treat the smaller number we would have better: how they should be treated, like majesty on legs.

Our society needs to pull back the curtain of secrecy that covers up unforgivable things we allow to happen not just to horses, but to all sorts of animals. Michael Vick's prosecution for dog cruelty was a beginning. But until we ban all animal mistreatment, we have no right to call ourselves civilized or compassionate.

By Bonnie Erbe