Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Abandoned Horses of Dunsink

We in the States have weathered this recession in myriad ways, but our horses have often had to pay the price for our unexpected job losses and diminishing bank accounts. When the economy tanked in 2008, shelters (and slaughter pens) began filling up with abandoned horses, leading many to question how to humanely deal with the glut of unwanted horses born of the boom years in the decades prior. Over the past two years we have seen breed registries and sale prices contract along with the financial markets, as American horse owners have struggled to choke back the overabundant equine supply.
Our situation, however, while still dire in many regions, seems to pale in comparison to that currently reaching a head in the Dunsink region of Ireland. As reported today in the New York Times, horses are being abandoned there in the thousands, cast out to graze on diminishing winter grasslands by owners unable to pay for their upkeep. Huge free roaming herds, comprised by some estimates of up to 30,000 abandoned horses, are currently scouring the landscape outside of Dublin to find enough bits of forage to stave off starvation. The Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals maintains a budget of $500,000 for the care of the few equines it takes into its stabling facility, but that obviously can't cover the needs of the tens of thousands of horses currently cast out on their own.
If your New Years resolution involves a donation commitment to one or more charity efforts, the Dublin SPCA might be a good bet. If you are lucky enough to be able to tuck your own horses in warm and safe beneath their blankets every night, consider whether you might be able to provide assistance to the many others which will stand shivering throughout the long Irish winter.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Did Queen Z's royal treatment backfire?

I've read a lot of assessments of Zenyatta's narrow loss to Blame in Saturday's Breeder's Cup. The dirt hit her in the face and threw her off her game. She got stuck in the pack and then didn't have enough time to make her storied come-from-behind move before she hit the finish line. Blame was just a tougher, gamer horse capable of besting Queen Z while also carrying extra weight. Considering that a host of factors combine to determine the winners and losers of every horse race, all of these components likely contributed to Zenyatta's literally coming up one nose short on Saturday.

There is another explanation however, that got me thinking about whether Queen Z's kid glove training regimen prior to the Classic was the key factor that doomed her. The Science of Horse Training blog argued Saturday that Zenyatta's main handicap was the dearth of dirt track training that she underwent prior to the Classic. Today's racehorses are so finely tuned to their surfaces, that asking a synthetics runner like Zenyatta to make the switch to dirt can only be done successfully by prepping her far in advance on that surface. As the Science of Horse Training points out, perhaps that preparation was simply not done in ample enough measure to get the superhorse used to the significant differences in feel and energy use that she encountered on the Churchill Downs dirt. That Zenyatta still proved dominant over almost every single horse in the Classic field, even having barely ever galloped before over dirt, only solidifies her unequaled prowess in my mind. Unfortunately, all of her heart, might and muscle was not enough to overcome her unfamiliarity with the new surface. Certainly food for thought.

Regardless of what caused Zenyatta's defeat, the gigantic mare is unequivocally one of the greatest horses ever to have raced. We as her fans were lucky to get to thrill to her victories and watch her during her final heartrending finish. Congratulations to Queen Z and her camp, as well as Blame's owners and trainers, and all of the horses that made it to and through the grueling tests of the Breeder's Cup championships.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Passing it along: "Interview with Zenyatta"

I love this incredibly entertaining "interview" with Zenyatta. That mare's got some sass! I have to say I also agree with her decision not to go for the younger colts - she's obviously way too mature. Good luck to her as she tries to run 'em down again in this year's Breeder's Cup at Churchill Downs. :)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Saying That Final Goodbye

So I came back from WEG to some very unfortunate news.

My QH, Tank, the now retired chestnut hero who taught me so much during my formative years as a rider, has finally reached a point where his diminishing quality of life necessitates our making the choice to put him down. He's pushing 30 years old, and I knew that I would eventually get the call telling me that the challenges of old age had become more than he could handle. That call came this week, because it now appears he no longer has the capability to chew any sort of roughage, grass or grain. To keep him alive would mean feeding him several times a day on soft bran mash, and even that would only delay the inevitable. He is losing weight, losing his spark, and now it's time to make the decision to give him his final peaceful rest.

Knowing that my old companion was able to happily wile away his golden years on expansive Kentucky pastures, and enjoy a retirement befitting the many valuable years of service that he provided as my show horse, my friend and my patient teacher, does help to make this decision easier. We believe it's undoubtedly best to let him go now, gently, rather than wait for him to be injured, get sick, or suffer some other sort of inglorious experience before the end. We are debating all of those strange questions such as where and how will it be done, will he be buried or simply taken away, and do we even want to know the exact day it happens. My family and I are out of state, and so we won't be able to be there when the vet finally arrives. Thankfully our good friend, who has provided Tank's retirement care these past few years, will stand in to pet his nose that final time and see him safely away.

It's the end of an era for me too. Tank was my last tether to the years that I spent as a horse obsessed teen, more concerned with getting to the barn than getting my driver's license or dating silly boys. And so I wish him a fond farewell, and hope that wherever he goes, the pastures are green, the creeks are clear, and there are plenty of sassy mares to keep him company.

XOXO Tank buddy. You will be missed.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

WEG Weekend 1 - Recap

Back from WEG now, unpacked and decompressed, and I have to say it was a lovely event. It was incredibly exciting to see so many horse people coming together in what is arguably the most beautiful farm country that this nation has to offer (ok, I am biased) to celebrate the grace and athleticism of what is undoubtedly the most beautiful animal that this entire world has to offer (again, I am biased, but horses are darned near perfect creatures IMHO). Saturday got a bit hot, but all in all the weather was great for horse watching.

Highlights of Saturday's events:
  • Watching John Lyons' clinic at the KY Horse Park breed barn. I have followed Lyons' methodology since he came onto the training scene 15 (?) years ago. I applied alot of his training principles with my 3 year old Paint baby several years back, and they helped to turn a pushy, dominating, immature youngin' into a gentlemen with which it was a real pleasure to interact. John Lyons really underscores in his clinics that horsemanship should be relaxed and devoid of heated emotions. Stay calm, stay neutral, and recognize that your horse won't learn everything overnight but is always learning, and will process what you have taught him once the session is over. 
  • Session 2 of the team reining competition. Fast spins, showy stops, and some of the most luxurious manes in the business. Reining truly has become a global phenomenon, and it was fascinating to watch competitors enter the arena from countries that don't have a strong cowboy or gaucho tradition. I did notice that the American reiners seemed more broke and relaxed (and happy?) than some of the European horses, who seemed stiff in their spins and rollbacks. Perhaps that level of ease and engagement is what will continue to set our reiners apart. The US certainly had the recipe for success this year, as it took Team Reining gold on Sunday.
  • The "Kentucky Experience" tent. Really gave visitors a taste (quite literally, if you happen to like bourbon or KY wine!) of the many regional flavors of the state. There were KY gift items for purchase from local artisans, bourbon/ale/wine samplings, KY candy samplings, a live bluegrass band, and several booths set up that detailed the history and geography of the state. A great idea, and one which made my family feel quite at home!
  • The opening ceremonies. Really well orchestrated demonstration of the wide variety of ways that horses have become partners in our lives. I admit to being quite swept away with emotion when Wynonna sang "My Old Kentucky Home" as a ring full of Saddlebreds pranced around, and very nearly lost all of my composure as I watched Stacy Westfall and Roxy do their bridleless "thang." Those two together is pure harmony, pure trust, and about as true a love as I have ever witnessed between human and horse. Their connection is also direct demonstration of the power and simplicity of her training philosophy. Other great parts of the show included four retired racehorses going around the arena at a gallop for a few laps of friendly choreographed competition (they all looked incredibly excited to be back at their previous vocations), the Fresian dressage drill team from the Netherlands (so many gorgeous black steeds one almost didn't know where to look), and the pinto miniature horse hitch in the Mardi Gras parade segment.
A few negatives at the Games as well, that mostly had to do with logistics, and can hopefully be ironed out as the week progresses.
  • First off, the park signage and maps are pretty poor. It took my family and I forever to figure out that the "Clinician's Corral" is actually the KY Horse Park Breed Barn demo ring, and the "Village Arena" is right next to the Equine Village. Neither of these things are marked on the main WEG map, making for some frustrating moments as my family and I trekked to and fro across the park trying to find the demonstrations that we wanted to see.
  • To add to this, there needed to be more volunteers in clearly marked uniforms, that could help direct visitors. Every volunteer that we asked for info on how to get where were were going had no idea what to tell us, and fell back on "we don't know either, it's just the first day!" That's a real problem from an events organization perspective. There should have been knowledgeable staff available to help visitors navigate an event of this magnitude, and volunteers should have been better trained far in advance of Opening Day.
  • The food! Again, there was little signage telling visitors what type of food they could purchase from where, and the KY Horse Park standard sandwiches were pretty chintzy. Considering all the visitors from so many different nations, why not have something like a "Taste of Lexington" tent where spectators could purchase small plates from area restaurants? There were very few healthy or vegetarian options (I am vegetarian and this was a difficulty for me), and the food tents seemed ill-prepared to handle the volume of visitors.
  • Not near as much shopping as I expected. Both Equine Affaire and QH Congress feature significantly larger trade stall areas. Same with the "Equine Village" which was set up with booths about various breed and discipline organizations. Only a few booths set up, which could perhaps improve as the Games progress.
  • No good trolley or shuttle system for moving visitors with mobility issues (or who are just plain tired of walking) around the park. The park stretches on for many, many acres, and if you aren't prepared for or capable of a great deal of walking, you might find this to be a problem.
All in all, the horsey parts of the day were wonderful, and the joy of being in such a beautiful location while getting to see so much amazing horseflesh far outweighed the logistical annoyances. At the same time, the WEG crew has been planning this for years, and it's surprising that large details were overlooked. Regardless, I am looking forward to watching the remaining events this and next Sunday from the comfort of my living room, and have a rekindled love for KY and Lexington that may compel me to return after the games just to enjoy everything else the region has to offer.

If you are headed to the Games, enjoy yourselves, and I'd be interested to hear your perspectives!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Let the Games Begin!!

The Equine Reader has arrived in Lexington! And returning to the storied farms and fields of my youth has already brought a rush of horsey memories flooding back. When you live, love and breathe horses the way that I do, there are few places in the world better for the soul than Kentucky bluegrass. Of course this year the Bluegrass will be the site of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, which has transformed the KY Horse Park into a world stage. Or, perhaps more aptly, a world arena. Which makes this trip all the more special, because I am so proud to come back to Kentucky while it plays elegant host to so many nations. Since I now live in NYC, I am well used to my city being an international melting pot, but KY's old school equine culture has always seemed worlds away. My childhood and teen memories have little bearing on my current cosmopolitan life, and my NY friends have difficulty grasping the role that KY played in shaping who I am. And so it is very exciting for me to be here now while the world experiences all of the unique KY flavors that have been a part of my life since its beginning.

But enough waxing poetic. Tomorrow it is on to the Games! There will be many stops on our agenda, starting with the John Lyons demo at 12:30, then team reining (go USA!) at 2, and Opening Ceremonies later tomorrow night. Not to mention shopping, shopping, shopping! And a stop in at the TB Retirement Foundation's Secretariat Center. Photos and full report to follow!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ex-reiner sails through new career in eventing

Love this!! Look at him go!!

Great story at the America's Horse Daily website about a little tiny QH ex-reiner that is now storming the ranks of the Herculean warmbloods and OTTBs that traditionally dominate the sport of eventing. Considering that I volunteer for an organization that retires many of these same OTTBs, I am fascinated by stories of horses finding happiness and new challenges in second careers. When it's a western horse that crosses over into the land of eventing, it's doubly exciting, because it proves that it doesn't always pay to maintain a narrow disciplinary focus. Dressage work can help in reining, and reining work can very obviously help in jumping and dressage. Of course, with training in reining comes a lot of work in developing those big stock horse hind ends, and perhaps that's why this little guy seems jet propelled over those cross country fences.

Cross-training a horse can, at the very least, add new flexibility and capability within the performance of the chosen sport, and even result in finding new paths towards success. Champion dressage rider Anky Van Grunsven might get to demonstrate her own cross-disciplinary finesse this fall at WEG if she competes with the Netherlands' FEI reining team. In doing so she will demonstrate that great horsemanship defies the boundaries of a single event, and that by riding in another pair of boots, much can be learned about our horses and our sports.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Prince Harry accused of animal cruelty after polo gouge

A strange little equine welfare story to report on this Friday. According to the Daily Mail, Prince Harry has been accused of animal cruelty for apparently causing a bloody puncture wound with his spur while riding his polo pony in a match yesterday. According to a witness at the match, the Prince continued to ride even while his pony bled from the very visible spur gouge. The royal camp disputes that claim, and a representative from the Hurlingham Polo Association asserted that the injury appeared to have been from an accidental hard knock or "nudge" instead of intentionally inflicted by the Prince while goading his horse forward. The Prince did seek immediate treatment for his horse's wound, and apparently it was not so deep as to prevent the pair from going back in to the match.

I am not entirely sure what to think of this. The Prince is obviously a capable rider, and has competed many, many times on the international polo scene. Is this simply an on-field accident, caused by his pony's bumping up against another horse while the Prince had his spur on?? Or is it the result of too much competitive spirit encouraging him to play his horse too hard in the match? The Prince is not by a long shot the only rider to be facing sanction this year due to an over aggressive use of some type of aid. On the other hand, polo has always, in my humble opinion, smacked of a macho "man vs. beast" sort of mentality. Of course I realize that most polo riders are skilled horse people who keep their horses well out of harm's way. But when the desire to win collides with the physical limitations of the animal used to get there, it seems there will always be riders who choose to be competitors first and horse people second.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Horse News

The Equine Reader is at a loss! There is so much good horsey news out there this Friday that it's a bit of a conundrum as to how to go about choosing one item on which to focus. So in the spirit of it being Friday, and I being altogether not focused anyway, as the weekend beckons with its promise of beautiful sunshiney weather and low humidity (not often found in concert here in NYC), I will cover everything I see fit to bullet. So here goes.

  • The Jockey Club voted this week to deny all Stud Book privileges to both Ernie Paragallo and Chad Moore, who were both convicted of horse cruelty in separate cases earlier this year. Paragallo was convicted in March on 33 charges of horse cruelty for the widespread neglect of the equines housed on his NY farm, and Chad Moore was convicted in May of 12 counts of animal cruelty in Ohio, after several horses, a donkey and a pony on his farm were discovered severely malnourished, and several horses were discovered dead of starvation. While the circumstances surrounding the revocation of these mens' Jockey Club privileges is certainly not good news, the fact that the racing industry is standing up swiftly and certainly to send the appropriate message regarding horse abuse and neglect is undoubtedly positive

  • It's Travers weekend up in Saratoga, nearly unbelievable to me considering that this weekend also informally marks the end of summer, and I can scarce understand how it flew by so fast. Regrettably I won't be up in Saratoga for the last big racing hurrah of the summer, nor will I be at Sunday's Personal Ensign stakes, and will miss watching Ms. Rachel Alexandra potentially grind her way to a thrilling win over the longest distance she will ever have posted (the 10 furlong classic distance). Good luck to Team Rachel, and I will be anxious to hear news of whether last year's most dominating filly will return to her former glory in the Personal Ensign.

  • Sunday also kicks off the Hamptons show jumping season's most prestigious event, the Hampton Classic Horse Show. This year the show will feature an ASPCA sanctioned horse adoption day on Monday, to allow attendees of the event to view and potentially adopt horses rescued by local horse shelters. Whether or not a significant numbers of these animals find new forever homes, let's hope the event at least raises awareness and donations for the cause.
Here's wishing all of my readers a sunny, breezy, and horse filled weekend. Ride on!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Carriage Horse Welfare, Part 2

As usual, my impressions of the carriage horse industry in NYC have raised some ire. First, I would like to thank my readers for pointing out (calmly and entirely without vituperation) that all NYC carriage stables do indeed have sprinkler systems in place. I have corrected my previous post to reflect that assessment. It is good to know that these basic safety issues are attended to without exception.

As for the various other issues concerning the welfare of carriage horses in NYC, that I have witnessed first hand, I stand by my opinions. I do not, and will not ever, consider it safe or humane to have horses trotting on hard pavement behind moving cars. In the comments I received to my previous post, there was also argument that living for long periods in tie stalls is acceptable (I disagree, and have said so before on a post regarding NYC riding stables), and that horses are safer in a burning building in NYC, where they might have to negotiate two or more floors and then egress out onto a busy street, than in one out in suburbia where they are on the ground floor and nearer to safe, immediate exits (again, I disagree).

In addition, the fact that all carriage stables in NYC were originally built to house horses is a comforting thought until one realizes that many were built in the 19th century, long before current standards for light, space, and ventilation were even considered. Back when horses were very much livelihood, and not considered to be nearly so worthy of human advocacy as we view them today. Their stables' historic origins could in fact be viewed as even greater proof that horses living in NYC are an anachronistic holdover from a much earlier period.

Even this video, filmed by the NY Times, (and this one left by a commenter to my previous post) does not do much to assuage my impression that even the best of the carriage houses can be dusty, dimly lit, cramped, and dilapidated. Draft horses are living in small box stalls, very clean yes, but nonetheless quite urban-sized accommodations for such large, free-ranging, rural creatures. These compressions of space provide the basic requirements for horse subsistence but not too much else, and this comes as no surprise considering the difficulty with which ample space is to be found for just about anything in NYC. I do not agree with this type of environment as housing for carriage horses any more than I agree with it in the cases of other NYC stables such as Kensington, and the now defunct Claremont, that also house(d) their equines in tight, dusty quarters to make the best use possible of the small spaces they are granted. We learn more about the physical, psychological, and social needs of our equine charges every year, and housing them in NYC does not, in my very humble opinion, meet the living requirements of a species that evolved to inhabit expansive open stretches of land. Even if we make sure these urban horses have 5 whole weeks of access to open land every year, "suburban" horses often have their basic needs for free range and forage much more amply met.

(On a related note, the scene in the video in which the owner of the carriage company grabs his horse's mouth and backs its carriage nearly into the path of an oncoming truck, does not, likewise, do much to change my impression about the difficulties of combining unpredictable prey animals with the crowded, unsettling world of NYC.)

If my observations are entirely unfounded, then the carriage industry is facing, at the very least, a serious problem with PR. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for those who advocate to maintain the industry to spend more time promoting its benefits and introducing the public to ways in which it is committed to horse health and safety. I regret that my opinion offends those who do labor to make the carriage industry in this city as safe as it can be, and those who make their living working in it, but I am only concerned with seeing all horses in this city remain healthy and happy. And I assume that is a cause that all of us, "propagandists" or no, can stand behind. It will only be so, however, if we remain open and conversational, instead of attacking those opinions we don't deem appropriate.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fire breaks out in Manhattan carriage stable

I have long railed against the anachronistic logic of maintaining carriage horse fleets in large urban centers like NYC. As a city dweller, I have seen more than one near-miss incident in which a horse and car ended up in far too close of a proximity, with a bridled nose coming up very literally within inches of a stopping bumper.  Proponents of the carriage horse industry in this city have openly contested my opinion right here on this blog, arguing that the city's working carriage horses are well cared for and kept out of harm's way, adroitly guided in and out of the City's congested swirls of traffic by attentive and adept driver/handlers.

While I won't ever be able to lend credence to the idea that horses + careening taxis = a safe work environment, and though I have seen far too many "attentive" drivers attending to cell phone calls while steering their horses to believe that the entire human contingent behind the carriage industry is focused on equine welfare, I haven't ever been able to argue much concerning the off-hours care of these equines because I haven't ever visited a carriage stable in the city. I know that horses in NYC stables live in small box stalls and that some must navigate the several floors of converted warehouse buildings by ambling up and down steep ramps.  Only this week did it come to my attention that a fire recently broke out in one such stable on Manhattan's west side, and while it was luckily brought under control without any equine injury, the thought that an entire stable full of horses could have been trapped in a burning building in the City is a horrifying one.

New York City needs to continue to evaluate why horses live and work here under unsafe conditions. While the romantic vision of carriage horses ambling along the shady paths of Central Park is a storied part of NYC history, the reality of life for these horses is not always so rose-tinted. If these horses are to remain here, providing the City with both tradition and tourist revenue, we need further legislation to attend to their immediate welfare. The City is taking strides, but it won't have done enough until these horses have all basic safeguards in place.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Big News in New York

This is the week that New York racing thought would never come. Genting, LLP NY, a Malaysian casino company, has been chosen to operate the VLTs that have long awaited installation at Aqueduct. The company has superseded the bureaucratic and political machinations that have stymied every previous potential VLT operator in the state, and will commence build-out of the first 1600 machines within 6 months of getting the contract. Even thought that contract hasn't yet been signed, things are looking hopeful, as Governor Paterson and the NY state senate have approved the choice. At any rate, one would think that NY state is not really in a position to turn down the 380 million that Genting  has promised to deliver upfront for licensing. That alone should be able to guide the powers that be to apply their signatures and get the process started.

There could be many great changes in store for the NY racing industry if this VLT money actually comes through. For one, NYRA has committed to broad scale renovations that will bring its tracks to a higher aesthetic standard and improve backstretch conditions. But more than that, the money will hopefully boost the beleaguered NY breeding industry, and provide greater state funds for ancillary programs like safety initiatives and racehorse retirement programs. And that just makes good horse sense.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Follow Friday - Natalie Keller Reinert's "Unretired Racehorse"

Now I know that follow Friday is a Twitter thing, but I've decided to repurpose it for the sake of my blog because I like alliteration and because it works for my posting here today. My version of follow Friday also holds the differentiating feature of being not an aggregation of tons of twitterers that I really like, but a singular shout out to one blog per week that I feel warrants recommendation.

If you haven't ever read Natalie Keller Reinert's blog "Unretired Racehorse" you are missing out on a rare treat. Rare because Natalie is gifted with the written word, and is obviously writer first, blogger second, a distinction that sets her work apart from much of the content that swirls about in the galaxy of the Internet. And treat, because her funny, down-to-earth recounting of the trials and tribulations of racehorse owner/trainer/ridership is observant, light-hearted and compelling, and really gives a passing reader the sense of being there with her on the backstretch. Or, sometimes, in the woeful isolation of the detention barn at Belmont, or the oh-so-light-and-airy summer stables at Saratoga . Natalie has apparently just moved to our great state from Florida (not sure she's not going to regret that come winter time...) and it's quite interesting to hear her descriptions of all the racing events that I've come to love so much in this area. So a big welcome to her, and here's hoping she finds a happy place here in New York.

On an unrelated note, this post did originally have the potential to be labeled "Foal Friday" because this little Zedonk baby is too adorable not to point out. Apparently zebra daddies and donkey mamas running together in the same herd can be the perfect recipe for unabashed cuteness.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Racehorse Daydream

The Equine Reader, as you may have noticed, has been on summer vacation this month due to an abundant amount of outside pressures that have been competing for my attention (read: working full time, taking summer graduate marketing courses every weeknight, and trying to carve a paltry day or two out of every week for sleep and R&R). I have also been daily scanning horse related news and not finding all too much which grabbed my scattered mind and begged to be transposed into a blog article. In essence I have been wanting for a muse.

Today, however, determined to get back in the saddle, I intended to discuss this article from the Paulick Report, on a racing patron's pointed assertion that racing as an industry is not, all doomsday news aside, foundering or hobbling along on two bowed tendons. Racing is alive and well, and the fact that handle at three summer tracks beat opening grosses for three B-level movies in the same weekend should be clear indication that people still want to watch the horses run. While I do agree these are promising figures, in most of the country, racing's glory season is the summer, and posting heightened attendance numbers during high season doesn't give me much faith that the industry as a whole isn't flagging. But I hope I am wrong.

I think I have become a little turned off from following and writing about racing even as a devoted horse lover/owner/enthusiast/obsessed diehard. There is so much bad news that it's hard to find those grains of hope that suggest that the industry can remain afloat. NYRA can't seem to get their act together, instead resorting to trading barbs with Albany government in the press. The NYC OTB is/isn't still in existence depending on the day, the Kentucky breeding industry is crying out for better state support, New Jersey racing is in dire straits, and everywhere I turn it seems that another racing entity is having a near-death experience.

Sometimes, especially when this type of news adds stress to my already harried New York City existence, I mentally run away, back to the fields and farms of my youth, and dream of how wonderful it would be to can the entire lot of my life up here in the City and start a little horse rescue outpost somewhere that only the forest critters could find me. Sort of exactly like what this woman did right here. Lynn Reardon, founder of the LOPE racehorse retraining facility, left her four-walls-and-a-paycheck accounting job in Washington, DC to hit out for Texas and start a racehorse rehab. And she did it without a lot of prior knowledge about owning/training/keeping horses, which makes it all the more significant and special. If she can do it, just maybe I will too...

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Having just spent a long weekend in the Domincan Republic about a month ago, I have seen firsthand the skinny, poorly shod equine inhabitants that dot the DR's otherwise idyllic beach paradise landscape. Compared to the pampered existence that my own equine leads, turned out in retirement on verdant Kentucky pastures, and to that which most American horse owners provide for their horses, seeing Domincan horses tied in small dirt lots with no forage, or left along roadsides to fend for themselves was quite a shock.

It therefore pleases me a great deal to see TheHorse.com's recent report on the "equitarianism" movement that just finished up its second yearly visit to the country. Bringing with it vets, farriers, and crates of vaccines and dewormers, members of the dispatched equitarianism group provided much needed medical and hoof care to the Domincan's "working equids" for free, and also touted the benefits of breeding horses responsibly. As the article reports, "like humanitarianism, equitarianism is meant to promote sympathy and benevolence towards individuals, but in this case, the individuals are the equine inhabitants of developing countries." While I have never heard the concept labeled as such before, I am glad that those who toil to make lives better for the often overlooked horses in economically stressed countries are getting the publicity they are due.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Racehorse Welfare from Starting Gate to Finish Line

While he's employed as an athlete, your average racehorse will traditionally receive top-notch care from a variety of racetrack professionals. He gets a trainer dedicated to enhancing his fitness through closely monitored exercise and adroit nutritional calculations. He gets a veterinarian who monitors stiffness, soreness, and medicinal needs. And he gets a swath of grooms and caretakers that cater to his gleaming appearance and regimented feeding/bathing/training schedule.

Difficulties can arise, however, surrounding the subject of his welfare, both prior to his first stint at the in-gate (if he's pushed too hard early on while training), and after he crosses his final finish line (when he enters the wide unknown of his retirement). Debates have long raged over whether a horse should be raced while still a juvenile because his youthful two-year-old frame may not be physically developed enough to withstand the rigors of the activity. And once a horse reaches the end of his usefulness as a racehorse, if he is not funneled into one of the retirement systems that exist in the country, he likely faces a very perilous road with an inglorious ending.

When I read, therefore, of professionals in the industry working to mitigate these risks by questioning outdated standards and practices, or stepping up to advocate for a horse who's down on his luck, I feel compelled to report on the work being done. I was greatly interested by a recent article at The Saratogian concerning the trend towards increasing racehorse career longevity by delaying the start of a horse's racing until its three-year-old year. This gives the horse more opportunity to mature into an athlete, and as the amaz-a-mare Zenyatta can attest, can have a marked positive impact on its long term success. (The only caveat is if you are looking to campaign your horse in the Derby, as no unraced two-year-old has ever gone on to win the roses at three.) This slow shift away from racing history's precedent of heavy two-year-old campaigns implies to me that the industry is racing smarter and with more regard for the individual training and developmental needs of each horse.

And while a great deal more industry prominence has been given to the issue of Thoroughbred retirement in the last few years, there are still owners and trainers who continue to race a horse past its prime. In these instances the horse risks breakdown or severe injury as his athletic demands outpace his declining fitness or increasing age. It some instances it becomes the responsibility of a hawk-eyed bystander to intercede before the horse can meet such a fate. So it was with Delta Storm, a multiple graded-stakes winner and 2009 Breeder's Cup Sprint contender, whose career earnings exceeded $500,000. By June, 2010 he had somehow fallen precipitously through the race grade ranks and ended up in a $3,200 claiming race. As the Paulick Report explains, it was there that he caught the eye of Sharla Sanders and The Second Race retirement organization. The Second Race stepped in, took ownership of Delta Storm and shipped him to a long term care facility where he will be fully retired. Considering that his trainer Steve Myadi was "unapologetic" about the decision to race Delta Storm at the very lowest ranks, those responsible for ensuring his safety and seeing to his retirement were very certainly in the right place at the right time. Who knows how Delta Storm may have ended up had he proved unsuccessful as a claimer.

I am glad to see industry participants continuing to advocate for the Thoroughbreds and challenging the status quo when neccesary. Every horse that makes it through his career without injury or breakdown and goes on to a fulfilling life post-racing is a success story.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Weekend Reader

Just wanted to make a suggestion to all of you in the NYC area if you are looking for a horsey good time to fill your weekend. My sweetie was kind enough to surprise me with tickets last weekend to Cavalia, the Cirque Du Soleil type equestrian show now happening at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. I had read about Cavalia in one of my many equine mags some time ago, and was greatly impressed by its director's outlook on training horses in a way that truly allows their spirit and personalities to shine through in their performances. Each vignette in the show features 1 or more of the animals performing either under saddle or at liberty. To augment the horses one gets to see some pretty amazing human acrobatics often occurring overhead. There is a lot of aerial work, as well as vaulting acts which utilize the horses in some pretty death defying ways!

The amazing thing about the show is that it features 26 stallions, who seem to get along quite harmoniously during their performances. The cast is rounded out by 35 or so additional geldings, but I could still anticipate that there might be a fair bit of squabbling that could ensue if the horses were not so highly and adeptly engaged with their trainers. One of the stallions is a big, dark bay Lusitano who truly captivates his audience as he performs a dreamy higher level dressage performance that showcases the fire and energy of the Spanish/Portuguese breeds. His presence in the arena is mesmerizing...and that mane!!

My favorite vignette occurs near the end, when a large group of grey horses representing several different breeds (Spanish PRE, Arabian, Lusitano), is galloped into the performance arena for a fascinating at-liberty performance. The performance part of it was not what fascinated - at least for me. It was watching the 12 or so assembled horses interacting as a herd, biting, nipping, kicking and often intently focused on establishing their pecking order as the audience looked on. When the female trainer of the horses bid her group perform, they did so, and relatively flawlessly. But when she left them to mingle and linger amongst one another, their very natural herd dynamics began to assert themselves. Interestingly it was the younger male horses who were giving the rest of the group the most trouble. They were very obviously trying their best to show all assembled that they could be boss. For some reason these very normal, natural behaviors captivated me arguably more than the rigorous under saddle exercises that were featured in other parts of the show.

Overall I highly recommend Cavalia, for anyone who wants to while away an evening in complete awe of the beauty and athleticism of the equine. To enhance the experience, a performance goer can upgrade their seats at the venue for a special "meet the cast" horse lover's package, that provides backstage (back-stall) access. We unfortunately had a bus to catch back to Manhattan, or we would have done it. It's a great opportunity for all ages, and all levels of equine enthusiast (my BF, who has only ridden a horse one time, had an arguably better time than I did because he had never before experienced the wealth of grace, power and physical prowess that one witnesses when watching such a tremendous group of equines).

So get your tickets and go!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Back in the Saddle

The Equine Reader is back!

My surgery went well, as did my trip to the Dominican Republic and its attendant beach gallops along the expansive Punta Cana coast. The horses in DR were scrawny and poorly shod, but that didn't stop them from seeming exhilarated as they hurtled along beneath us down the beautiful surf sides. My poor boyfriend, himself not a rider and ill-prepared for the bumping potential of a full, flying gallop (I'll admit I omitted that detail when plying him with the fun that stood to be had by driving 40 minutes from our comfortable resort into the Domincan countryside and mounting up), took away a few more painful memories than I did, but all in all we enjoyed our encounters with les caballos Domincanos.

When not galloping through the waves our group ambled beneath palm trees along winding country roads. It was here that I was interested to discover that our lithe mounts traveled in some sort of undefinable gait, leading me to believe that they were Spanish or Peruvian "paso" type horses. I attempted to ask my guide if they were Paso Finos but he didn't fully take my meaning in English and I don't possess enough Spanish to discuss the intricacies of Domincan breeding. When we returned to the barn I did notice that, cordoned off from the skinny little horses that we trekked along on, were two stunning Andalusians in gleaming physical condition. Obviously the owners invested greater care into maintaining their personal stock than those reserved for the Gringos, but Spanish imports were clearly the mount of choice for riders in DR. Regardless, I got a fantabulous riding experience and would certainly recommend it to future travelers.

While I was on my writing hiatus, New York saw the running of the Belmont Stakes, in yet another year devoid of a potential Triple Crown sweep. This year's Belmont winner, Drosselmeyer, took first place under the tutelage of trainer Billy Mott. Though I was enjoying a romantic picnic in Central Park when the race went off, I may still get to see Drosselmeyer in action because this year's Travers Stakes could place all three of this year's Triple Crown race winners in contention. This is a compelling marketing idea if ever there was one; people like a rivalry, and how better to draw eyeballs than to feature a score settling match up between the holders of this year's Crown jewels?

Here's to the start of summer in the City, a season much too short but peppered with lots of opportunities for horse-enhanced fun. Saratoga, the Hamptons Classic, Polo at Governer's Island, all lie ahead for the horse lover to enjoy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Taking a week off

The Equine Reader is going on a brief hiatus for the next week as I prepare both for an upcoming trip to the Caribbean (riding ponies on the beach! Yes!) and then a minor surgery after which I will be recuperative and blogging-less. But before I go I thought I'd leave you with this funny little tidbit, about a very unexpected guest at Delta Downs racetracks. Here in NY racing professionals have to compete under rain, snow, and pronounced economic constraints, but as of yet, alligators are not a threat to our racing scene...

Wherever you are this weekend, have a good ride and stay out of the way of roving reptilian beasts.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

This Horse is Bomb Proof - Literally!

Life as a New Yorker in our post-9/11 city is normally (and perhaps surprisingly) quite free from extraneous worry about terrorist activity. New Yorkers are legendary for their ability to pick up and get moving again after even the worst of catastrophes, and the City's resolve to live unfettered by the shadow of potential terrorist activity is an idelible part of her character. It was, therefore, an unsettling shock for NYC residents this past week when a bomb was discovered simmering in a white SUV parked smack dead in the middle of Times Square. Though the bomb did not explode, and the man responsible was apprehended in the knick of time, it served as a reminder that our City is never going to be truly safe. That NYC is as safe as she is however, is by virtue of the tireless commitment that our firemen and police people undertake to keep her that way every day. We owe our calm, comfortable lives here to a swath of watchful eyes - and, as TheHorse.com reports, a few watchful hooves as well.

Yesterday the NYPD honored Miggs the police horse, a 15-year-old equine member of last week's impromptu bomb squad, for remaining calm and performing his duties fearlessly even when faced with the smoke billowing from a bomb-packed vehicle. As his human partner Officer Wayne Ratigan reported, "Usually horses are afraid and run where there's smoke. But Miggs did what he was supposed to do. He's proven to be a bomb-proof horse."

A bomb-proof horse for a fear-proof City. Sounds like a fitting match to me. Kudos to Miggs, and everyone involved in preventing last week's bomb scare from becoming anything worse.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Kings of the Derby

I really loved watching the Kentucky Derby this year. Though I was remarkably nervous leading up to it, as horse after horse was pulled, scratched, or euthanized due to injuries or training issues, once the day of the Derby arrives I can never hide my excitement. My boyfriend and I donned our Derby best, sought out a posh party in the heart of NYC, and watched the race go off in style, with Kentucky inspired drinks in hand, and large, cumbersome hats on head.

It was a both an incredibly exciting Derby this year, as the horses battled it out in terrible weather with mud slinging everywhere; and an incredibly historic one, as Todd Pletcher broke his 24 horse "Derby drought," and Calvin "Bo-Rail" kept to the inside on Super Saver to come from behind and win his third Derby in four years. When Borel promised Pletcher on camera after the race that he would take the Triple Crown this year, I doubt there was a person assembled who didn't believe he could very well make that magic happen.

It wasn't until I read this article at the Paulick Report however, that I really got a warm feeling about this year's race. In it the author recounts every jockey's response to the race, from Jose Lezcano, who rode Ice Box to second place, all the way down to Tom Amoss, who came up dead last on Backtalk. Though I would naturally have expected those comments to be euphoric and praising at the tops of the placings, and then quite a bit less so as they went down into the loser's ranks, every single jockey praised his horse and its effort, regardless of whether they placed or lost. And that to me was a real signal of how much the people closest to horse racing truly care about the animals and the sport. It was also a valuable reminder that even though TB racing industry is riddled with bad press and bad mojo at times, there are so, so many people in it who love what they do and the horses they do it with. And hopefully that will always prove to be a powerful counterbalance to racing's darker sides.

Congratulations to all of the Kings of the Derby this year, and now it's on to the Preakness!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Horses show marked stress and anxiety pre-slaughter

I truly HATED reading this Horse.com article about the stress that horses endure en route and prior to slaughter. I have been a vegetarian (who does eat limited seafood now, so a pescetarian) for 13 years of my life, and one big reason that I chose to go meatless was my profound desire to take myself out of the cycle of stock animal suffering. From birth, to over-hormoned growth in tight confinement, to their end in the kill chute, livestock that are destined for the dinner table usually have a pretty egregious life on this earth. Though people like Temple Grandin have worked hard to ease the suffering and anxiety of animals bound for slaughter, and many modern farms promote humane methods of raising and keeping their livestock, those moments right before the animal's death can only imagined to be truly traumatic. This article details the physiological stress reactions that horses undergo in their last dark minutes of anxious waiting before they meet their end, and it is certainly compelling:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Injury and breakdown is even more potent on the Triple Crown Trail

We are less than two weeks and counting until Derby weekend, and news broke this week that the top Kentucky Oaks contender She Be Wild will been scratched due to a pastern fracture, and worse that significant Derby contender Tiz Chrome was euthanized on Saturday after a sesmasoid fracture led to his breakdown during training. These two incidents remind me that everything leading up to the Derby is happening writ large on the national media stage - this is the period of the year when the media and public are following horse racing very closely and forming judgments due to their awareness of the catastrophic events that have marred the sport in the last few years. Horse racing can bury its breakdowns and injuries in small press bylines during the rest of the year, but during Triple Crown season everybody is watching.

Does the added pressure of training and preparing for the Derby increase the likelihood that an injury will be sustained? Or do the injuries and breakdowns just seem more potent because they carry the added weight of significantly influencing public perception about the sport?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Dear Horse" - Just for Fun!

This is not my article, nor do I know who wrote it, so if you can identify the author I will give them full credit! I found it here, while I was poking around on Stacy Westfall's website, and think it's too hilarious not to share:

"Dear Horse (author unknown)

I love you very much, and I truly cherish your presence in my life. I would never wish to criticize you in any way. However, there are a few trivial details regarding our relationship that I think might bear your consideration.

First of all, I am already aware that horses can run faster than I can. I do not need you to demonstrate that fact each time I come to get you in from the field.

Please remember that I work long and hard to earn the money to keep you in the style to which you have become accustomed. In return, I think you should at least pretend to be glad to see me, even when I'm carrying a bridle instead of a bucket of feed.

It should be fairly obvious to you that I am a human being who walks on only two legs. I do not resemble a scratching post. Do not think that, when you rub your head against me with 1,000 pounds of force behind it, I believe that it wasn't your intention to send me flying. I am also aware that stomping on my toes while you are pushing me around is nothing but adding injury to insult.

I understand I cannot expect you to cover your nose when you sneeze, but it would be appreciated if you did not inhale large amounts of dirt and manure prior to aiming your sneezes at my face and shirt. Also, if you have recently filled your mouth with water you do not intend to drink, please let it all dribble from your mouth BEFORE you put your head on my shoulder. In addition, while I know you despise your worming medication, my intentions in giving it to you are good, and I really do not think I should be rewarded by having you spit half of it back out onto my shirt.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that you are confused about the appropriate roles you should play in various situations. One small bit of advice:
Your stone-wall imitation should be used when I am mounting and your speed-walker imitation when I suggest that we proceed on our way, not vice versa.
Please also understand that jumping is meant to be a mutual endeavor. By "mutual", I mean that we are supposed to go over the jump together. You were purchased to be a mount, not a catapult.

I know the world is a scary place when your eyes are on the sides of your head, but I did spend a significant amount of money to buy you, and I have every intention of protecting that investment.
Therefore, please consider the following when you are choosing the appropriate behavior for a particular situation:

When I put your halter on you, attach one end of a lead rope to the halter, and tie the other end of the lead rope to a post or ring or whatever, I am indicating a desire for you to remain in that locale. I would also like the halter, lead rope, post, etc., to remain intact. While I admit that things like sudden loud noises can be startling, I do not consider them to be acceptable excuses for repeatedly snapping expensive new lead ropes (or halters or posts) so that you can run madly around the yard creating havoc in your wake. Such behavior is not conducive to achieving that important goal that I know we both share --- decreasing the number of times the veterinarian comes out to visit you.

By the same token, the barn aisle was not designed for the running of the Derby and is not meant to serve as a racetrack. Dragging me down the aisle in leaps and bounds is not how "leading" is supposed to work, even if someone happens to drop a saddle on the floor as we're passing. Pulling loose and running off is also discouraged (although I admit it does allow you to run faster).

I assure you that blowing pieces of paper do not eat horses. While I realize you are very athletic, I do not need a demonstration of your ability to jump 25 feet sideways from a standing start while swapping ends in midair, nor am I interested in your ability to emulate both a racehorse and a bucking bronco while escaping said piece of paper. Also, if the paper were truly a danger, it would be the height of unkindness to dump me on the ground in front of it as a sacrificial offering to expedite your escape.

When I ask you to cross a small stream, you may safely assume that said stream does not contain crocodiles, sharks, or piranhas, nor will it be likely to drown you. (I have actually seen horses swimming, so I know it can be done.) I expect you to be prepared to comply with the occasional request to wade across some small body of water. Since I would like to be dry when we reach the other side of the stream, deciding to roll when we're halfway across is not encouraged behavior.

I give you my solemn oath that the trailer is nothing but an alternate means of transportation for distances too long for walking. It is not a lion's den or a dragon's maw, nor will it magically transform into such. It is made for horses, and I promise you that you will indeed fit into your assigned space. Please also bear in mind that I generally operate on a schedule, and wherever we're going, I would really like to get there today.

For the last time, I do not intend to abandon you to a barren, friendless existence. If I put you in a turn-out paddock, I promise that no predators will eat you, and I will come back in due time to return you to your stable. It is not necessary to run in circles, whinny pathetically, threaten to jump the fence, or paw at the gate. Neither your stable mates nor I will have left the premises. The other horses standing peacefully in adjacent paddocks amply demonstrate that it is possible to enjoy being turned out for exercise.

Finally, in closing, my strong and gentle companion, I would like to point out that, whatever might happen between horses and their people, we humans will always love you. In fact, our bonds with you help create new bonds among ourselves, even with total strangers. Wherever there are horses, there will be "horse people", and for the blessings you bestow upon us, we thank you.

Most sincerely yours,

Your Adoring Owner"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Stacy Westfall's Insights

A very successful weekend up at Equine Affaire, with the weather in the mid-seventies, the sun shining, and lots of sparkly horses rounding the grounds. My particular faves are always the Friesians, because seeing these medieval beasts up close is like encountering a group of supermodels having lunch at your local diner. Their good looks are so jaw dropping that they almost appear out of place alongside the typical gamut of rangy TBs and big hipped stock horses that one typically expects to see. Not that I don't love both, but Friesians seem to possess a big helping of that "extra something special" that truly makes them standouts. 2009 IFSHA Horse of the Year "LionHeart" was stabled on the grounds, but unless he was the magisterial Friesian stallion that I caught cantering around the Rod's Covered Arena engaged in a private warm-up, I missed seeing him in the flesh.

The highlight of Equine Affaire for me (besides that feeling of "ahhhhh" I always get as I take in the sites and smells of the breeds barn) is getting to watch a variety of top clinicians do their "thang," and learn from their various perspectives on riding and training. As soon as we got to Equine Affaire, my mom and I rushed to the Coliseum at the Ohio State Fair Grounds to catch Stacy Westfall's clinic on transitioning to brideless riding. She's just wonderful, and her lighthearted demeanor and sensitive outlook on horse training make her potentially my favorite trainer/clinician currently on the circuit. She was doing her clinic from the back of her legendary mare Roxy (Whizard's Baby Doll) who has been pulled out of retirement after several years off. It was nice to watch Stacy meandering around the arena on her famous partner, all the while discussing how to make a horse successful at going bridleless. A few of the insightful points from her clinic:

1. Horse personalities rank on a scale of -10 to 10+ in terms of temperament. A -10 horse is so laid back it's basically dead, while a horse on the 10+ end would be akin to a NASA rocketship, always at the ready to take off. Stacy mentioned that her horse Roxy had a default personality of -3, and tended towards the laid-back side. Stacy's theory is that at "0" a horse is perfectly engaged but also perfectly under control. If your horse, therefore, is on the hot side (my first Quarter Horse was probably a +4, for instance, and he loved to go on all sorts of wonderful "running away" adventures with me when he became too overstimulated) it is useful to do lots of "chill out" exercises, but if he's on the laid-back side (my super lazy -4 Paint gelding), you'll need to concentrate on a lot more "get moving" exercises. The point is to get the horse's energy evenly balanced at "0", so that he is perfectly controlled and focused enough to give a safe bridleless ride. The closer a horse is to zero by default, the better he'll be as a bridleless mount because he'll give you less dramatics to worry about.

2. An oldie but goodie: make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. To get your horse to succeed when learning any new task, push him to work harder when he's not giving you what you want. Apply enough pressure that he wants to seek out whatever action will provide him the release. That action, of course, should be the training point you are seeking to institute.

3. Bridleless riding, naturally, is all about controlling the horse's body in lieu of having access to his face/mouth/neck. Spurs, while only advisable when used by someone with significant body and leg control, provide the best way to deliver highly specific and localized leg cues. Stacy's control of Roxy's body at all gaits was, not surprisingly, very impressive, and much of it had to do with the fact that she had conditioned "buttons" all along her horse's sides and shoulders, each of which cued Roxy to make a certain maneuver. Stacy could tap the "shoulder over" button at any speed, for instance, and Roxy would move her forehand laterally, resulting in everything from spins to shoulder ins. As Stacy explained, trying to tap those buttons with a heel provides a much broader and more general cue than tapping them exactly with your spurs, so the spurs are a better choice once the horse is at an advanced level of responsiveness and sensitivity.

4. Stacy's final insight was perhaps the most important, that the point of riding is not to eventually go bridleless and impress the pants off everyone in your riding sphere, it's to develop a highly sensitive and responsive level of communication with your horse. Once you and your horse are ready to go bridleless, it will be because you have succeeded in developing an enviable level of communication with the bridle on. Bridleless riding is only the final step in truly testing that connection. And, ok, it also looks really cool!

To anyone who hasn't experienced Equine Affaire, I highly recommend the experience. I also got to see clinician Chris Cox (two time Road to the Horse winner) take a previously uncanterable horse and canter her in perfect circles, as well as an impressive display of dressage talent from the Lusitano people. To cap it all off, we returned for the evening's Pfizer Fantasia, which featured acts as diverse as a drumline of Icelandic Ponies tolting down a fire-lined straightway, and an eight-horse Haflinger hitch. Lots of fun, lots of horseflesh, and I'll be back next year!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shameless Promotion - of myself and others....

Just a brief note for the The Equine Reader today as I am shortly headed up to Equine Affaire to immerse myself in clinics, fabulous horse shopping, and the Pfizer Fantasia equine show, which is the jewel in the event's horse filled crown. I am also headed up today to spread word among the Equine Affaire aficionados of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's Hay Bale campaign, for which anyone can donate 5$ to buy a bale of hay for a retired TB through the TRF's text messaging donation platform. I am currently working with the TRF to help develop new marketing and communications strategy for the organization, so I can't help but shamelessly promote the good work that they do! If you would like to donate 5$ to help feed a hungry TB, please text SUPPORT HAYDRIVE to 20222 and a the donation will be automatically charged to your cellphone bill.

And before I go, I would also like to shamelessly promote myself, because I was lucky enough to have one of my blog articles published in a slightly extended form through the Equine Connection's online monthly magazine. Feel free to read the article, on the strides that America has made in terms of horse welfare practices and legislation, via the web link here.

And finally, one last bit of promotion, for Nanette Levin and her blog, Horse Sense and Cents. Nanette was kind enough to feature me on her "horse blogs worth reading" segment this week, and I am now fondly indebted to her for the recognition. Check out Nanette's most recent post which is, timely enough, devoted to the TB rehab and retirement considerations, and raises great questions about the very community that I work so hard to support.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Barbaro's Legacy Lives On

While many indelible marks have been laid upon the face of history by presidents, inventors, scientists and educators, the greatness required to inspire change and development can be wrapped in unexpected packages. Such is the case with Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby great who became legend due not only to achievement in his life, but also to the heartrending circumstances surrounding his death. Since Barbaro's death the world of racing has seen real change occur, in the form of safety and welfare initiatives that will impact the lives of horses for years to come.

And now the legacy continues. The NTRA announced this week that it's NTRA Charities wing has established the "Barbaro Fund for Equine Health and Safety Research" to replace it's Barbaro Memorial Fund as the fundraising organization allied with the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. Much of the $400,000 already raised on behalf of the Barbaro Fund has been applied to veterinary research into the causes of and treatments for laminitis. The new Barbaro Fund for Equine Health and Safety Research will expand that mission to tackle a range of racehorse veterinary concerns. That Barbaro's death became a gift instead of a statistic is something about which his owners, trainers and fans can be very proud.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Is this even possible?

A summer in Saratoga without Thoroughbred horse racing?

Saratoga racing season is one of the main highlights of summer in the NY area, and the region triples in population when the TBs come to town. There is nothing that parallels breezy, sunny days sitting in the Saratoga boxes in summery dresses and sipping something cool, while the ponies parade in from the paddock. Saratoga County is, unfortunately, a region who's economy is almost entirely dependent on the TB industry and the wealth of business that it brings to the area each summer. But as the Saratogian reported on Friday, the "unthinkable" scenario of Saratoga being forced to shut its doors for a season might become reality if NYRA cannot find a way to make peace with the Albany politicos and improve its cash flow. More posturing from the NYRA folks to pressure our state government into decisive action? Or a true potentiality? One thing is certain, the Saratogian is spot on when it describes the full scale meltdown that a summer without the horses would bring to the Saratoga region, and the NY TB industry in general. Something that our imperiled industry would find it very hard to recover from.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Colorado Horsecare Foodbank Helps Humans and Their Horses

I really like the following initiative. It's a concept that has been put to good use in human communities for many years, and has now been tweaked to serve equines and their human families with very positive results. As TheHorse.com reports, an organization called the "Colorado Horsecare Foodbank," provides feed, hay and "other equine services" to Colorado families suffering from economic stress, who cannot currently afford to care for their family horses. Instead of sentencing their animals to the uncertainty of life without steady owners in today's economy, the Foodbank helps these owners keep their horses until their financial pictures brighten. It's a compelling and innovative way to both lessen the burden on cash-strapped equine owning families, and prevent another wave of horses from filtering into already overburdened shelter and rescue facilities. There are several other similar "hay banks" now in existence, and it will be interesting to see whether this idea continues to gain steam in other regions, because it provides such a wide variety of benefits to the impacted communities.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Conundrum of Equine Welfare

So the Equine Reader is going to take a new tack for awhile.

Over the last couple of years I have covered a variety of equine welfare related stories because it's always stood as egregious to me that horses can die or suffer abuse due to the greed or negligence of their owners/caretakers. Yesterday I read a particularly unsettling blog item at the Paulick Report in which Bradford Cummings, one of the site's creators, decried all the flack that the Paulick Report regularly receives from the PETA folks. Not surprisingly the PETA activists don't generally tend to side with horse racing proponents because of the unavoidable fact that the Sport of Kings sometimes results in the breakdown, death and injury of its equine participants. Not entirely unlike most other equine sports, but with a frequency that many both within and outside of the industry consider alarming.

Because the Paulick Report does tend to highlight industry scandals and abuses, I was a little shocked to hear Mr. Cummings simultaneously declare that he and the other "industry insiders" that he writes for both have a "love affair" with the Thoroughbreds that they follow, and reject PETA's animal rights message because it is too vehemently one-sided (i.e., for the animals) and only needlessly perpetuates negativity towards the sport. He also argued that highlighting equine welfare abuses only focuses attention on the "bad apples" of the racing world instead of underscoring the healthy training and racing practices that many in the industry promote. The real fallacy in this logic is that even those trainers who do proceed with the utmost of care, taking every pain to ensure that their horses are well cared for and campaigned, still run the risk of having a horse seriously injured or killed. The fact that 5000+ racehorses met their deaths on U.S. tracks between 2003 and 2008 is testament to the fact that it's not just the "bad apples" that contribute to racing's tenuous relationship with the PETA activists. Cummings even went so far as to jibe that the current Paragallo and Gill scandals are just the latest incarnation of the "low hanging abuse fruit" that the activists latch on to to plead their case. I say tell that to the 4 horses that starved to death shortly after leaving Paragallo's farm.

Perhaps PETA does go above and beyond with their aggressive and vocal messaging, but in my opinion anyone who advocates for the welfare of the racehorse, or any horse for that matter, and brings their abuse or mistreatment into the public eye, is doing a noble job. It was, in large part, PETA's push for greater accountability in the sport after the Eight Belles tragedy that finally moved our government to take action in investigating racing's safety, which in turn led to the implementation of the "Safety and Integrity Alliance" that now governs a wide variety of aspects of racehorse safety and welfare.

From all of this I realized something difficult. I have become quite affected by my involvement with equine welfare and advocacy. Not just due to the feelings of sadness and anger that can arise when I read the tales of "low hanging abuse fruit" which populate in the equine media, but from the feelings of helplessness that sometimes ensue when I am faced with industry insiders like Bradford Cummings, who seem so capable of accepting that injuries and breakdowns are a fact of the equestrian sporting life that they would seek to silence those core groups of people who refuse to let the issue rest. Perhaps those things will always plague equestrian sport and should therefore simply be accepted, but it is only with public pressure that anyone will be motivated to at least try to lessen the shadow that they cast.

So to clear my head a bit, I am going to head in a more lighthearted direction with this blog for a little while. I will of course continue to keep my thumb on the pulse of equine welfare, but want to focus on the interesting and/or positive developments that are coming out of our equine world. Like this one from TheHorse.com, which details a recent study out of France that provides keen insights onto the levels of stress that horses experience as a result of the types of work that they do.

The study found that horses competing in disciplines such as dressage, which restrict and conform their movements, and therefore most keep them from being the wild, uninhibited creatures that nature designed them to be, show the most serious types of stereotypic stall behaviors. The horses that are the most restricted physically and emotionally by their jobs are the ones most likely to exhibit profound stress related behaviors such as cribbing and head shaking. Ones that are given jobs with more "free rein" so to speak, such as cross country jumping, get to express themselves and behave with enough "horsiness" in their work that they bring less of their stress back home with them. It's fascinating how much we think we know about our horses' mental and emotional health until a study like this points out yet again that they are sensitive to and perceptive of their environments in ways that we are not even fully aware.

It all just adds to their majesty and mystique, I suppose. And to the list of all the many reasons that I am so dedicated to their health, happiness and well being. I doubt it will be long, therefore, before I feel the desire to grasp for that low hanging fruit once again...

Monday, March 1, 2010

California Report: Synthetics Proven To Reduce Fatalities

In last week's Paulick report, Ray Paulick discussed an article out of the San Diego Union-Tribune, that somewhat erroneously reported that synthetic surfaces in California were responsible for an uptick in racetrack horse deaths. The California Horse Racing Board's annual report suggested that the last two years have seen the most horse deaths on California tracks of any two year span in history, but Bill Finley at ESPN argued that this result was due mostly to an increase in deaths on Los Alamitos's all DIRT Quarter Horse track, and that synthetics were in truth responsible for lowering fatalities and improving the health and well-being of California race horses.

So what is the answer? Synthetics have repeatedly come under fire in the years since their installation, both for their inconsistency during inclement weather and for their propensity to contribute to hind end lamenesses in race horses. The debate on synthetics rages from coast to coast, with synthetic proponents like Jerry and Ann Moss nearly refusing to run their horses on anything but California tracks, and synthetic detractors like Jess Jackson refusing to run their horses on anything but dirt. According to an article published at TheHorse.com, figures recently released by Rick Arthur, D.V.M., the equine medical director to the California Horse Racing Board, do seem to argue in favor of the synthetics. TheHorse.com reports that "Arthur's data, separate from the other two reports, shows a decline each year in Thoroughbred deaths since 2005. He also reports figures, based on fatalities per 1,000 starts from 2004 through 2009, which reflect a slower rate of catastrophic injuries to horses racing on synthetic tracks as compared to dirt at Del Mar, Golden Gate Fields, Hollywood Park, and Santa Anita. Synthetic surfaces produced a mortality rate of 1.95 per 1,000 (109 out of 56,031 starters) from 2007-09, while the rate over the same tracks when they raced on dirt (2004-06) was 3.09 (181/58,659), according to Arthur. For comparison, the racing fatality rate on turf for the entire period was 2.44 (89/36,486)."

If these numbers are indeed the final figures on the matter, a reduction by more than one fatality per 1000 starts is a significant reduction in deaths. This is the first hard, long-term data that has been calculated since the changeover, and certainly argues for the viability of the surfaces. As to their other problems, such as being very difficult to maintain when the weather turns bad, no definitive answer has yet been found. Proof that the surfaces do in fact lessen the risk of fatality for race horses should however give track owners pause as they determine whether to do away with the surfaces and return to dirt.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Newsworthy in New York

It’s been a big, big week in the equine news, and I’ve been so busy, busy, busy that there hasn’t been a moment available to offer up any commentary on all of the headlines that have come across the wire. Today’s Equine Reader post will therefore be a conglomerate of sorts, to get things up to speed.

First off, just a brief mention to congratulate Dressage wunderkind Moorlands Totilas and his rider Edward Gal, who

garnered their third win
in the 2009/ 2010 FEI World Cup Dressage Series on Monday in Neumunster, Germany. Though Totilas did not post the same high score that he did in his previous two world record breaking performances, his 87.60% was enough to put him way up on the leader board. How exciting to realize that that sky may be the limit for this pair! I will certainly be watching as they continue their ascent to freestyle glory.

In New York State, the racing world continues to be rocked by two controversial stories, the first concerning the long delayed VLT installation and racino development at Aqueduct racetrack. The folks at NYRA just can’t seem to stay on the good side of the auditors, and investigation has already commenced into the fiscal skeleton of their operation following last December’s announcement that the racing entity would be bankrupt before they
made it to this year’s Belmont Stakes. With this week’s revelation of the significant salaries paid to NYRA president Charlie Hayward and COO Hal Handel, further furor has been created in the Albany legislature. Ray Paulick posted some fascinating data concerning salaries among head racing executives nationwide, and it certainly does appear that the NYRA leaders are paid quite well in comparison with their cohorts across the country. Only the heads of the Breeder’s Cup and Jockey Club are, in fact, paid more. With approval still pending for a developer to begin work on the long overdue Aqueduct racino complex, it seems a strange time for NYRA to start attracting so much negative press due to the dubious economic model of its operation.

And finally, Ernie Pagallo, the NY state breeder accused of 35 counts of horse neglect and cruelty after state investigators seized 177 malnourished horses from his farm during a raid in April 2009,
went to trial for the abuse in upstate New York yesterday. Paragallo had his racing license and privileges suspended following the raid, and, as the Daily Mail reported, stated on video yesterday that he was "not denying it. If they want to lock me up, maybe they should. Whether it’s my fault or not it happened and it’s my responsibility." Luckily many of the seized horses were turned over to equine rescue and rehabilitation organizations, and are expected to recover.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Horses Helping Humans Helping Horses

Today brought two positive strides for important causes that link our human and equine worlds.

As the BloodHorse.com reports, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, currently the world's largest charity organization committed to fundraising for breast cancer research and survivor support, has agreed to renew its partnership with the Kentucky Oaks (gr. 1) at Churchill Downs. Kentucky Oaks Day, held the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, will again have breast cancer fundraising as the focus of its races and events (e.g., its "Pink Out" initiative, which encourages Oaks attendees to wear pink as a way to show their support for the cause). According to the BloodHorse.com, one particularly notable event scheduled for the day will be a parade in which breast cancer survivors will walk next to the Oaks' fillies as the horses make their way to the gate. Churchill Downs has promised to donate 1$ per attendee to the Susan G. Komen Foundation on Oaks Day, and will also donate 1$ for every "Oaks Lilies" themed mixed drink sold on-site to Horses and Hope, the Kentucky equine industry's breast cancer support and fundraising organization. This is a wonderful example of a way in which a large racing organization is using its notoriety to support a worthwhile cause in the human world. I would love to see similar partnerships leveraged for other causes by aligning noteworthy non-profits with prominent races and venues.

And the recently incepted Equine Health and Welfare Alliance, formed by a group of Kentucky-based AAEP certified equine vets, is pushing to gain House approval for a bill that that would "recommend voluntary standards for horse rescue and retirement shelters, and suggest ways...to deal with abandoned horses." According to TheBloodHorse.com, "the bill will create the Kentucky House Agriculture and Business Committe to assist, advise, and consult with the cabinet on issues of equine health and welfare and will take action to help maintain the health, welfare, and safety of equines in the Commonwealth." The group hopes that such a bill would also provide for a wide scale assessment of the true state of horse abandonment and rescue in the U.S., and develop measurable goals for addressing the issue of unwanted horses. Since the prohibition of U.S. horse slaughter in 2007, and due in large part to the fierce impact the recession has had on demand in the equine market, determining how to care for homeless horses has become a critical problem. It will be interesting to see whether this legislation gets passed, and whether it can drive further change for abandoned and rescued horses.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rollkur outlawed thanks to Internet advocacy

Great news this week out of the FEI's round table conference at its Olympic Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, as the equestrian governing body voted to outlaw the "Rollkur" or "hyperflexion" style of dressage training, in which a horse's head is forcibly overbent to induce proper carriage. The group ruled unanimously that "any head and neck position of the horse achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable." The board's investigation and ruling began after controversy surfaced over a video that showed Patrik Kittel utilizing such aggressive hyperflexion while training for a competition in Denmark that his horse's tongue turned blue. The FEI will institute a working group of Dressage officials to develop strategies for identifying and sanctioning hyperflexion offenders in competition. Kudos to the FEI for addressing this issue and passing a ruling that promotes the safe and humane campaigning of dressage horses.

It never ceases to amaze me the various lengths to which even (and perhaps, especially?) some top level competitors will go when seeking those almighty points/championships/dollars. What I do think is impressive is how the Internet and social media have become such powerful tools in the fight against equine welfare transgressions, due to the speed and efficacy with which they can deliver such stories to concerned members of the equine community. Videos can be taken surreptitiously of training abuses, and then circulated in real time, resulting in fast and forceful advocation for the affected horses. Twitter and blog sites join communities of like-minded people quickly and fiercely, forcing governing bodies to swiftly investigate and rule on abuses. It seems we have passed the threshold into a new era for equine welfare, in which abuses can be readily and immediately checked due to the instantaneous nature of digital dissemination, and everyone can participate in creating a better world for our horses.