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 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, 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, 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. 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.