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...

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