Monday, January 29, 2007

Running Like the Wind

(Image of Barbaro copied from ad courtesy www.eleganthorsepictures.com/tomchbadoind.html)

I tried very hard not to write this post as I feel I’ve talked so much here at the Garden about my commitment to humane treatment of animals, and quite honestly I don’t wish to be perceived as someone who anthropomorphizes (a curious term as we are all animals rather than vice-versa, and sentience is, IMO, a relative term) and obsesses—but I can’t let the euthanasia of the great horse Barbaro go unmentioned.

My mother says I blurted out the word “horsey” before any others … I think my greatest moments of happiness as a child occurred on the back of a horse. Later, when dealing with the disappointment of divorce, I was restored by the affections of an Arabian mare who would nicker and softly whinny as my car approached the stable. She allowed me to float through the air on the wings of her efforts, and she’d work very hard to do as I asked. At the end of a good ride, I’d carefully groom her, then she’d rest her gorgeous little head in the space between my neck and shoulder.

Back in 1970something I recall the breakdown while racing of the unparalleled filly, Ruffian. Unlike Barbaro, Ruffian continued to run through the break, and was euthanized the following day. But these are high profile instances, ones we actually hear about. The statistics on how many horses break down either while racing, or training, is heartbreaking. Even famous racehorses have ended up in slaughterhouses, or worse (Google Alydar). If they can no longer race or breed, they become expensive pets in an already costly business.

Barbaro was a beautiful creature, vibrant and dynamic beyond belief. I believe he was bred to run, and that the main factor that hastened his demise was haste itself—they start racehorses far too young. If they are racing at 2, they are training long before that. Barbaro fought so hard to overcome his dire injury. After earning more than $2million for his owners, I respect all the work, money and apparent love they put toward saving his life, but the fact remains that if he had been allowed to live as a horse is meant to live, the chances for this kind of injury would have been much lower. Although I am a former horseracing enthusiast, I find myself rescinding my support of the “sport” as it exists today. The fact remains that while horses love to run—most often in short bursts, or at a canter if they must run for longer distances (as when being chased by a predator)—the racetrack is a highly-charged, artificially dangerous forum for gambling that has very little to do with whether a horse wishes to run that day, at that moment, under those conditions—is it worth it?

This excerpt regarding Thoroughbred race horses from Wikipedia sums up my point well:

“Modern thoroughbred racing involves a science dilemma. The horses are bred for extreme speed, and a primary goal of this breeding has been to decrease
bone mass while raising muscle mass, as a horse "carrying" a light skeleton using abnormally strong muscles will travel faster at a gallop than one with a heavier bone load. As a result, modern thoroughbreds are muscularly powerful but osteologically delicate creatures. Three out of every 2000 races result in a career-ending injury to one or more racers, typically due to broken leg bones; a ratio far in excess of almost all other human and animal sports. Of those injuries, more than 60% result in the horse being euthanized. Leg injuries, though not immediately fatal, are life-threatening because a horse's weight must be distributed evenly on all four legs to prevent circulatory problems, laminitis and other infections. If a horse loses the use of one leg, it cannot function; its other legs will quickly break down as well, leading to a slow death.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoroughbred)

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