By BONNIE ERBE
Spare me the Barbaro encomia. It’s not that a horse with such heart doesn’t deserve high praise, in death and in life. It’s that most of the people praising him the loudest are hypocrites.
The only humans possessing adequate moral standing to praise Barbaro’s bravery are those who publicly oppose racetrack cruelty, or for that matter, all animal cruelty so omnipresent in American society today.
As a horse world denizen (I own four hunter-jumper sport horses) I see first-hand the human conveniences visited on powerless animals and by the owners who abuse these heroic animals that bestow athletic prowess upon humans. In too many instances, animals are viewed as nothing more than living, breathing machines placed on earth for the sole purpose of winning money or ribbons or other status symbols handed to their self-absorbed owners.
I’m not a PETA type. That is, I do not believe people should be barred from involving animals in human entertainment and pursuits. I have witnessed episodes when horses clearly enjoy a good run or a good round at a hunter-jumper show.
However, I do believe when humans co-opt animals’ natural gifts, humans should give back and make it a fair trade. Thoroughbred racing could easily be conducted in a cruelty-free manner if owners, trainers and managers adhered to horse-oriented standards.
Many fewer horses would be injured at the track if owners didn’t insist on racing thoroughbreds at the age of two or three. Their leg bones are not fully-grown yet (in veterinarian parlance, their growth plates are not yet fully formed) and they are much more prone to life-threatening or severely debilitating injury. Similarly, if breeders didn’t breed thoroughbreds for hyper-thin, light legs (to improve speed) they would be less injury-prone.
If all tracks followed the lead of several in California, fewer horses would die trying to sate man’s endless desire for equine speed. The Los Angeles Daily News reports, “Hollywood Park began the more than $8 million project of replacing its natural surface in July (2006), a couple of months after the California Legislature passed a bill requiring the state’s five major thoroughbred tracks to go synthetic by the end of 2007.
Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro’s breakdown in the Preakness had intensified calls for horse-safety measures.”
Even with a softer, more forgiving track surface, the News reports that between September and November of last year one horse was euthanized due to track injuries.
The changes listed above would attend to track horses’ physical needs. But track horses should also be given psychic reprieve as well.
Horses are herd animals that thrive in the company of other horses. At the track, most horses are confined to their stalls 23 hours per day, getting out only for an hour or so for training. It’s the human equivalent of being locked in your room 23 hours a day and deprived of human socialization. Can you imagine living that way? It’s enough to drive a healthy person to suicide.
Most track horses, geldings and mares at least, should be given ample time away from racing in large pastures with plenty of grass and in the company of other horses with whom they can socialize. (Stallions present a different issue — they can kill other horses.) But owners and trainers routinely prevent horses from herd turnout, fearing injury. Their concerns are not for the horse’s needs, but are financially based. An injured horse is worth less money.
If owners, in turn, strike a fair trade with their thoroughbreds they would reward them for their hard work at the track by meeting their equine needs at home.
Human indifference to animal needs is not limited to the track, of course, nor to the horse industry. And in most instances owners in the United States treat their animals better than those in many other nations. But we cannot consider ourselves truly civilized until we start regulating animal industries by requiring people who make money from animals to do so in a way that doesn’t consign those animals to a life of misery.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)