The hypocrisy of Barbaro hysteria


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)


  1. Thanks to Bonnie Erbe for her thoughtful commentary about Barbaro (“The hypocrisy of Barbaro hysteria,” February 1). His death is a heartbreaking reminder that horses suffer and die in the racing industry. While Barbaro’s plight made headlines, countless other lesser-known horses suffer similar fates, their broken legs and battered bodies hidden from the national spotlight. Thoroughbreds are accidents waiting to happen: their legs are too long and fragile, they’re forced to run while still young and growing, and injuries are often masked with drugs.

    Forcing horses to run—sometimes to their deaths—has lost most of its luster with the public. Attendance has plummeted at tracks all over North America and few tracks remain economically viable. Many are shifting their focus to slot machines in order to remain in business. People who want to pay tribute to Barbaro and all the other horses who have suffered and died in racing should continue to stay away from tracks and betting parlors.

    Jennifer O’Connor

    Animals in Entertainment Campaign Writer

    People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

  2. Mary

    Incidently, I don’t breed Thoroughbreds anymore, and am only marginally involved in the industry but from a different standpoint. The horse is not a commodity in my barn. I have a happy, well-adjusted herd of four-legged friends that come running to meet me at feeding time with a nicker and a snort, knowing that praise and a pat are forthcoming. That is good enough for me.

  3. Mary

    I have worked as a journalist, breeder, consignor, owner, pedigree researcher, and farm manager in the Thoroughbred industry for over 20 years. I have shown, ridden, trained hunters and dressage horses for longer than that. As a result, I can say that there are positive and negative aspects, people and otherwise, in the show and racing industries. The good people are inherently good, and that bad are not going to change. I am well-versed on this subject or I wouldn’t discuss it. However the vast difference between the show and racing industries are the millions of dollars spent on gambling at racetracks…anytime there is big money involved there is exploitation. The Thoroughbred racehorse is a product of exploitation. A veterinarian worth his salt will tell you that most horses are not physically mature until they are three to four years old. Much of that depends on the breed. However even after the growth plates in the knees close (an indication that the frame has stopped growing), a horses bone structure and musculature continues to fill out and mature. As a result of the stress placed on an immature skeletal structure, regardless of how mature it may appear on the exterior, the sheer weight and power of a young horse barreling at 45 mph down the racetrack places 10 times it’s own weight on the leg bones. That is 10 x 1,100 lbs. for an average racehorse! Think about it! That is the primary reason in a nutshell for the high amount of breakdowns in Thoroughbred racing…abuse of the young horse for greed based intentions. Purses in two-year-old maiden races and stakes are at an all-time high; the three-year-old prep races leading up to the Derby will start consuming potential candidates as the season goes on. Just watch and see how many hopefuls become hopeless and never heard from again as we lead up to the first Sat. in May. The bottom line is that it’s all about money for most involved in a barbaric display that they actually call a “sport.” If you’ve ever watched an old claiming horse, who at one time was a stakes winner, running for his life at the lower levels medicated out of his mind so he can’t feel the pain, nerved below the ankles, and jacked up on Lasix so the capillaries in his nostrils won’t bleed, you might think twice. The general public doesn’t know these things, and romanticizes a sport that is actually no more than a Roman circus with a different cast. We all have visions of the great Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones. But why did the latter two retire to stud at three? Because of injuries that were leading up to a fatal breakdown that were caught before the damage was done. It is a here today/gone tomorrow industry that chews up the participants. I rescued one of the horses that I bred who was actually in the hands of a well-known trainer. I drove from KY to Texas to retrieve him since he was of no further use to the owner. He had a slab fracture to the knee, torn ligaments in both ankles in the fore, and a torn stifle in the rear. He was headed for the stockyards, and probably slaughter, if I had not intervened. There is no martyrdom here, just responsiblity. The horse, raced into the ground for five years, is now a pasture ornament in my field. Barbaro was an amazing horse. Prior to his demise I followed his career due to the sheer courage and heart that this great horse possessed. In one woman’s opinion, there are few in the horse industry who are worthy to stand in his shadow, but they sure are lining up now that he’s gone.

  4. Scrngr

    Sandy: I’m sure professional cockfighting improves the breed too, weeding out the weak, but betting on them is unlawful for a reason. And can you imagine giant television screens for betting on a dog show? Improving the breed is not a justification for the enormous horse-racing betting industry.

    I’m not averse to competition, what I think the problem is that too many people, not just the owners, but a lot of the general public, are treating horses less like animals and more like slot machines. Betting admits it’s a gamble – and where there’s huge amounts of money involved, the people will have a much bigger eye for the money than for whatever’s making it for them.

    The giant prizes and breeding fees don’t help, either. Raising a racehorse is not cheap, and there’s going to be a large pressure to get some ‘return on that investment’ as soon as possible. Prize money, and the stud fees, don’t come in until they’ve won a few times, so the younger they run, the more they can make, and sooner. It’s a business, remember, and for some vastly profitable.

    I suppose it would be beating a dead horse to point out that horses have been deliberately injured so someone could win a bet. I’m sure THAT improves the breed no end.

    In my opinion, if the betting went away, the sport would remain, and get a lot more humane in the process.