If you, as I, cannot get that horrific image of Eight Belles being put to death at Churchill Downs last weekend out of your head, you can take action to help quell the horror.
All racetracks, not just those in California, must be forced to install new forms of artificial track footing. Softer, artificial footing slows down horses’ times and costs a lot of money. But it also reduces injury. If Churchill Downs, one of the most famous tracks in the country, had artificial rather than dirt footing, Eight Belles might be alive today.
Second, breeders should be immediately banned from breeding thin-boned thoroughbreds. The thinner the bone, the more easily it breaks. Horses with broken or fractured legs don’t always have to be “euthanized” (I prefer the term slaughter, since that’s what it really is).
They’re often killed when owners decline the alternatives: huge veterinary or board bills to keep injured horses standing in hoists for a year or more to allow their bones to heal.
While we’re on the topic of breeding, let’s ban all backyard (amateur) breeding of horses and vastly limit the number of horses professional breeders bring into this world. If fewer horses were bred, fewer would end up going for slaughter.
Third, we should ban the racing of 2- and 3-year-olds so popular on the U.S. track. In Europe, horses are typically raced later, when their “growth plates” (leg bones) are fully formed and they are less prone to injury. Greedy Americans don’t want to spend the money to keep the horse “hanging around” (to wit, not earning money) until they are 4 or 5 years old, and so we race them before their legs are strong enough to handle injury.
Then there’s the cruelty these horses are subjected to while training to race. The routine I am about to explain is used by some, not all, owners. Care varies greatly from farm to farm and trainer to trainer. I have worked with grooms and farriers who came off the track. The stories they tell are sickening. They’ve described how horses are pumped up on “sweet feed” full of processed sugar. Sweet feed in large doses makes horses nervous, violent, even nuts — like kids overdosing on chocolate.
Many horses are forced to live 23-7 in their stalls, except for the hour or so per day when they are exercised. The human equivalent would be tying someone to his or her bed for 23 hours per day, only letting them out to run for an hour. Wouldn’t you go crazy under those circumstances?
Many track horses are never turned out in pasture or on grass. Horses need large grass pastures to run around. They are herd animals and should be turned out in groups so they can socialize with other horses. Owners and trainers fear horses will get kicked or injured in a group turnout. But an isolated horse is like an isolated human: miserable. Horse lovers should ban together to make equine abuse at the track a federal felony, and get Congress to fund enough inspectors to keep abusers in check.
While these conditions are bad enough, I have heard stories about sadistic treatment by especially vicious trainers that make your gut spin. One farrier told me he watched while a trainer hobbled a horse (chained together his front and hind feet so he couldn’t move), pushed him to the ground and placed him under a tarp in the 90-degree heat. This, so he could break the colt’s spirit, because the horse was proving difficult to train. Such abusers should be thrown in jail and banned from the sport.
Our society needs to pull back the curtain of secrecy that covers up unforgivable things we allow to happen to horses, at the track and elsewhere. Until animal abuse is taken seriously, we have no right to call ourselves civilized or compassionate.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)