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Reflection: Mixed Emotions on the Racing Industry

Keeneland’s Training Track // Photo Credit: Patrycja Szpyra

This is a reflective piece for my EQM 305 course. It’s serving double duty as well, hence it’s departure from my usual norm for topics.

In the course of this class and after sitting through subsequent lectures, I’ve realized that the equine world in general has truly done a lot to improve since the “old world” of treating horses like lesser beings. Is everyone a better person in this day and age? No. Unfortunately, humanity does have the odd one out that is a complete nut job and can’t be bothered to follow or recognize ethical/legal behavior.

It happens.

However, as I’ve done research into the possibility of a single governing body for the industry and background on transparency in the racing world, it’s become clear that there is still a lot to do if the sport wants to be more than a niche interest. As in many situations, the racing industry and equine industry at large will be asked to change and do things that might be uncomfortable to admit fault over. As an example, the current public feeling about whip use in racing: it won’t matter how much explanation and safety demonstrations are done when most of the public is so far removed from an agricultural background that almost all non-animal people see whip use as “beating the horse”. There may come a time when the racing industry will have to learn how to live without it, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see that trend spread into other equine sports as well.

This is the hurdle to jump with a technologically advancing world that is making things that seemed like futuristic ideas a reality: appealing to the masses that understand less and less where their food comes from and how agricultural animals are not (and cannot be) treated as pets. But, explain that to a populace that is experiencing an increasing exposure to the miraculous things that advances in science can bring. Once reserved solely for science-fiction works, things like creating vegan burgers that taste and “bleed” like real beef but don’t have an ounce of animal product in them are now possible. Thanks to aquaculture and increasing knowledge on efficient practices, growing huge gardens in the middle of Manhattan via rooftop agriculture has exploded and it’s seen around the world. So, in a modern world so full of ideas on how to always make something better, how do we explain and shape an “old world idea” like a riding whip into something positive?

Personally, I don’t believe we can.

I’ve been a horsewoman my entire life: I’ve ridden, worked with, and showed just about every kind of horse. I grew up in an “old world” family that got thrust into the modern era when they came to America almost 20+ years ago. When it comes to whip usage, I side with the camp that uses it sparingly but I am not going to put myself in danger by not using one to make someone who’s never been on a horse in their life, happy; especially if my riding companion likely needs something to keep his mind from wandering mid-jump. I’ve seen what happens when it does and the rider had no way of getting his attention again. It isn’t pretty. I can understand both sides because I have a foot in both camps, but it’s not that way for me on everything.

I’ve been there when they had to euthanize a pony that was treated like a human and had gotten so used to being “alpha” in his relationship with humans, that he had become too dangerous to even handle. This poor woman thought that she could love and baby him out of his bad habits and she learned the hard way when he bit (and subsequently threw her around) that horses cannot be treated like people. I have allowed the insistent to the contrary to get bullied by horses they were set on babying and then told them exactly why that was happening when they wondered why the horse had no respect for them. Tough love, my friends.

However, all of this experience is not shared by others. Again, most of the population that we (as an industry) are trying to appeal to have little to no experience on a farm. They don’t understand -and after a certain point- don’t want to learn differently. But still, the question lingers: how long will the economic power of horse racing hold it afloat? The greyhounds in Florida are no longer allowed to race after 2020 and many are taking it as a sign of things to come for Thoroughbred racing. I am not in the same boat, considering how much smaller the economic impact greyhound racing has on the economy than Thoroughbreds. Regardless of the money, it does show that the public is becoming more easily swayed by whatever propaganda they see first; this only enforces my earlier thoughts that racing must become a proactive industry.

We cannot wait and rely on money to save us from animal rights activists or ecoterrorists forever. It just won’t work. Now, is the time to start hiring social scientists to figure out how best to address (or not address) certain issues. NOW, is the time to figure out a way to make uniform rules for everything. NOW, is the the time to advertise the heck out of aftercare efforts, what percent of proceeds go where, and start bidding adieu to cheaters.

NOW.

Not a week after a bill is introduced to Congress that will give animal rights organizations free rein to decide how things will work for the racing industry. Never underestimate the loudest and craziest groups: they have ways of getting things to work in their favor. They are not below dirty tactics, and we need to address the pressing issues now before we hand them free PR material. It may read like I’m being an alarmist and I am to some extent, but racing passed over the tv era because “what if people stop coming to the track” and that decision backfired on a historical scale. We cannot be caught with our pants down…again. Thoroughbred racing cannot be a sleeping giant forever.

So, this class has taught me that there is much to do and the importance of educating the populace as much as possible despite the stubborn few that will inevitably refuse to step out of ignorance. Those that do not want to learn cannot be the measure that we use for everyone else. It’s also been a very poignant example of what happens when you sit on your laurels and ride on “good feelings”. If the election cycle didn’t teach anyone anything, than hopefully a class like EQM 305 will be that wake up call against complacency.

The racing industry is a bit like how some of its most famous athletes have been described as: a bicycle. If you stop pedaling, they stop running. If you stop campaigning for a better world, the world will cease to change. You’re going to be exhausted when you get to the finish, but you’ll have a Classic, or a Derby, or a Triple Crown under your belt and you’re not going to lament on how tired you were ten years later when you see that trophy.

Keep pedaling.

3 replies »

  1. This is a great blog. I agree with this. Racing needs to clean up its act, before congress allows the anti racing zealots to do it for them.

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    • Not just cleaning things up but also researching into proper (effective) and proactive marketing efforts in cases like scandals or tragedies like the Saratoga breakdowns a couple years back. Industries with half the economic muscle that racing has pour millions into social science studies on how to market and address problems but the racing industry continues to try and hoof it alone (no pun intended)? That doesn’t make sense to me. I spent an hour trying to find any article about such studies being conducted and found nothing. So, it’s one of two things: 1) I was looking in the wrong places or 2) no such effort has been made.

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