The Frontal Cortex

Barbaro, Cruelty and Horse Racing

For some reason, I find the death of Barbaro rather upsetting. The first two horse races I’ve ever watched on television were his victory at the Kentucky Derby and his injury at the Preakness. I’ve since followed his medical travails with baited breath, rooting for his left foot, then his right foot, and then his left foot.

That said, some of this Barbaro commentary is just silly. This morning, while listening to NPR and watching the news, I’ve heard Barbaro being compared to Mozart, Beethoven and Muhammad Ali. His graceful movements are “like a symphony”. He ran so beautifully “because he just loved to run”.

Let’s not get carried away. Barbaro ran because he was being hit with a stick. We’ve bred racing horses to the natural limits of their body, so that the bones in their elegant legs are too fragile for their muscular mass. One false step and every bone is shattered, which usually means automatic euthanization. In other words, thoroughbred horses are freaks of nature – like gigantic chihuahuas – and not the epitome of natural design.

I can only hope that Barbaro’s demise leads us to treat all horses – and not just winners of the Kentucky Derby – with more humanity. We should stop pushing the envelope of equine design. We should stop turning second-rate racing horses into dog food. And we should stop racing animals for sport.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin W. Parker
    January 30, 2007

    Let’s not get carried away. Barbaro ran because he was being hit with a stick.

    Why don’t we learn a little bit about horse racing before we pontificate? Most of your points are good, but there are horses that do indeed love to run, and Barbaro was one of them.

    Another was horse racing’s last great tragedy, Ruffian, who had to be euthanized after she ran 50 yards on an already shattered leg because she wouldn’t give up the race despite her jockey’s best efforts to stop her.

  2. #2 Scott Belyea
    January 30, 2007

    We should stop pushing the envelope of equine design. We should stop turning second-rate racing horses into dog food. And we should stop racing animals for sport.

    Well, you can make a case for this. However, the inevitable outcome that is often left unstated is that this type of horse will cease to exist.

    It’s similar to the animal-rights “we shouldn’t use pigs (or chickens or whatever) for food.” By all means, make the case … but be realistic enough to recognize the consequences.

  3. #3 coturnix
    January 30, 2007

    Two- and three-year olds are just too immature and that is part of the problem. They get started with vigorous training (and pharmaceuticals to bulk their muscles) when they are too young. If 2-y-o races were banned, if 3-y-o races were done the way 2-y-o races are done today (relatively easy, short distances, relatively small money), and the big races are reserved for 4-y-olds and up, there would be much less injuries on the racetrack.

    Have you seen a full-grown Thoroughbred? They can be large, massive horses, quite unlike the youngsters we see on TV racing. Many Thoroughbreds have no health problems, when fully mature, at the gruelling Olympic disciplines of show-jumping and 3-day Eventing (the latter having some really nasty cross-country jumps). When older, many of them are quite placid horses as well and a joy to ride (they do not need constant pushing and prodding like many warm-bloods do). They are extremely intelligent and much easier to train than the massive European warmbloods.

  4. #4 The Ridger
    January 30, 2007

    Thoroughbred racing (and to a lesser extent Quarterhorse racing) is purely money-driven. The breed doesn’t improve much; there’s no way to judge what characteristics can be inherited. Tbred breeders talk about “catching lightning in a bottle”, and they overbreed great stallions when they first come out because it’s so very likely that in four years people will see that this horse is like the rest. Many mares are never raced; colts are raced too young and then retired to stud.

    As Coturnix says, adult Tbreds aren’t anything like as fragile as the young horses at the races. I don’t (well, didn’t) even get on a horse till it’s over three – really over three, not just past the second Jan 1 of its life – let alone work it hard. Their legs aren’t finished developing, the bones are still separate, and they’re too prone to injury. But waiting till they’re four or five eats into that profit.

    Also, while Barbaro was “hit with a stick” it is a fact that many horses are competitive and run without being hit. With many great champions the stick is used as a cue only. Which is not to say that some horses aren’t punished too hard (though a relaxation of the rules which punish a jockey for “not trying to win” even though his horse is hopeless outclassed might help ameliorate that problem).

    But the bottom line is that horse-racing fans don’t love horses; they may “love horses” in some abstract notion, but horse racing as it’s practiced in this country, and most if not all others probably, isn’t kind to the horses. The true bottom line is the betting.

  5. #5 Jamie A. Stine
    January 30, 2007

    While I tend to agree with you that horse racing can be cruel (as can many many “sports” that humans subject animals to), I think that you need to spend some time at a Thoroughbred breeding facility before you say “he was running because he was being hit with a stick.” Edgar Prado actually VERY rarely used the whip on Barbaro, but that is neither here nor there. If you were to visit a Thoroughbred breeding facility and look in any of the pastures, mares with foals, weanlings, and yearlings (the older horses aren’t on the farm, typically), you’d see horses running for the joy of running. Weanlings and yearlings race each other for fun, and it’s beautiful to watch.

    Oh, and Coturnix — I’m a dressage rider and trainer, and while i tend to agree with you that warmbloods are not as easy to train, they DO tend to have more expressive gaits for the upper levels. =) You can’t beat a nice TB as an event horse at the top levels though — Look at the O’Connors!

  6. #6 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    January 30, 2007

    That said, some of this Barbaro commentary is just silly.

    This was my favorite bit of Barbaro coverage:
    Barbaro fans send colt Christmas prayers


    The devoted fans of Barbaro see the colt’s recovery as a wonder that trumps even the “Miracle on 34th Street,” and this holiday season they want to celebrate — no matter how much the colt’s surgeon insists the recovery is all about science.

    Dean Richardson of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center also is positive about the colt’s recovery. The chief surgeon just doesn’t see it as anything more than good medicine.

    It’s not a miracle. It’s anything but that,” he said, sitting next to a Christmas tree topped with a stuffed Barbaro.

    “Some of the Barbaro fans aren’t going to like that, perhaps. I’m a scientist, I’m a doctor. I’m not a faith healer or a religious person. I believe in the application in science and I think nothing that’s happened to him is particularly miraculous.

  7. #7 cephyn
    January 30, 2007

    While I don’t really like the sport of horse racing, since the animals are basically abused (training, racing too early, drugs), these horses DO love to run. Horses, in general, are runners. You put a herd of horses out there and they will run. And it is a gorgeous sight, they really are beautiful animals. Many horses, especially racing bred horses, will run with very little whipping. And often the whipping really isn’t all that painful to them. They have pretty thick hide, and a little stick isn’t going to hurt them if used properly.

    Go up to Alaska and check out the sled dog facilities. These dogs are well cared for, from birth. They’re bred to be strong, obedient, and friendly. And they LOVE to run. They LOVE to pull a sled. You put that harness on them and they start just raring to go. They will cry and whine until you tell them to run. And they aren’t being whipped whatsoever. Some animals are just born to run.

  8. #8 The Ridger
    January 30, 2007

    How long before someone claims that Dean Richardson’s lack of faith and denial of Barbaro’s miracle is what killed the horse?

  9. #9 coturnix
    January 30, 2007

    Yes, TB horses do love to run. That’s what they are bred for. Some horses love to jump. My second one did, even as a foal. Jumping over whatever (a shrub, a bucket, whatever) is in his paddock over and over again for sheer pleasure.

    And yes, for dressage, give me a Holstein or a Hanoverian and I’ll put the neccessary years into its schooling – it is worth it!

  10. #10 The Ridger
    January 30, 2007

    Yes, some do love to jump. We had a blind horse at our barn once who loved jumping. Clearly, he could no longer do it on his own – except in the home field, where he would jump the fence between the two halves. But he loved to hunt*, and fretted if no one took him out.

    * I should point out, probably, that by “hunt” I mean “cross country or point-to-point”, not actually chasing animals.

  11. #11 LidFlipper
    December 7, 2009

    The well-worn rhetoric that stopping animal abuse will inevitably lead to a disappearance of that animal is wickedly stupid. Do you think that if thousands of dogs weren’t inbred, abused and destroyed every year that dogs would cease to become pets? The same can be applied to horses, as rich race horse owners are not the only flavor of equine lover. This is less obvious with livestock, and still not a good reason not to stop the torture of animals for blood sport.