I’ve had to take a hiatus from writing this blog for the last few months because once again my best laid plans have gone astray. Instead of finally having time to concentrate on projects like this since I’ve entered what most folks would consider their retirement years, I have had to return to being a fulltime horse rescuer. I glibly announced almost a year ago that Horse Harbor Foundation was well on a path that would take its work into a future without me in it, a decision spurred on by the fact that I was turning 70 in 2014 and had no delusions about immortality. However, the young woman I had been counting on to eventually take over my work here, a former riding student now in her thirties, decided after six months that the life of a fulltime horse rescuer was not for her. Although disappointed, I fully understand her decision. Although she had been one of my most dedicated volunteers at the sanctuary as a high school student, truly loves horses and even worked with them as an adult, somehow she expected she could work a 40-hour week as a horse rescuer and continue her leisure time activities like a normal person.
Heck, I thought she knew before she got here that horse rescuers are not normal people. Horse rescue isn’t a job or a career, it’s a calling. A calling that completely dictates your lifestyle. Maybe that’s why there are only between 600 and 700 of us nationwide who do this fulltime. And fulltime is somewhat misleading, since the majority of us still have at least part-time jobs on the side. I’m working on becoming the world’s oldest part-time bus driver, even though I’ve been on Social Security for several years. That means “normal work weeks” aren’t even in our vernacular. Try 80-to-100 hour weeks and you’re much more in the ballpark. And since a lot of horse problems occur at night and there are no days off, we really are talking about 24/7. Maybe we are, as she said to me toward the end “crazy” to dedicate the effort, hours and emotion we do to our work, usually for very little or no financial compensation and an almost complete loss of any time for personal activities. The daily workload of taking care of a herd of physically compromised, elderly and otherwise challenged horses, going out on rescue calls and then diving into the job of rehabbing and often retraining the horses you save is pretty much a 24/7 proposition in itself. The needs of the horses dictate your life and you have to become accustomed to waking up each day and dealing with what is in front of you, not whatever you might want to do. Trying to make any kind of a daily schedule is usually futile, let alone having time for leisure activities, because the horses will almost always change any plans you might make.
Then there’s the never ending job of keeping your sanctuary safe, healthy and in good repair. Confined horses are extremely destructive by nature, and your stalls, paddocks and pasture fencing suffer constant abuse from these active, curious and playful animals. Horses can’t just stand around like cows, sheep and other farm animals minding their own business or chewing their cuds. They’re easily bored and boredom leads to damage. Add in the factor that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and repair and maintenance is a never ending chore. Then there’s the daily mucking. Every full sized horse produces between 40 and 50 pounds of manure per day, 365 days a year. That comes out to over 16,000 lbs. per horse per year, or half a ton a day that has to be cleaned out of our 20-stall main barn alone here at Horse Harbor each and every day, stored in a sanitary manner and trucked off the property each month because we don’t have enough pasture to spread it on.
And if you’re going to be a horse rescuer, you’ll need to learn enough veterinary medicine to at least qualify as an equine vet tech. Horses are very social animals, but their society tends to be not only playful but combative at times…particularly at feeding time. Bites, kicks and other injuries are an almost daily occurrence, and if you can’t afford to have a real vet come out to deal with every minor wound or ailment, you better know how to treat them yourself. The very basics include minor wound first aid, treating early colic, worming, sheath cleaning, dealing with early thrush cases and administering a variety of medications in various forms, including at least intermuscular vaccinations.
Then there’s the job of volunteer management. Most horse rescue sanctuaries can’t operate without volunteers, but keeping a group of people you don’t pay on task is a huge task in itself. In our case this is even more challenging because most of ours are the teenage riding students in our education program. These are great kids, but they are kids and putting tools back where they belong is apparently a learned behavior that comes later in life. A typical repair job at the sanctuary takes about two hours. An hour and a half to find the right tools that were left wherever they were used last, and a half hour to make the actual repair.
Then there are the hours you must dedicate to bringing in enough money to keep your rescue afloat and do your work. This is almost a full time occupation by itself. As nonprofit organizations we depend upon charitable donations, grants and other fundraising activities to operate and working on these eats up huge blocks of time and energy. So much in fact that, to our frustration, it diminishes our actual time helping horses. I’ve always said that horse rescue is an easy way to make a small fortune…as long as you start off with a large fortune. Very few of us do and we soon discover that fundraising usually consumes more time than we ever imagined and detracts dramatically from the work we set out to do, rescue and care for at-risk horses. Most of us who go into this work do so because of our love for these magnificent animals and some idyllic vision of the great good we are going to do. We had no idea we were going to have to become public relation experts along the way. In fact, it is the fundraising aspect of this work that often drives many good horse rescuers out of it. Some of the very best sooner or later give up their nonprofit work and turn to other ways of helping horses. They haven’t lost their love of horses, but the begging for money aspect of the job eventually wears them down. A board of directors committed to your mission and including the talent to both fundraise and handle the myriad of administrative responsibilities of running a nonprofit organization will make your life a lot easier, and give you more time to dedicate your own efforts to the horses.
And finally, although the sense of accomplishment we experience by rescuing a badly neglected horse, spending weeks or sometimes months nursing it back to health, letting it know it is now not only safe but cherished, then watch it recover and begin to enjoy its life under our care is beyond any reward I have ever experienced in the corporate world, including monetarily, there’s a heavy downside also. The one aspect of this work that we probably don’t anticipate (I know I didn’t) when we start and are thinking only about saving horses, is the heartbreak of losing them. Horse Harbor is one of the very few larger all-breed equine sanctuaries in the country that does not adopt out the horses it rescues, but provides them with a lifelong home. That means we must eventually say goodbye to and grieve each and every one we take in. I’ve never regretted our decision many years ago to do it this way, but the price we pay emotionally is a heavy one. We only accept horses here with no other options for survival and then strive to provide them with the absolutely finest care possible for the remainder of their lives. Our promise to each horse arriving is that we will make sure the final years of its life will be their best, and we are usually able to do just that. The problem is that every horse then becomes a beloved member of our family in the process and when their time to cross the Rainbow Bridge arrives, as it must for each of them, we must say goodbye to a dear friend. Sadly, determining when it is time for is usually a decision we have to make for them. In the permanent section of this blog titled “What Would The Horse Say”, I describe this process and how hard it is. If it ever gets easy it is time to stop doing this work because we will have lost the most important thing a true horse rescuer must possess—COMPASSION.
Maybe it was fate that the day my potential successor arrived last May, we had just had to let one of our elderly horses go the night before, and her first experience here on the sanctuary was watching me bury and say goodbye to one of our family members. I’ve had to do this over forty times in the 21 years I’ve been rescuing horses, and I still cry like a baby each time. If you think this is an unseemly thing for a 70-year-old man to do, you just don’t understand the heart of an animal rescuer. Maybe it was that bad start that made it so things didn’t work out. So where do we go from here? We keep working on transitioning Horse Harbor into the future, that’s what. The stark reality is that many of the horses here now will outlive me and that promise we made on the day each arrived will be kept. It turns out that one of our newer adult volunteers has long dreamed of being a horse rescuer herself, and she is now being given the opportunity to learn the job. Like I said, horse rescuers are born not made.
I’m not the only horse rescuer trying to make sure his or her work goes after we’re no longer here. Five of my closest friends and colleagues are going through the exact same thing now, one actually having to fight off a premature takeover attempt of her sanctuary by the person she thought might be the right one to replace her. Two have been looking for a successor for well a year now and so far the right person has not appeared. The remaining two have simply given up and are in the process of closing down their nonprofit sanctuaries by placing their remaining horses in new homes. It seems that getting into this work responsibly is a lot easier than getting out of it.
Remembering that my advice and opinions are probably worth exactly what I charge for them, I want to make a suggestion to those doing this work now and those considering it. If you are already rescuing horses and want your work to go on when you’re no longer here, start planning now for that future and looking for the right person to carry on, no matter what your age. That’s what it is truly about, finding the right person, one as “crazy” as we are.
One of my dearest friends in this work passed away unexpectedly a few years back, and although I did my best from afar to help her Board and volunteers keep her sanctuary going, the final result was that many of her rescued horses had to be euthanized prematurely. That’s because she rescued the same kind of horses we do, those that nobody else wants. If you are considering starting your own horse rescue, my best advice is to find a legitimate (there are too many that aren’t) existing nonprofit sanctuary and volunteer there for as long as possible to learn what this work is really about. Your expectations about horse rescue might not match the reality, and there is nothing worse than good intentions gone wrong. The horses you try to save might well end up in worse straits than they are now if you are not truly prepared to take on the huge responsibility this work entails. There’s a reason there are so few of us who rescue horses do so successfully for any length of time. Maybe the first question to ask yourself is, “Am I really crazy enough to do this?” I hope you are. North America’s horses have never needed us more.
By Allen Warren
Over the years I’ve heard far too many things stated as absolute truth about horses that couldn’t be further from same. Paraphrasing that old cowboy poet and rope twirling expert Will Rodgers, “It ain’t what a person knows that’s dangerous, it’s what a person knows that ain’t so.” This is nowhere more evident than in the case of horses and how they are all too often perceived in today’s world. When I started this blog it never occurred to me that I would expend a lot of time debunking myths that have grown up around horses since they started fading from everyday life in our society a century or so ago, but this seems to be a direction I have taken of late. Although I wasn’t around then, I did grow up in a part of the country where the horse and mule still played a very important role in the economy back in the fifties and early sixties, and was blessed to be allowed into his world by a fine old Southern master horsemen and trainer whose lifetime did span the actual era when horses were essential to almost every aspect of daily life in America until well after the age of the horseless carriage took over their role. I spent virtually every day I wasn’t in school from the age of five or six until I went off to college with him, and what he taught me was not based on theory or opinion, but firsthand knowledge and experience passed down through generations of horsemen before him.
What got me started on this line of thought is that prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby I got a call from a national network television reporter in New York, who was researching a story about drug use and abuse in Thoroughbred racing. I asked her why in the world she was asking an all-breed horse rescuer in Washington State for this information instead of a pure OTTB rescuer, but it turns out those good folks couldn’t afford to go on record with her because so much of their funding requires them to stay in the good graces of the Thoroughbred racing industry. I was able to steer the reporter in a direction where she got some good info, quotes and footage about the issue from a courageous friend and colleague of mine who specializes in OTTBs, but it was something else that came up in our conversation that struck a chord for this article. While I was telling the reporter what we do here at Horse Harbor, with equine assisted therapy being a major part of our mission, she expressed surprise that we use several of our rescued former track Thoroughbreds for this work, saying she had been told over and over again by the racing people that their horses were far too high spirited for this gentle activity.
I’m going to keep the verbiage to a minimum in this article and use pictures to refute this misinformation. Let’s start with the photo below of the finest equine therapy horse we’ve ever had and her special friend Olivia, a long time special needs student here at Horse Harbor.
Satin Sheets had a respectable racing career before she went the way of so many track horses, bouncing from owner to owner and being used for everything from jumping to trail riding. She came to us in her mid twenties after our local animal control authority seized both her and an even older companion OTTB, Tom Boy, from horrible neglect but were unable to rehome them. If Satin was our best ever, Tom Boy was a close second and although they have both gone on to greener pastures after many happy years at our lifelong sanctuary, they will never be forgotten. And they were proceeded by a number of other OTTBs who brought joy and enrichment to the lives of young people with their own challenges, including Honey, Chevy and Ethel.
Our current group of therapy horses includes Grace, Rain and Monday, all Thoroughbreds, and we are currently retraining Wilson, still another, to join this group. The pictures below speak far louder than any words I could string together about their aptitude and attitude for this work.
Here’s Olivia again, this time up on Grace.
Chrissie does groundwork with Rain
Jennifer shows off her form on Monday
The bottom line in all this is that no matter what the commercial equine industry and private owners want to claim about their breeds having certain universal personality traits, every horse is just as unique an individual as every human, and its personality is based entirely upon its own individual disposition, not its bloodline.
Just as it is untrue that every Irishman, Italian, Frenchman, whatever, share the same personality traits just because of their country of origin, it is also simply not true to claim that certain breeds of horses all share the same traits. In over 60 years of working with horses, the last 20 plus operating an all-breed equine rescue sanctuary and living with them 24/7, I have experienced about every breed of horse in America up close and personal. Among these have been Arabians as unflappable as Haflingers, Thoroughbreds as calm and steady as Clydesdales as these photos prove, Quarter Horses as spooky as wild deer, Appys who prance and dance like gaited horses and the list goes on. I’ve featured Thoroughbreds in this article because the type casting offered by the racing industry prevents many of those who would be ideal for equine therapy from being given this opportunity at life after racing, but there are many other breeds that could fill a growing demand in this expanding field also if the commercial equine industry didn’t callously dump them at auction for slaughter. I know this for a fact because our current therapy group includes two Arabians, a Mustang, a Paint, two Quarter Horses and a Tennessee Walker in addition to the three Thoroughbreds shown above. Thoroughbreds account for an inordinate percentage of horses sentenced to the horrible death of equine slaughter. Not only are many of the OTTBS and TB broodmares being shipped to the Canadian and Mexican slaughterhouses well suited for therapy work by disposition, but they would also be in high demand because of their size and strength in a field where many of our students are weight challenged.
So what would a horse say about all this if it could talk? I expect it would be, “Don’t judge me by my breed any more than you would judge a book by its cover or a person by his skin color. I just might be exactly the horse you’re looking for, no matter what your equine interest.”
By Allen Warren
I often wonder what my old mentor, an Eastern Carolina master horseman named Peyton Randolph, would think if he were still alive to see the plethora of people traveling around the North American landscape today calling themselves “horse whisperers” and charging big bucks to horse owners having problems with their animals, by convincing them these can be corrected in one or even two or three-day clinics by a revolutionary new type of training. Although Mr. Peyton trained horses with the same humane philosophy, it was before most of these guys and gals were even born and his word for it was “gentling”. But more about the word “whispering” in a bit. More importantly, Mr. Peyton never told anyone there was a quick fix for a problem horse, and he certainly never pretended that he could teach what he did to relatively inexperienced horse owners. He took the horse in at his stable and spent whatever time was necessary to correct the problem before returning it to its owner, sometimes several months. In the years I apprenticed by his side, I never heard him raise his voice or strike a horse, but I never saw him whisper to one either.
Horse whispering and the alternative description “natural horsemanship”, which is just as misleading, have become a traveling roadshow today and the most successful practitioners are virtual rock stars; peddling books, videos, CDs and other memorabilia such as whips and halters to their admiring fans. Some have become so well known that most people today think this philosophy of horse training was invented by people like John Lyons, Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, Buck Brannaman and my all-time favorite, a guy who calls himself Pony Boy. Now I’m not knocking these guys as horsemen because most are very good at what they do, although the one who claims he “listens” to horses bothers me a bit. Horses can’t talk. If he really means “observes” horses, it would make more sense because they communicate with body language. Not only are they fine horsemen, they’ve discovered how to get rich from their talent, so maybe I’m a little jealous because I didn’t figure that out also. Instead I turned to horse rescue, which is also a great way to make a small fortune—as long as you start off with a large one that is.
My own experience with today’s fad came a few years back when I was contacted by a horse owner who had attended one of these clinics with her horse, but when she got home and tried it herself it just wasn’t working. I invited her to bring her horse to my barn so I could assess it and she showed up with a nice little Arab mare who was six years old. In discussing the problem with lady, it turned out that she had ridden as a youngster and purchasing this horse the year before in middle age had fulfilled a lifelong dream. She had bought the horse already well trained, but when she tried riding her at home the animal became so spooky that she was now afraid to get on her. The so-called horse whisperer whose clinic she attended took the horse into a round ring and within a few minutes achieved what he called joining up, after which the mare followed him around like a puppy. He then invited the owner into the ring and soon had the horse obediently following her also. However, when this lady got the horse home and tried round ringing it herself as she’d been taught, she told me the horse refused to submit and after 45 minutes actually collapsed from fatigue. I asked her what she meant by submit, and she said the trainer told her the horse would drop its head and make a chewing motion with its mouth when it was ready. I took the little mare into my own round ring and within about 30 seconds saw that she was immediately ready to come to me by the look in her eyes. I dropped my throw rope, walked up to her and she stuck to me like glue, eager to see what I wanted her to do next. Her owner was flabbergasted, saying, “But her head never dropped!” I explained that horses are like people, each is a unique individual and have their own mannerisms. You have to know how to read each animal, not go by some prescribed formula. And the only way to learn to do that is spend a lot of years studying horses. When I saddled the horse and rode it both around the arena and then out onto the grounds, this little mare showed no indication of spookiness whatsoever, trusting me to take care of her and willingly doing whatever I asked of her. The problem, of course, was not the horse, but the owner’s fear and uncertainty transmitted to the horse. Horses trained humanely must trust their riders in order to submit to their will, and that is the goal of groundwork such as the round ring. However, this can only be achieved if the person doing this work is competent. My recommendation to this owner was not more training for her horse, but for herself. This has been the case far too many times as I’ve tried to help owners having problems with their horses over the years. They are blaming their horses for their own lack of training and experience. As that great horse trainer with the best name I’ve ever heard for the profession, Mary Twelveponies, so succinctly wrote in her 1982 book THERE ARE NO PROBLEM HORSES, ONLY PROBLEM RIDERS, “It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but is absolutely true—if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong.” What real horsemen practicing gentle training do first is gain the animal’s trust. A horse that feels you will take care of it will do pretty much anything you ask of it. If it you don’t have confidence in yourself, the horse can’t have confidence in you and will try to take control itself.
Before getting into and hopefully debunking the myth that this so-called horse whispering business is anything new and different than what has been practiced by true horsemen around the world for centuries, let me deal with the term itself. As long as horses have labored in behalf of humans, thousands of years, there have been trainers with a special ability to communicate with them in a manner that gets results where others who depend upon technique alone cannot. There is nothing magical about this ability, it derives from a deep knowledge of the nature of horses themselves, their basic instincts and how they perceive and react to stimuli. Essentially these are trainers who also understand that every horse is a unique individual creature with a mind and emotions of its own and must be treated as such to get the best results. If those who possess this ability have one other thing in common, it is usually a life time spent around horses, hence why so many today were brought up on farms or ranches. In other words they have the one thing you cannot teach anyone else, vast experience.
There have been trainers like this around as long as men have worked with horses. From the beginning some of these tried to attach some kind of mysticism to their craft, because it was how they made living and it made their services more valuable if horse owners thought what they did was somehow magical. One of these was an Irish horse trainer named Daniel Sullivan, who died in 1810. The details about Sullivan’s work are clouded by time and the fact he was very secretive about it, but one thing that is known is that when he started working with a horse he would stand very close to its head and appear to be whispering into its ear. Hence Sullivan became known as The Horse Whisperer by those who employed him to work with their animals, and everyone utilizing that term today owes their title to him. What they might not be too happy to learn is that Sullivan’s con was his claim that what he whispered to a horse was in a secret language which only he possessed. After going through this routine, he would then take the animal off alone somewhere out of sight, and after a time they would return with the previously obstinate horse now appearing completely docile. We can only surmise what old Whispering Dan did to the horse when they were alone, but like so many practitioners of today’s so-called art, it was important for him to move on down the road as quickly as possible, because the animal soon reverted to its old ways. Bottom line, you cannot correct bad habits or other major problems in horses quickly. Changing behavior requires time and patience if it is to be done in a truly humane manner.
So how did we start calling humane horse training “whispering” over 200 years after Sullivan’s death? Since Nicholas Evans is English and Sullivan did a lot of his work and worked his con in that country, maybe the author had heard the term before writing his popular book, THE HORSE WHISPERER, published in the l995 and later made into a movie starring Robert Redford. Or maybe he just liked the way the phrase sounded for a title. Whichever, that is how it became the buzz name for this philosophy today, despite the fact that no one has ever accomplished one thing with a horse by whispering in its ear other than probably annoying the heck out of it. Horses do not understand words, no matter how softly or loudly they are spoken. They read and respond to our body language, just as they read each other, to determine our intent and whether we are a threat or can be trusted, and to the tone of our voices not what we say. Two body language indicators are crucial for a successful humane horse trainer. These are confidence and nonthreatening demeanor. So the term “whisperer” is silly as far as I’m concerned. So is the popular alternative, “natural horsemanship”. There is nothing natural about training or riding horses. Think about it. If nature had intended for us humans to sit astride these animals, wouldn’t at least one and probably both of us be shaped differently?
Another thing I find interesting is that most of today’s compassionate horse trainers attribute the origin of their craft to two brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance. The Dorrances, born and raised on an Oregon cattle ranch, pioneered the philosophy of communicating, not manipulating in horse training back in the early 1900s in the western United States and Canada, as opposed to breaking their spirit with whip and spur. This was passed along and popularized by their disciple Ray Hunt, who passed away himself only a few years ago. Some of the practitioners today seem to believe the Dorrances invented a radical new approach to working with horses. My hat is off to them for showing my adoptive region what the rest of the world already knew, but nothing could be further from the truth. This philosophy was first described in writing well over 2,000 years ago by the Greek cavalry general Xenophon (430 to 354 BC) in his book THE ART OF HORSEMANSHIP, in which he emphasizes reassurance over punishment in the training of horses. And even Xenophon didn’t claim to invent anything he wrote about, referring to the teaching of an earlier master horseman named Simon in his book. The point he emphasizes again and again is that horses are fear-driven animals and that, “Compulsion and blows inspire only the more fear.” Think about that in terms of Old West cowboys bucking out green horses, lashing them with quirts and raking them with sharp rowel spurs to break their spirits. No wonder the Dorrances’ methods were considered revolutionary here in the West, even if they had been practiced in other parts of the United States and world throughout history. I think horses were simply valued less in a part of the country where wild horses roamed free for the catching.
The ultimate bible for me on horse training, and riding for that matter, is Col. Alois Podhajsky’s THE COMPLETE TRAINING OF HORSE AND RIDER, originally published in German in 1965 and translated to English in 1967. Col. Podhajsky like Xenophon did not claim to have invented anything he passed along in this fabulous book. He instead shared the knowledge and experience of generations of master horsemen before him who worked to create a true partnership with these magnificent animals, not subdue them. He writes, “The first condition is absolute confidence of the horse in his rider who, by systematic work, must develop the abilities of his horse to make him supple and obedient.” And, “The thoroughness of the training should never be sacrificed to the temptation to gain results too quickly.”
I want to make it clear that nothing I’ve said here is intended to disparage the message today’s so-called horse whisperers are teaching, that a humane and gentle approach to training or correcting harmful equine behavior is not only the best, but in my opinion, the only way to make your horse into a willing partner and not a beast of burden…and I can guarantee you it would be Sam’s also. My problem is with those who pretend there is some kind of mystical or special talent to this philosophy. If you want to consider yourself a horse whisperer, be prepared to spend years of hard work learning everything you can about the nature of horses by working with them firsthand. Me, I’m perfectly content just calling myself a horseman, period. It’s all I really ever wanted to be.
By Allen Warren
There are certain moments in our lives that are imprinted indelibly upon our memories. We remember exactly where we were, what we were doing and what we were thinking and felt on those days. For those of my generation these include November 22, 1963, when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and July 21, 1969, when millions of Americans stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to watch on live television as Neil Armstrong took his giant step for mankind upon the moon. For many today, it is September 11, 2001, when again we watched on live television in horror and disbelief as hi-jacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers and brought both crumbling to the ground. All too often it is great tragedies that will remain vivid in our memories for the remainder of our lives.
For true horse lovers, there are also tragic dates that will resound in our memories forever. In the past ten years there have been two we will never forget. On May 20, 2006, the magnificent Thoroughbred race horse Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner that year, shattered his right hind leg while running in the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. Despite multiple surgeries for the three broken bones, an attempt to keep him alive to stand at stud, he had to be euthanized in January the following year. Then another great Thoroughbred racer, the filly Eight Belles, died just over a year later on May 3, 2008, while actually running in the Derby itself, collapsing when both front legs shattered just over the finish line after placing second. Her horrific injuries required that she be immediately euthanized right there on the track. Both Barbaro and Eight Belles had been raced as two year olds and were barely three when they died.
For me, there was another horse racing tragedy that remains even more vivid in my mind. It was July 6, 1975, and I was again watching on live TV with millions of other Americans as Ruffian, an undefeated filly, ran in a match race against that year’s Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in New York. Ruffian was a beauty, a dark bay standing 16.2 hands. Not only was she undefeated, she had won her first 10 races at distances from 5.5 furlongs to 1.5 miles by an average of 8 1/3 lengths, setting track records almost every time she ran. She easily won the Filly Triple Crown, now known at the Triple Tiara, and was named the Eclipse Award winner as the outstanding two-year-old filly in 1974. Only one of her track record times has ever been broken to this day and Ruffian was rightfully nicknamed “Queen of the Fillies” by her many fans. Her sire was Bold Ruler, who also fathered the famous Triple Crown winner Secretariat and Lucien Laurin, who trained that famous colt, once said, “As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat.” This female-against-male horse race had received similar media attention to the historic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs two years earlier, so there I was, not even a horse racing fan, glued to my television set to see what the outcome would be. It turned out to be the one of the most heart wrenching things I’ve ever witnessed.
Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure came out of the gate side by side and raced around the track as if they were glued together. Then she began to pull away and there was no question in anyone’s mind who the winner would be. Until suddenly and with no warning her right foreleg simply blew out, flopping all over the place.
Ruffian as a two-year-old in 1974
Jockey Jacinto Vasquez did his best to rein her to a stop, but she just kept running on three legs, covering almost 100 yards before she finally collapsed. That is the picture that will remain in my memory forever, that valiant horse in horrible pain still determined to win the race. Both sesamoid bones in her leg had broken and despite a three-hour operation to try and save her, she thrashed around so much coming out of sedation that she did further damage and was put down. It turns out Ruffian had had two other serious injuries during her brief career, popping a splint while winning the Sorority Stakes and suffering a hairline fracture in her right hind leg during the Spinaway. Despite these warning signs, her owners kept racing her. Media coverage of Ruffian’s death was similar to that of Barbaro and Eight Belles 30 years later, and then as now was soon forgotten as the injuries and deaths of young Thoroughbred race horses continues unabated at tracks across North America. A fact overlooked by those who go to Thoroughbred tracks to bet on and claim to love these magnificent animals is that from 25 to 35 die at every major racing meet from injuries similar to those suffered by Ruffian, Barbaro and Eight Belles, and countless more at smaller venues each year. The vast majority of these come in two-year-old races, the current norm in Thoroughbred racing. There have already been ten deaths due to similar breakdowns already at Saratoga Springs in New York since that meet opened on July 18, three in three days from August 21 through August 23, but those horses are not famous and no one remembers their names. Ruffian is probably remembered today only because she was immortalized first in the song “Stewball” by Joan Baez following her death, and later in a TV movie about her life starring Sam Shepard that aired in 2007 following Barbaro’s tragic breakdown.
New York state equine medical officials have opened an investigation into the recent rash of deaths at Saratoga, but all they really need to do is ask any true horseman what is causing them. These horses are being run while they’re still babies, before they’re mature and their bones are fully developed. What the hell do they expect? And this outrageous and inhumane activity has been going for the past 40 years or so since the moneymen took the sport away from the real horsemen and women. The average retirement age of Thoroughbred race horses today is four, the age when they should be starting their careers not ending them.
I’m not going to go into great detail here about the scientific and medical facts supporting this statement. My colleague and friend Vivian Grant Farrell, founder of The Equine Fund, has already done that in her superb blog Tuesday’s Horse. I refer you to her ongoing series of articles on this topic for more details, but just let me say that politicians don’t have a monopoly on spinning the facts to fit their point of view. If possible, the racing industry and its slave equine veterinarians have even less regard for the truth than they do for the horses who support their lifestyles.
The one lie that those of us who have dedicated our lives to rescuing at-risk horses would laugh at if it wasn’t so sad is that Thoroughbreds mature faster than other horses. A horse is a horse, and as a species they all develop at about the same rate. No matter what the breed, they are not fully mature until about six years of age. They should be at least three before they are even ridden and put into serious training. Thoroughbreds might still be walking when they leave the track, but most of those who survive equine slaughter, the dumping ground for a disproportionate number and whole other topic, are either suffering from arthritis or other spinal, bone and joint problems when we get them later in life. This is the case with far more than any other breed I’ve ever rescued.
It wasn’t always this way. In a future article I’m going to tell you about one of the great ladies of Thoroughbred racing decades ago so you can compare her approach to her horses and racing to those today. One of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed is when I stayed up late one night a few years back to watch a Congressional Hearing on C-Span in which a group of old time breeders and trainers, some of whom had once been famous, testified about the problems facing Thoroughbred racing today. As I recall, the youngest member of this group was 78, and their message to the elected officials on the subcommittee was simple. Thoroughbred racing is no longer controlled by horsemen, but by the corporate interests that run the race tracks and the gambling industry. They said over and over that the interests of the horses have been sacrificed to the bottom line of profit. They begged for Congressional oversight of racing. And as you would expect in today’s political environment, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Not only was I never able to find any coverage of that hearing in either the general or racing media, but of course nothing ever came of it either. As always it seems in our nation’s capital, money trumps justice every time. Guess where the lobbying dollars are coming from on the issues confronting Thoroughbred racing? And, by the way, it’s not any different than Quarter Horse racing or any other equine competitive activity where the almighty dollar is king.
There are two major things destroying horse racing today, the motive of quick return on investment that pushes horses onto the track long before their bodies are developed enough to handle this work and, of course, drug abuse.
Here’s what longtime equine racing veterinarian Dr. Percy Sykes had to say about the former in one of Vivian’s recent articles; “In the old days, you bought your yearlings, you broke them, you castrated them and then you turned them out. You didn’t think about them until the late two year olds and mostly three year olds. The big money was in three-year-old racing. The current owners want two-year-old racing and I think it’s a pity. I think it’s a pity because it certainly does cause the breakdowns of a lot of two-year-olds.”
Add this the fact that the Jockey Club considers January 1st of a horse’s birth year as its birthdate, and you actually have horses racing today that aren’t even two year olds. The simple fact is that at this age horses should be out gallivanting in a pasture as the youngsters they are while they mature, not subjected to the stress and trauma of the training and being raced they actually endure. Quick return on investment is clearly the only thing most owners today care about, not the horses themselves.
As to the drug issue, here is what Dr. Gregory Ferraro, director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California, Davis, wrote in the North American Review back in 1992; “In general, treatments designed to repair a horse’s injuries and to alleviate its suffering are now used to get the animal out onto the track to compete—to force the animal, like a punch drunk fighter, to make it just one more round. Equine veterinary medicine has been misdirected from the art of healing to the craft of portfolio management, and the business of horse racing is in the process of killing the goose with the golden eggs.”
As I mentioned in the beginning, I am not a fan of Thoroughbred racing. Horse racing was not a factor when I grew up in Eastern Carolina back in the fifties and sixties where stock car racing was king, and it wasn’t until that ill-fated day in 1975 when Ruffian went down that I paid much attention to the sport. I haven’t watched a Thoroughbred race since that day, by the way, because it was one too many to last a lifetime for me. I am a huge fan of Thoroughbred horses, however. Although I am not a pure OTTB rescuer like my close friends and colleagues Katie Merwick here in Washington, and Grace Belcuore and Pam Berg down in California, I have been privileged to welcome a total of 26 of these great horses into our resident sanctuary herd over the years. Most have been animal control seizures here in our area, whose physical problems brought about by being raced too young made them unadoptable as they reached their later years and put them at risk.
So what would Thoroughbred horses have to say about the racing industry today? Don’t forget that a recent study revealed that a full 85% of them will suffer at last one serious injury or illness during their track careers, which, along with the fact that they carry over 1,000 pounds on ankles roughly the size of a human’s, will influence their opinions.
“Stop pounding us into the ground when we’re still children just so you can avoid the cost of feeding and caring for us for one more year until we’re physically mature enough to race. After all, you wouldn’t let your son’s Little League coach force him to learn and throw a curve ball just to win games when you know full well he will pay a terrible price in his elbow joint later in life. We feel pain just like you do. Either clean up your so-called sport or stop calling it that and describe it for what it really is, a meat grinder for horses.”
By Allen Warren
The statement above was the punch line in a beer commercial that ran several years ago, featuring a group of cowboys in the Old West sitting around a campfire on a cattle drive and speculating about what the future would bring. Although the copywriter for the commercial was using this truism to make its point about how the quality and taste of beer would improve in years to come, it drives home perhaps the most important reason why horses in modern society face so many challenges today.
Up until the late 1920s, the horse had served as mankind’s principal means of ground transportation; method of hauling passengers, products and materials; partner in the production of food and vehicle of war for thousands of years. The beginning of the end of this relationship in which horses were indispensable to almost every human endeavor that involved traveling occurred on October 1, 1908. On that date a man named Henry Ford snipped a ribbon in Detroit, Michigan, to open his first assembly line automobile manufacturing plant. The age of the horseless carriage developed with blinding speed from that point, spurred on by World War I, and by the l930s horses had virtually become obsolete in terms of the modern world’s dependence upon them. One of the statements Ford made to the media that turning point day for horses in our society was in response to a question from a reporter who asked what he thought the public would think of his new cars. “I think they would have been happier if I could have invented a faster horse,” he answered. If he had, many of our age old partners, companions and servants, horses, would certainly be a lot happier because they would not be in the dire straits they are today.
The car, and other self-propelled machines like tractors, harvesters, buses, trucks, motorcycles and others that quickly came into use provided a lot of attractions in addition to speed for one segment of our population, men. Not only were they faster than horses, they were a lot easier to get started (no grooming, harnessing or saddling up involved), and they also made a lot of noise, which also turned out to be a guy thing. And you could learn to drive them a lot faster also. No years of work to learn how to communicate, train, sit, control or use a horse properly involved, all of which had been necessary if you wanted to go anywhere further and faster than walking yourself before. Just turn the crank, later the key, and fire that sucker right up and off you went billowing dust and a macho roar behind you. And that’s how mankind’s three-thousand-year love affair with the horse came to an abrupt end, literally in a cloud of dust. There are still a few old throwbacks like me who can’t comprehend how you can truly love inanimate hunks of metal called cars, motorcycles and trucks, but I know that many, maybe the majority, of men today actually do. I’ve liked a few of the vehicles I’ve owned over the years, but love them? To me the most important thing my motor vehicles have done is get me to the farm or stable where my horses were.
Not so for womankind, however. And that has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for our horses.
I’ve heard several explanations why so many little girls love horses in today’s world. I’m willing to bet no other animal has been responsible for more books, movies, videos, posters or models purchased, not to mention pictures drawn and poems written, by young girls who dream of owning a horse of their own someday. I first taught horseback riding at a stable in New York in 1964 as a summer job in college, and have again since 1993 when I started my Harmony School of Horsemanship, which morphed into the Horse Harbor Foundation equine rescue sanctuary the following year. I teach a gentle style of riding and partnership with the horse, and at least 98% of my students over those years have been girls or women. The few boys who have come to me to learn this philosophy have been a very special type, compassionate and gentle in nature. I never really questioned this because that was also the case even when I was a youngster myself, learning about and loving horses at a stable in North Carolina back in the fifties and early sixties. All my riding companions were girls then too. It’s just the way it was, and I really didn’t mind so much either as I got older.
Then three years ago when the wonderful hardcover book HORSE SANCTUARY by the writer/photographer team of Allison Milionis and Karen Tweedy-Holmes was in production, I got a call from their New York editor asking me why their stories about virtually every equine rescue operation featured in the book, including mine, seemed to repeat the line, “…the laughter of girls and women resounds throughout the barn”. You’re a man, she asked, so why not more boys and men? Because she was serious, I forwent the standard joke that horses are thousand pound vibrators and gave the matter some real thought. It takes tremendous time and effort to create a true partnership with a horse. It also takes compassion and empathy with another living creature with a mind and emotions of its own to create a trusting relationship. There are yank and kick schools of riding out there, but for those who want to make themselves real horsemen, or should I say real horsewomen in the context of this article, learning the art and science of communicating with a horse, not manipulating it, requires dedication, effort and time. It’s not for those with a need for instant success or gratification in activities they participate in. I’m not going to start a debate here about why girls seem to possess these qualities in far greater quantities than boys, but in my own experience that encompasses a lot of years as a riding teacher, I believe they most definitely do.
Okay ladies, there’s my compliment. Now let’s talk about the problem your continuing love for horses has caused. You’ve been loving them to death. Real death. Death by neglect, abuse, abandonment or the horrors of equine slaughter.
Please read on before you jump straight to the comment section of this blog to start telling me what a horrible person I am or calling me names that are a lot shorter to spell for saying such a thing. I don’t question that you really poured love and affection upon your horse when you owned it. I mean after all, wasn’t that the reason you dreamed, plotted and drove your parents crazy before they bought it for you? However, did you really give any thought about what would happen to your horse after you moved on into adulthood? You grew up in a society where every few years your parents bought a new automobile and sold their old one as a used car to a new owner. So why wouldn’t you think your horse could find a new home after you were done with it also? If you were a typical case, you were about 14 with a couple of years riding lessons behind you —that’s riding lessons, not equine stewardship lessons, by the way—when you finally got your parents to buy that horse of your very own. If you were lucky your family could afford to board the horse at a professional facility where proper care and keep were provided. Then your horse didn’t have had to pay a painful price for your learning curve while you discovered that equines are not like your other pets, but require a great deal of knowledge, skill and hard work on your part to have a good quality of life.
Hopefully you also had some good professional advice in acquiring your horse, finding one that matched your riding skills and temperament. This would have included the proven adage that in a good horse/human relationship, at least one of you needs a lot of experience. That meant the horse you acquired at 14 would have been about the same age, with it being the one with the experience. So you loved your horse like crazy for a few years, were with it almost every day, and riding it either in competition or just for pleasure was about the only thing you cared about. Then the day came when you faced the inevitable. When you were sixteen, your interests began to change. You started driving and boys were no longer yucky. Slowly your time with your horse began to diminish as the natural interests of advancing maturity began to take precedence. Or maybe your horse was one of the lucky ones and it remained the center of your world until it was time for you to leave for college, and time to find it a new home. In either case, your horse is now past its prime, nearing 20 and the age when things begin to get dicey for most of them. You find few people want to buy a horse that age, so you start thinking about giving it away. The simple fact is that far too many people looking for a free horse shouldn’t own a horse in the first place, and the chance of finding a caring and competent owner are slim. And those riding camp operations aren’t the answer either. Sure they take donated horses and you feel good about finding your love a new home, but most of these burn older horses up in their programs and then ship them straight to the auctions and eventual slaughter. There are hundreds of scenarios like this one, but the bottom line is the same. There are far more horses in North America today than there are good homes for them. And there certainly aren’t enough legitimate equine rescue facilities to take them all in when they get older.
That’s the demand side of the horse crisis in North America today. The supply side of the equation is that the commercial horse industry responded to a growing desire for equine ownership during the boom years of the 1990s and bred far more than there were good homes for. For a time during that decade horseback riding was America’s fastest growing recreational activity, and the producers of all breeds were cranking out foals at a feverish rate, caring less about the fact the average buyer would only keep each for a few years of the animal’s life. And for far too many selective breeding for quality went out the window and what my friend John Holland of the Equine Welfare Alliance has labeled “lotto” breeding for quantity only became the trend. One major breeder of Quarter Horses was actually heard to brag at a convention that he was able to get five good foals for every 20 his mares dropped. Pity those remaining 15.
And that’s where we find ourselves today. The average horse will have a total of five owners during its lifetime of roughly 30 years. And the chances are those owners in the final ten or so of those years will not be the type of person you would want your beloved horse to end up with. Of course the continuing love affair by little girls for horses is not the only reason for today’s crisis, even though it was a contributing factor to the number of horses in the U.S. alone almost tripling during the last three decades. Simple greed and irresponsibility by the commercial horse industry that overbred to meet this demand is just as much at fault. Like all industries, the equine breeders are governed by the economic laws of supply and demand. We must find ways to decrease demand, and not throwing older horses away and replacing them with new ones is an important way to do that. So here’s what I think my Sam or any other horse would say to those who already own one or are considering purchasing a horse of their own:
“I won’t live as long as you, but it will be a lot longer than your other pets such as dogs and cats. Even far too many of those end up in serious jeopardy from owners who wouldn’t or couldn’t keep them during their senior years, but for us horses it’s almost the norm. Please don’t plan on taking care of me for just a few years and then sending me off to an uncertain fate at best, and the real likelihood of a horrible and painful death. Make a lifelong commitment to me, just as you would to any other member of your family. I promise that even when I’m elderly I will return your love and do my best every day to make you glad you chose to be my very own human. If you can’t do that, please do not buy me. Thank you.”
Oh okay, so this isn’t really about faster women and stronger whiskey. I turn 70 this year and couldn’t catch a fast woman even if I were still inclined to chase one, not to mention that my beautiful wife wouldn’t be too happy about me even trying. And as to whiskey, I finished off my full share and a couple of other guys’, too, well over 20 years ago and have managed to go without a drop since. So this will only be about older horses and how far too many owners deny themselves the joy retired horses can bring to them.
First, let’s get a different opinion than mine on this subject for comparison. The following appeared in the comment section in the Horse magazine back in April of this year, subsequent to an article titled “How We Can Help Senior Horses Seeking Homes”. The person supplying commentary was someone named Beverly, who might or not be a rider but is definitely not a horse lover. In fact there’s even a chance she’s a commercial breeder trying to shorten the shelf life of her product so she can sell replacements. About what you’d expect from an industry that refers to each year’s new born foals as their “crop”. Anyway, here’s what she had to say:
“It is unrealistic to think we can keep horses fifteen years past their useful life. It is unfair to the owners of horses to stress the economy of their families to keep horses alive a decade or more past their natural life span. Horses should be put down humanely and with love when their useful life is over. To have them drag on to an end where they can no longer kick up their heels and keep up with the herd is not a kindness. We need to help people make this hard decision and provide them with the support they need emotionally to deal with the end of a loved relationship. People who want to feel like heroes can look around and find better uses of their time and money. It is time for the guilt trip to end.”
Thankfully, the other 31 comments on that article dealt mainly with how much happiness older, retired horses have brought to their owners, and our friend Beverly was compelled to jump back in twice in an effort to defend herself from the heat she was taking for her throw-them-away-like-plastic-water-bottles- when-you’re-done-with-them stance on horses.
Since a picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, I’m going to start my side of this discussion off with two photos and save a lot of typing.
That’s me teaching a riding class on my Rosie, the picture having been taken two years ago when she was 27 and I was 67. She’s Sam’s daughter, and we’ve been together since she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1985, hence the name Wild Irish Rose. Neither one of us claims to be a spring chicken, but we aren’t exactly ready to be turned out to pasture yet either, and definitely not ready to be put down. She’s still a load to ride at 29 and somehow I still manage to hang on. And even her momma, who is 35, still has a job. That’s Sam in the photo on bottom playing caregiver for blind Choco, 37, who is the third unsighted horse to live well into his thirties at our sanctuary. Despite his handicap, Choco is obviously also still enjoying his life. And Sam still gets ridden once a week, although at a sedate walk by one of our equine assisted therapy students who refuses to accept the fact that she retired from this work two years ago.
I’ve had quite a bit of experience taking care of elderly horses during my 20 plus years as a horse rescuer operating a lifelong sanctuary. There are 12 in their thirties here now, and in future articles I’ll be passing along some of the things we’ve learned that not only keeps them as healthy as possible, but also provides a true quality of life. In this inaugural article for my new blog, however, I’ll deal only with the way they enhance the quality of my own life.
Sam and I have been together over 33 years since I bought her as a two-year-old right off the range from a Montana ranch in 1981, and she’s my oldest bestest friend. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed her company more during the past 10 years, since we both have gotten a little long in the tooth, than in all the years and miles that I rode her almost daily before. Humans develop more character as they age and so do horses. Not that she wasn’t always a piece of work because the gentle form of training I was taught leaves all the spirit in a horse (my old mentor used to say that if you break a horse, you end up with a broken horse), but Sam has turned into a downright comedian as she’s aged. Seldom does a day go by that she doesn’t have me laughing at some antic she pulls in the barn, whether it’s standing on her manger to try and steal hay from Choco’s stall next door, or picking up her grain bucket and tossing it over the wall into the feed room to let me know she thinks it’s feeding time, no matter what time of the day it happens to be. And she’s pretty sure the only reason I’m on this earth, or any other human is for that matter, is to bring her apple and carrot treats. When anyone opens her stall door to visit with her, she immediately begins searching their pockets for the snack she’s sure they brought. As far as she’s concerned, my title here at Horse Harbor is CCF, not CEO. That stands for chief carrot feeder.
And people aren’t the only ones Sam plays games with. She and blind Choco have been together over 10 years now and when they’re turned out together she has a little bell on her halter so he can keep track of her. At turnout each day she races off ahead of him to the far side of their pasture, then turns and stands, watching him while holding her head absolutely still so he can’t hear her bell. Not knowing where she is, Choco becomes a little insecure and starts spinning in circles trying to hear or smell her. She always waits until he is just on the verge of becoming truly frightened, then shakes her head to ring the bell, and stands patiently while he makes his way to her. Then they begin grazing side by side. It’s a game she plays with her buddy every day, and watching it is among the best moments of my own day.
Our blood thirsty friend, Beverly, the erstwhile horse user – not lover – comments above that it is unfair to make owners spend money to keep horses alive after they’ve outlived their usefulness. I submit that it’s a lot more unfair to ask a horse to work its butt off for you during its prime and then reward it for all those years of labor by murdering it. How can you put a horse down “with love” as she calls it, if the horse itself would unquestionably vote to continue living? And how much does it really cost to keep them alive so they can enjoy their all too few golden years just as we hope to enjoy our own upon retirement? If you can’t afford that, you probably shouldn’t have been a horse owner in the first place.
Here’s what I consider the bottom line to be in this debate. If you believe yourself to be a true horse lover then you will have no problem making a lifelong commitment to the animal you own. It would never occur to you to kill your dog or cat just because they’ve gotten older and can’t do the things they always did, so why would you murder your horse for that reason? I have long advocated for horses to be reclassified under law from livestock or agricultural products to companion/recreation/sports animals to more accurately reflect their real role in our society. The sad truth, however, is that this will never happen until those of us who own these great animals start treating them like the friend we describe them as when we are still using them, and not as a commodity to be simply thrown away when their usefulness to us is over. And that’s what I think the horse would say.