By SID GUSTAFSON
Sid Gustafson is a novelist, social commentator, and former thoroughbred attending and examining veterinarian licensed in New York, Washington, and Montana, where he has had significant experience in the regulation of racehorses, especially as it pertains to soundness and breakdowns.
There are medical and cultural human-animal issues in the thoroughbred industry that warrant exploration and acknowledgment.
A prudent horseman could begin with the essential topic of stabling: how do we move forward to best recreate the natural preferences and tendencies of stabled racehorses? More intense issues such as racing age, medication, track surfaces, and breeding can be better addressed in subsequent articles after the nature of the horse and the implications of racetrack confinement are addressed.
The Fetlock Epidemic: When horses break their legs in races and have to be euthanized on the track, we have clearly exceeded the adaptability of the horse. Racetrack breakdowns are endemic, if not epidemic, in America, an undeniable veterinary reality of which I have first-hand experience. There are at least 60 identified factors which contribute to breakdowns, the leading one of which is a lack of prerace scrutiny by the trainer, his veterinarian, and the regulatory veterinarians. There are accidents, bumps, missteps, and bad luck, yes, but in my experience the vast majority of breakdowns are predictable, and most breakdowns are a result of running horses with fetlock lamenesses. Fetlocks are among the thoroughbred racehorse’s most vulnerable and complex joints. The fetlock gathers a vortex of anatomical structures that are intricately interdependent and essential. Inflammation, pain, or swelling in any one of the structures alters the essential biomechanical synchronicity for proper function and support of the critical joint.
As a professor equine studies, I attempt to teach my students appropriate moral reasoning regarding the well-being of the horse. Acquiring an academic and intuitive understanding of the horse’s nature enhances moral reasoning. Time spent with horses combined with intellectual academic pursuit helps us realize when equine welfare standards are exceeded by our competitive pursuits. This is not an easy task, as horses have been utilized intensely and harshly, assertively and aggressively through time, a cultural ideology that does not fade easily, although significant progress is taking place. In situations involving the welfare of animals progress is sometimes all we can ask.
Understanding horse behavior is necessary to refine our contemporary relationship with the horse. I attempt to engage my natural horsemanship students in analytical thinking regarding the management of confined horses in the context of the well-being of the horse, and in consideration of the intimately connected physical and mental needs of horses, especially the mental. Thoroughbreds are one of the most intensely stabled breeds. Mental and physical health become challenging to manage in confinement scenarios. After their yearling year, many thoroughbreds spend the rest of their performance life stalled, contrary to their nature. To restore confidence in thoroughbred racing, we could begin by trying to modify stabling practices to better accommodate horses’ nature, allowing the horses to develop stronger and more durable physiques in a natural fashion; to become more psychologically content and physically sound athletes, to become less dependent on drugs and surgeons. We need to place more focus on the horses’ racetrack environment and take steps to design appropriate stables and training facilities to accommodate the horses’ sociobehavioral, nutritional, and physiological requirements and preferences. To make horseracing a safer sport for horses and riders the industry could best be served by attempting to improve racetrack stabling practices, a topic on which most horsemen should find common ground in which to contribute appropriate practices and facility ideas to improve the horses’ racetrack life.
The contemporary racetrack-stabling scenario significantly displaces the horse from its natural preferences. Little semblance of a horse grazing the plains with its herdmates is apparent in a shedrow stall, where today’s racehorse spends over 90 percent of its time, depending on the trainer and his or her regimen of training and enrichment. Somehow, certain effective trainers recreate enough natural preferences for racing success despite this restrictive stabling. Their horses train sound and win races and return sound and uninjured in the best circumstances. These trainers create success for their horses; make it easy for the horses to succeed by fulfilling their inherent needs. Other trainers fail to adequately fulfill their horses’ needs. Adaptation is exceeded. Their horses become injured, sometimes because of inappropriate conditioning, and subsequently become prone to break down, as certain conditions really never return to normal function. An injury in one location, or two or three as can be the case, significantly disrupts the synchronous movement of the horse, stressing multiple joints and legs, an interdependence demonstrated so unfortunately by Eight Belles, fracturing not one, but two fetlocks.
How do we strengthen legs? Improved husbandry and stabling practices can offer remedy when the horses’ adaptability is exceeded. How can we better recreate the natural needs and conditions of stabled racehorses? All horsemen have ideas about recreating natural circumstances to fulfill natural tendencies of horses, like friendship and play, sleep and grazing and walking together. If we design the stable and manage horses in a more horse sensitive manner, horses have the potential to race stronger and safer. Many trainers adequately fulfill these needs in horses. Certain individual horses require more fulfillment than others, they are less adaptable to stabled life, require more patience and understanding to facilitate gate relaxation and acceptance.
What improvements in stabling facilities and exercise paddocks can be implemented to improve the horses’ mental health and physical endurance? Let’s ask the horsemen. Let’s ask those who study horses. Let’s attend The Horse display at the Museum of Natural History. Let us look to many venues to understand the horse. Can natural approaches improve the durability and safety of thoroughbreds? Can we create stabling conditions that promote the need for less medication while creating increased physiologic durability and mental health? Yes. Educational, informative articles make a difference for racehorses, literarily, medically, and journalistically.