Question Yourself

It's inevitable. Every year when the sales of 2-year-olds in training start revving up and the babies start working fast, The Blood-Horse receives a flurry of letters and e-mails. Angry writers, many of them breeders and owners, complain about how detrimental it is to the Thoroughbred breed to make young horses breeze at high speeds. It's unnecessary, they write, because a good horseman should be able to judge a horse sufficiently by the way it moves at a gallop. It also promotes unsoundness, they claim, inevitably shortening the careers of racehorses.

In general, I agree. Horses in juvenile auctions would be better off if they were not asked to charge down the stretch and roll into the turn at a breakneck pace to impress buyers. It also would be wise to control the use of the whip, improving public perception and dealing with young horses in a more humane manner. But changing how 2-year-olds are presented isn't a cure for the industry's problems. Doing what is best for the horse and improving soundness also will require financial sacrifice (at least in the short-term) and changes on the part of the people who breed and race them.

To the breeders: When I see your yearlings in a sale ring, many of them are bulging with muscles. They look like miniature adults, not gangly, still-growing colts and fillies. I don't think they would have developed that way on their own, even with the best hay, oats, and water.

Unless they become ill and need medication, stop giving them steroids--and that's also a suggestion I would make to juvenile consignors based on the robust appearance of many of their horses. And stop feeding them supplements that have actions similar to steroids. What do you think happens when muscles develop faster than bones? Don't you think it's possible that it leads to unsoundness when the body's growth outstrips the frame that supports it?

And what about those automatic walkers? Sure, they're convenient. But do you think, over the long haul, that going round and round while pounding on immature ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones is the best way to keep a young horse healthy? Wouldn't romping every day in a pasture be better? Wouldn't yearlings and weanlings be better off if you pulled them out of a field right before the sale and just cleaned them up a little bit?

You might also think more about soundness in planning your matings. If you continue to breed your mares to crooked but fast horses and try to correct the resulting physical problems with surgery, at least disclose what has been done, so the buyer knows what he is getting in the genetic package. The horse he buys might last longer on the racetrack because of the operation, but he needs to know the animal's natural conformation in case he wants to try to breed a sounder horse somewhere down the road.

To racehorse owners: What are you doing to keep your horses healthy? Is what you're doing to them to win races in their best interests?

Unfortunately, there are enough positive tests and other evidence to indicate that equine athletes receive all sorts of substances in an effort to make them cross the finish line first--everything from vodka to designer drugs. An owner may plead innocence, saying he has no control over his trainer and veterinarian, but that is not a valid excuse.

If you, as an owner, are really serious about doing what is best for the horse, then you should question your trainer and veterinarian about what your horses are being given. If it is illegal or you don't think it's good for your horse, then tell them to stop. If they won't listen, then find another trainer or veterinarian. There are plenty of others around.

A lot of the things done to horses are not in their best interests. People want to win more races, earn more money, and sell horses for higher prices. Yet, when horses get hurt or don't perform well, the blame is passed to someone else.

Take a look at what you can do personally that is in the best interest of your horses. Revise your program and work with the organizations to which you belong to make changes that help keep horses healthier. To blame unsoundness in Thoroughbreds entirely on the fast works at sales of 2-year-olds in training isn't fair. The problem is more complicated than that.