I’d like to introduce you to an amazing community of people. A community you’ve probably heard of, but probably do not know very much about. They are some of the most resilient, hard working people you will ever meet. They are opinionated, they are honest, they are a little eccentric, and they know hundreds of ways to fix any problem you can think of. The industry that this community exists in is not an easy one. They have to be willing to spend endless hours working for their passion and making sure everything is attended to and in place in order to create the best opportunity for success. They will stay up well after dark, and rise before the sun has broken the horizon without a second thought. It is a physically demanding, thankless career choice that goes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. These people have a passion like no other and the love and dedication to their animals is surpassed by none. They get up every day and work, all just to make sure their job is done the right way. None of them see this as a sacrifice and many of its members couldn’t imagine doing anything else. In this community, all of this is simply accepted as what needs to be done. The compassion that can be found in this motley crew of people is hard to surpass. Together they weather episodes of despair and celebrate the moments of joy. They are fierce competitors, but will come together in an instant to help someone in need, often on a global scale. They donate their time, money, resources, and whatever else they can afford to give. There is no other community like it; they are the horsemen and women of the race industry.
Unfortunately, the majority of people who are not directly involved in this community often know very little about it. They only know horse racing for what they’ve seen on television, in movies, or from the falsehoods and misconceptions smeared across the internet designed to pull on the heart strings of the unsuspecting for financial gain. Because of this the race industry often gets slammed with the stigma of being dog-eat-dog; with trainers, drivers and jockeys ruthlessly pushing their horses and battling each other at the expense of their animals. As with literally every industry out there, there are exceptions to the rule and unfortunately there are those out there who would rather cheat the game than choose to play fair, but by and large this is simply not the norm.
Now, there wouldn’t be a race industry without race horses. In Alberta, we have three main types of race horses; Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Standardbreds. These horses, although all different breeds with their own set of unique performance demands, truly are high performance athletes. Not only are they designed for their jobs, they’re good at them!
The horses of the race world train 5-6 days a week, and we’re not talking a nice lazy trail ride through a field. We’re talking about fairly high intensity training; their jobs require them to be at the peak of physical and mental fitness. These horses like to work, they like to do their job and to do it well. Their days are a strict schedule of training, feeding; they are fed high quality, nutrient rich diets, and important maintenance work including grooming, treatments with electromagnetic and infrared therapy, massage and chiropractic work. They are monitored daily by their caretakers, grooms and veterinary professionals who all ensure that these horses are happy, healthy and fit to preform the task at hand. These horses are bright, smart, curious, and love learning and investigating new things. These truly are living, breathing, performance athletes and are treated as such; many of them get more handling and care in a day than a pasture pet pony would see in a month.
In addition to being incredible athletes race horses are introduced to an amazing set of life skills from a very young age. These are skills and experiences that a number of ‘regular horses’ would spend their entire lives without ever acquiring. Tied or in hand they know how to stand quietly for farrier work, being tacked or untacked, brushed and bathed; these horses are accustomed to the job at hand and know what is expected of them.
They are handled for numerous hours of the day and are accustomed to having their legs handled, poulticed and bandaged, as well as all routine veterinary care. They are familiar with trailering, working in a large, busy group while in close proximity to others, or even working alone with nothing but open space ahead of them. They are exposed to a variety of environmental factors such as other horses passing by, people talking, yelling and cheering, tractors, large trucks, strollers, flapping tents, children, dogs and umbrellas. These are not horses that are forced to do a job they hate, nor are they horses that need to be ‘cured’ of their gait or training. Racehorses are amazing animals and high caliber athletes who come with a wide range of life experiences and benefits that people frequently overlook and forget to acknowledge. They love their jobs and are loved by the people who look after them.
The health and performance of these horses is also taken very seriously and is closely monitored by the veterinary team, who are a constant presence at the track. The majority of trainers have a close relationship with the veterinary team, who monitor and administer all medications given to the race horses while in training and while prepping for races. Any medications in use are heavily regulated with closely followed withdrawal times and dosages. In fact, race horses are all tested by a third party, unbiased lab for all legal and illegal substances directly after they run. If any of these tests come back positive the trainers forfeit any purse money won and face heavy fines along with license suspensions or loss; which means they are unable to race or even train horses at any track across North America. The stereotype of ‘doping horses just to win a race’, in this day and age, with so much to lose and so much on the line, is a ridiculous notion, but unfortunately heavily believed by the general public due to large organizations such as PETA spreading false and ill-researched propaganda.
The racing community also has a strong passion for giving back to the community they are involved in, many times not even related to the industry itself. For the past two years a horseman from south of Edmonton has organized a fundraiser for the Stollery Children’s Hospital, raising upwards of $33,000 in donations. The Powderpuff Derby at Northlands was a charity race ridden by non-professional female riders (ie do not hold a jockey licence) that ran for many years in support of Breast Cancer Research raised over $21,000.00 in just one of the years it ran. There have been numerous examples of the race community across Canada coming together to raise money for local charities and non profit groups, including but not limited to tracks in Ontario, PEI, Nova Scotia, Alberta and BC.
People of the race industry are also prepared to give back to their own in times of desperate need; whether it be backstretch fundraisers for injured fellow horsemen or in support of tragedies that don’t even touch close to home. In January of 2016 a tragic fire struck at Classy Lane Training Center in Ontario, 40 horses were tragically lost and there was irreparable damage to the barn area. Horseman across the country came together and raised $710,000 to help rebuild the barn, replace lost equipment and ensure the staff would not be left without a means to live off of. In another case in 2015 the industry banned together to raise over $150,000 for medical treatments for the wife of a trainer who was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. After 12 rounds of chemo and a double mastectomy Amanda Harris was set to undergo proton radiation and 5 years of hormone therapy. Many of her medical bills were not covered by insurance, but in three short weeks the race industry came together to raise the money to help off set costs.
The race industry also supports their horses after their race careers have ended, by making an effort to ensure they find new and lasting careers. Although the stigma around racing seems to be that the majority of horses go to slaughter after they are ‘no longer useful’ this is simply not the case. The vast majority of horses go on to rewarding second careers, many of which are sold on to new homes simply by word of mouth via trainers at the track and their outside equestrian connections. Many horses go on to new careers as show horses, pleasure horses, breeding stock, ranch horses and even as companion horses. As a recognition of the diverse usefulness of the off track breeds many organizations have stepped up to promote and help
Many organizations and non-profits offer these horses a life long placement at farms where they are sponsored by members of both the general public and the racing community. New Stride is a charity based in BC founded in 2002 by a group of owners, breeders and backstretch workers that is dedicated to finding adoptive homes and alternative careers for racehorses no longer able to compete in racing. Another group based in Ontario called Long Run works under the same principals, as does Final Furlong in Manitoba, Greener Pastures in BC and the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society, providing retired racehorses countless opportunities to find fulfilling, forever homes.
As a whole the horse racing industry, and the community of people that work, live, and breathe it, are a diverse and complex group of people. They can not be summed up in a simple letter, paper or paragraph. In fact, words can hardly begin to describe the lives of these horses and the people behind them. It truly is a career of passion and it cannot be properly represented by a video, news article, or social media post made by an uneducated organization, individual or group of people; these same people who didn’t bother to have any other interest in the industry aside from creating a way to condemn it. It is our dearest hope that people will take the time to recognize this amazing industry and the people involved in it. If you have questions, ask them, better yet come down to the track and experience it for yourself, take a moment out of your day and share in this lifestyle, who knows, you might learn a thing or two.
This article was cowritten by Charlene Barry & Kolina Crowe. Kolina works as a Registered Veterinary Technician with a focus primarily on Thoroughbreds. We believed it was important to bring perspectives from both the Harness Racing, and flat racing communities into this article, and thus decided to write it as a collaborative effort.