I want to save the whales. And the orcas. The orangutans and the chimpanzees. I want to get the beagles and the rats out of laboratories and the pigs and the cows out of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). I am a staunch supporter of the American Humane Society. And PETA. As well as other nonprofits that work to break down the systemic abuse and exploitation of animals. I have long advocated for the end of pet stores, puppy mills, circuses, zoos, rodeos, and all forms of animal entertainment venues. (Sea World, that means you!) And, yet, just a few weeks ago, I found myself happily, indeed, excitedly, seated in Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs.
Why? you might ask.
I have asked myself the same question multiple times. Before and since. And my answers are questionable.
I looked at it as an educational experience, telling myself that I can’t truly criticize something without fully understanding it. I wanted to go to be with family and friends, as we celebrated with my daughter and her fellow graduates from a local Louisville University. I wanted to be in a place that has an interesting history. And, of course, I wanted to see pretty horses. Up close and personal, I truly wanted to see the horses, whether they were the gazillion dollar race horses or the companion ponies.
It was an educational experience. I learned things about myself, such as: it’s really fun to pretend to be part of the 1%! I learned things about Churchill Downs and about horse racing and that I can’t pick a winning horse to save my life. Yep. I not only lost the $6 I did bet, I picked the last place horse in 4 other consecutive races. Hmm, if you pick them because of their cool names, it means nothing. Go figure.
But, I learned more than that. I learned that the people involved in horse racing are not all immoral and money grubbing who care nothing for their animals, looking at them only as commodities. Many of them truly love their animals. Immensely.
Unfortunately, my previously conceived notions were correct in that it is still a money making industry and it involves serious competition. So, the horses and their well-being must suffer. And die. As evidenced recently and most horrifically at the Santa Anita Racetrack, these horses will give their all for their owners and for the races. They will run themselves to death, having heart attacks on the track. They will run until their legs break. They will run into precarious situations, becoming so injured they must be put down. A good source on the horses that have been lost in recent years can be found at Race Horse Death Watch.
After my sojourn into the horse racing world, I found that, for the well-being of my soul, I needed to visit some of the more free-living equines. Since I’m unaware of any wild horses in Kentucky, I had my spouse pull over by one of the horse farms near Lexington.
There, I learned that watching horses run freely in fields is a greater joy than watching them be coerced into doing something they would never do naturally, something that puts them at risk for harm.
I also learned that having a herd of horses suddenly walk towards you out of natural curiosity is profoundly delightful. And having a foal try to eat your clothes and nibble on your hands is somehow a more honest thrill than sitting in Millionaires Row and pretending to be the elite.
I did make a local human resident a bit nervous with my visit to the horses, however. As my ever patient spouse noted, he had driven up behind our car, stopped, and watched me. Very. Closely.
I would like to think that all horses could live wild and free. It’s a lovely concept. However, knowing how so many of our wild horses are suffering from the ill effects of nature and human encroachment, that no longer seems possible.
I don’t know what the future holds for the horses of this world, but I know one thing. We must do better by them. We must stop using them for our entertainment. We must stop abusing them, simply because we are able. And we must learn to respect them for the beautiful, sensitive, sentient beings that they are.