PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a long history of doing the dirty and often times dangerous work of outing horrific examples of animal abuse. We have all seen the photos of shaved, restrained bunnies covered in electrodes and who knows what else. They have a renowned reputation for showing zero bias in who they choose to expose, nor can they be bought by those wishing they go away, an honorable trait that most certainly drives fear deep into the hearts of industry giants in the fields of cosmetics, meat-packing, factory farming, and now, horse racing.
In targeting the thoroughbred racing industry here in the states through what appears to be the placement of an undercover operative in the aisle of one of the country's most successful trainers, complete with mic and camera, they have exposed the seemingly endemic abusive practices in that particular sector of our equine industry.
PETA, generally more active in Europe where the equine industry is overall much more sophisticated, very high-profile and an integral part of the economy, has brought suit against athletes and trainers there in other disciplines beyond racing. These include the owners of a horse called Totillas who, under a previous owner and rider prior to being sold for a purported $13,000,00, took the equine world by storm a few years back with world record-shattering performances in the classical discipline of dressage. The suit was eventually dropped. Needless to say, PETA is very good at targeting high-profile owners/riders/trainers who will no doubt bring the biggest splash in the headlines for their worthy cause.
While many of a more conservative bent might dismiss PETA and its sometimes questionable tactics as too radical and not credible, I am of the belief that their presence and focus on animal abuse in the equine industry in the U.S. can only serve to improve the lives of our beloved animals and help us strive to set a better example for young horsemen and women who will fill our shoes as the professionals of tomorrow.
In 35 years working in multiple aspects of the equine industry, I can fill hours with stories of situations I have personally witnessed that would surely meet the definition of abuse. As a young, naive groom on my first job, I was told to sneak into a stall and inject something into the pelvis of a horse late at night at one of our most prestigious competitions. It was not until years later that it occurred to me exactly what I had been asked to do. I have seen horses overdose on drug cocktails meant to mask pain and improve performance; I saw horses restrained in stalls with their heads tied tight to one side or the other for hours by "trainers." I saw an employer randomly pull a stallion out of his stall, put him in the corner of the aisle and beat the hell out of it, returning it to its stall and exiting the barn as if he had just fed him a carrot. I have been part of massive equine rescue operation right in my own backyard where the abuser, among even more graphic examples, left a mare to die chained to a tree, a live foal at her side. During the same rescue, halters were cut out from horses whose heads had grown around them.
There are 9.2 million horses in the U.S. I am just one horsewoman of over 4.6 million Americans involved in the equine industry in the U.S., an industry that has a direct economic effect on the U.S. economy of $39 billion annually, according to the most recent survey done by the American Horse Council Foundation in 2005. Though extremely diversified across many disciplines, our industry is a massive economic engine here in the U.S.
Why would I want to draw attention to the ugly side of our industry by encouraging PETA and its efforts? Simple: for every scoundrel thug with a needle, a whip, a vendetta or those who are just plain psychopathic and commit unspeakable crimes against innocent horses, there are hundreds of thousands in our industry that I would be proud to call my friend. Horsemen and women who daily set their own needs aside for the sake of their own horses or those of their employer.
For every nasty example of abuse I have witnessed over the years, I have seen a hundred-fold more angelic actions taken by horse people with no regard for themselves, relentlessly putting the welfare of the horse first. I have seen enemies hold and comfort one another in grief at the loss of a horse, I have had dear friends wake in the night, hook up a rig and drive hours to rescue myself and my horses from an interstate after my rig caught fire at 70 mph; I have watched as an owner went without medical insurance and other basic necessities most of us take for granted for years to make ends meet, ends that included feeding and housing her beloved horses; I have witnessed an entire stable go into an emergency evacuation that would make any field commander proud as they packed up 47 horses for an evacuation ahead of an incoming hurricane with military style precision; I have seen young adults sleep on the concrete floor of a stable aisle on "colic watch" through the night for a horse in need. Any true horsemen can give you an endless list of similar examples that are a constant, daily aspect of life in our field. For the majority in the equine industry, this is not what we are required to do, it is WHAT we do, day-in and day-out: we live to protect and serve our beloved animals by whatever means required.
Right now as I write, behind the wall of my apartment, I can hear my horse in his adjoining stall, enjoying his afternoon hay. I am not unusual in my level of commitment; we are horsemen and women and we do whatever it takes to protect our animals, including living in close proximity to them to insure their health and well-being.
It is my hope that PETA does not stop with the racing industry. I encourage them to seek out and expose abuse across all equestrian disciplines. Yes, there will be debate. Yes, there will be those who claim PETA does not understand the nature of training horses and yes, there will be the misinterpretation of circumstances surrounding particular events being exposed. This will be a very small price to pay to raise an awareness of, and hopefully bring a halt to, behavior that only works to tarnish us all. Most importantly, behavior that threatens the very core of our business: the horses.