I went to England at the end of February. I had not been there in 34 years and I’ve never been to the Cotswolds before where I spent the first two days of my trip. Although I was there on family matters, horses were never far from my mind. Granted reminders abounded. I saw people hacking through quaint villages on a Saturday afternoon, and locals in green muck “wellies,” downing beers while watching steeplechasing on the “telly.” In London equestrian statues graced parks, buildings and squares. I saw horses through the ages in the halls of the British Museum from the Parthenon's "Elgin Marbles," (upper left), to chariot steeds on Assyrian tablets (lower left), to horses painted on Russian icons (lower right). Headlines about horsemeat found in hamburgers leaped out at me from corner newstands.
So, it should be no surprise that I wondered how the British handle aftercare for former racehorses. My hosts, though wonderful, were not horsey, and didn’t know anything about the subject. So I looked for clues where I could. Take the countryside, for example. The lack of sprawl and the remarkable stretches of unmarred fields told me that the British protected their farmland. That boded well for horses.
It was also clear from the cohesive architectural character of rural villages that rigorous design standards respecting the tradition and age of their communities were strictly enforced. Also a good sign.
Lastly, obesity, so prevelant in the United States was a non issue. People walk both for transit and for recreation. Food is better too. Fresher. Real. Not prefabricated and micro zapped. Even sandwiches in gas stations are made with newly baked bread, creamy butter, natural cheeses, and crisp veggies. Clearly exercise and food integrity were valued.
From these three observations I extrapolated the following about English culture: The British choose to support community good rather than staunchly defending individual rights to do whatever they pleased with their property, their houses, or their bodies. They valued preservation, tradition, and health. If true, things for TBs were really looking up.
So I made inquiries.
What I gleaned was that even though the annual foal crop is much smaller than ours (about 4600 in 2011 as opposed to our 30,000+), rehoming ex-racers is very much an issue. Fortunately, the English are a horsey lot. Horses and riding are part of their culture. And the TB is native. In the US, we have many more horses, more breeds, more equestrian sports, and for the most part, the Quarter Horse is king. At home, I often hear “Thoroughbreds are crazy!” Not so in England. Sensitive? Yes. Crazy? No. In fact, people seemed to think a second career of eventing or fox hunting was quite the normal route to go.
When I asked about reschooling programs, I was tickled to learn that the first site recommended to me was Darley! Wonderful Darley. Darley that is so good to the MMSC. Darley that is a model for its aftercare efforts, its Flying Start Program, and for its appreciation and support of the Thoroughbred world wide! Bless you Darley!
But there are other sites as well. The difference between these reschooling programs and those in the US is that in England they are sanctioned, promoted, and financially supported by the ROR (Retraining of Racehorses) www.ror.org.uk, the official charity of the British Racing Authority, the national organization that regulates the sport. The British Racing authority raises funds for four organizations that reschool former race horses, has initiated a TB competition program with sponsorships, promotes the versatility of the breed, and helps care for TBS in situations of abuse or neglect.
In America, where we tend to be hard boot individualists, we don’t want anything to do with a “racing tsar” or an organization such as the British Racing Authority that regulates and standardizes the sport nationwide. Instead our racing rules vary from state to state according to each racing commission which too often, seeks to promote its own interests rather than cede to policies that might be better for the the sport and the horse as a whole.
This creates all kinds of havoc and confusion for the average handicapper or fan which in turn is reflected in a downtown of handle and attendance. And it creates agonizing strain and worry for aftercare charity organizations that struggle for donations and volunteers to take care of a problem they did not create and cannot keep up with.
How can this be? How can these horses have no official centralized industry support when their racing days are over? Isn’t it time for all of us who are involved in and who love the sport and the Thoroughbred horse to collectively address this issue?
The answer is we are beginning to: Amen! The Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, the Jockey Club, Thoroughbred Charities of America, and groups that are creating and promoting the showing of Thoroughbreds in other equestrian sports are all taking steps to do just that! They recognize that change is in the air and are responding to the rumbling pending maelstrom that TB fans create when they let their thoughts be known to their elected officials and racing authorities. One horse at a time. One voice at a time. And we don’t have to be British to do it, either.
Not that the Brits have it all right. They still have cases of unwanted horses, neglect and abuse against which their people roar and around which they rally. In a hard hit economy, animals suffer silently, even in horse crazy England. Why else would horse meat be turning up in hamburgers in the UK?
But that is a subject for another blog. And by the way, no one I talked to in England objected vehemently to eating horse meat per se. The outrage was in the deceit of not knowing what was truly in their food. Which is something we Americans rarely blink an eye at. But that, too, is another story.