There are many animals bred for racing, but let’s look at horses. The sport of kings, as it’s known, is a source of pleasure (and sometimes despair!) for billions of people around the world, but horse racing can be a cruel business. I want to discuss what it’s like for horses that race, or are in other competitive arenas. There’s so much money put into these horses to win that if they don’t perform they’re not financially viable. It’s as simple and brutal as that.
Horses are a very large animal so all the things associated with keeping a horse are expensive. Just for starters, you have vet bills, feed costs, the housing of such a large animal and the provision of a sizable place for it to roam. With performing horses, add in trainers, jockeys, specialised vets, equipment, and the time spent to prepare them for races.
Even if you invest in the best facilities and equipment it doesn’t ensure a horse will do well, just as it doesn’t guarantee it for an athlete. Many try, but don’t succeed. Unfortunately for horses, if they don’t succeed, they end up being shuffled around from owner to owner or, at the worst, it’s off to the knackery with them.
The x-factor, which isn’t usually looked at in these situations, is the passion to win. Many horses simply don’t want to race or jump or event. These activities have been chosen for them. You often hear of people complaining that when they were young they were made to do hours of practice a day on a musical instrument they despised or in a sport they hated. They would much rather have been having fun playing games with their friends. There are many reasons for an animal’s discontent. The ones I have found among the most common are boredom, confinement, lack of choices, performance anxiety, an incorrect bit or saddle, and back injury or soreness.
Juniper was a deep-brown thoroughbred regarded by those around him as having unlimited potential. He had won a race once and drawn places at other times. When his partowner, Craig, contacted me he wasn’t even drawing places. Craig felt Juniper was down about something but he couldn’t figure out what. Once I had communicated with Juniper, it all came to light.
Being highly intelligent, he was able to tell me that he was bored and wanted more variety in his training. He made it clear that he was normally a very enthusiastic, energetic horse—and that this lack of stimulation was getting him down. Every day seemed the same to him, with rarely a break from routine. He also told me that his hind back area was very sore. When ridden, the saddle was causing pressure on these tender areas and this was also discouraging him from training.
I discussed the actual races with Juniper to see if anything could be improved and discovered he didn’t like being in the middle of the pack on race day, as it made him feel confined. He preferred to come through on the outside where he felt freer and more relaxed.
Craig took all this information on board and began to make some changes. He made training more stimulating and varied. He had Juniper’s back checked and they found a malalignment which they began treating. Craig had his saddle modified to make it more comfortable in that area of Juniper’s back. He also informed the jockey about taking him to the outside when racing.
Juniper was thrilled at having his needs acknowledged, and his racing started to come together. Slowly, he began to place again and even took a few wins within the first few months. Craig commented that he could see Juniper was running with passion once more. There’s that magic word again: passion!
Sadly, running with passion wasn’t the case for Caddy who had lost love of racing. His new trainer, Lucy, was concerned as Caddy was very down and quite often aggressive. His owners wanted him performing as soon as possible, but first Lucy wanted to know how he felt about racing.
I settled down for a chat with Caddy and soon found out that he literally hated it, showing me upsetting images of how he’d been punished with a whip when he hadn’t performed. Everything was so strict and routine, with no room for fun. Caddy felt he’d been moved around from place to place and was never able to establish relationships with horses or humans. The only humans he had contact with didn’t care about him as an individual, and were preoccupied only with how he raced. I could sense he really needed to be loved (don’t we all!). He was a horse that was quite driven emotionally, and this needed to be addressed. Caddy told me he just wanted to be in a field of grass, grazing as horses were meant to. He just longed to be a horse in its true sense.
I explained to Lucy that I didn’t feel confident that she could conquer this particular equine mindset about racing, because Caddy had had enough and wanted to retire. Lucy’s fear was that the owners had told her that if she didn’t lift him up to racing standard, he’d go to the knackery. She had grown very fond of Caddy and decided if he didn’t end up racing well, she’d buy him herself to ensure his safety.
These cases are as individual as the horses are. Achieving this understanding of how they feel, or the changes they need, can greatly change outcomes. If your heart is not in something it’s very hard to succeed. However, a change of heart is very possible.