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OpinionOpEd

Erbe: Stop the abuses of our horses

The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn. Photo Credit: State of Tennessee

With the thoroughbred I'll Have Another having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and aiming for horse racing's Triple Crown, the June 9 Belmont Stakes is the subject of much speculation (not to mention wagering).

But racing warrants attention for more than that.

I wish all race fans knew the miserable existence endured by most race horses -- and, for that matter, show horses. It looks so glamorous as the contenders, neck and neck, vie for at least a nose ahead of the field as they whisk across the finish line. But the day-to-day life of a race or show horse, or any animal forced to push the limits of its athletic potential for mankind's amusement, is quite another matter.

The Humane Society of the United States continues its singular campaign to improve conditions for a number of breeds routinely abused by their trainers. One is the thoroughbred racehorse and another is the Tennessee Walker show horse. Last week, Keith Dane, who runs the society's equine protection program, produced evidence of abuse by trainers in both sports in which they compete. First, he let reporters know of I'll Have Another's trainer's revolting record of drugging thoroughbreds "over the past 14 years and in four different states."

It seems trainer Doug O'Neill has been the target of more than a dozen citations issued by state racing commissions for using performance-enhancing drugs. Please remember that racing commissions are overwhelmingly industry-friendly. For a trainer to have been cited this many times could mean he committed many more violations of industry standards for which he was not cited.

Dane's statement continues: "Not surprisingly, horses he has trained have been too often subject to breakdowns that have endangered both the horses and jockeys. ... The drugging of horses in this sport demands immediate reform. Congress should act swiftly to pass the Interstate Horseracing Improvement Act to ban race day medication and performance-enhancing drugs."

When I refer to torture and abuse, I think of many less obvious forms of abuse than just performance-enhancing drugs. Consider the way most thoroughbreds are fed: They are pumped up on sweet feed, which makes them anxious and cranky. Consider how they're stabled: They are kept in their stalls 23 hours each day, which is tantamount to locking a human in bed 23 hours per day. Consider the fact that while in training, these social animals are rarely if ever turned out in pastures, allowed to eat grass or mingle with other horses, all of which are critical to their well-being.

In the Tennessee walking horse world, Dane released an undercover video revealing a long-kept industry secret: torture is a necessary part of the so-called "Big Lick" step these horses are forced to produce for the show world.

If you've ever seen these horses in the show ring, it's obvious there's no way these creatures would ever stick out their legs in an exaggerated (and in my opinion, hideous) manner as part of their natural gait. The industry claimed practices of "soring" and beating these horses to force them into these ungainly ways of moving ended long ago. The Humane Society last week released an undercover video of a well-known trainer clubbing a screaming, flinching horse on cross ties with a long, heavy stick. The video also revealed trainers' assistants applying caustic, burning chemicals to the horses' legs. By burning their flesh, trainers force Tennessee walkers to lift their legs to unnatural heights to assuage the pain. ABC's "Nightline" aired the video and brought national attention to the TWH industry's dirty little secrets.

Thoroughbred racing is not regulated by federal law. Tennessee walkers are protected by the federal Horse Protection Act, but Congress does not allot enough money to properly enforce it. We owe it to these noble creatures to pass laws to protect them and provide enough money to properly enforce them. We cannot call ourselves compassionate if we do not.

Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email bonnie.scrippshoward@gmail.com.

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