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Beasts of Burden: What happens to thoroughbred racehorses after retirement

Thoroughbred horses might be pampered while young and agile, but it's not all lush pastures once they retire from racing.

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The Jockey Club, the national registry of thoroughbreds headquartered in Lexington, Ky., reports that approximately 35,000 thoroughbreds are foaled in North America each year, 68 percent of which are destined for a career on the racetrack. Of those horses, nearly 70 percent will win at least one race, but only 5 percent will win a bigger-pursed stakes race, and only two-tenths of a percent will win a Grade I stakes race, which awards the biggest purse and creates the biggest superstars.

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For every Big Brown or Rachel Alexandra winning millions in front of sold-out crowds, there are unheralded thoroughbreds -- such as State Deputy -- that also race their hearts out each day, but for small purses on cheaper tracks to nearly empty stands. Eventually, lackluster performance or an injury ends these horses' careers. At least 3,000 such racehorses are retired each year, usually by age 6 if not younger, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation estimates. Given that most horses live well into their 20s, the question of what to do with them for the next 15 or more years looms. I learned that, frequently, the answer is one most horse lovers would rather not think about: Approximately two out of every three thoroughbreds that come off the track -- even those that are sound and healthy -- are euthanized, abandoned on public land or in empty fields, or slaughtered -- their meat exported to Europe and Japan for human consumption.

The closure of horse slaughterhouses in the United States in 2007, after Congress barred the Department of Agriculture from using funds to conduct horse slaughter inspections, did not diminish the phenomenon much. The USDA estimates that more than 90,000 horses were exported to Canada and Mexico last year for slaughter. The Livestock Marketing Association, which advocates the resumption of horse slaughter in this country, puts the number at more than 120,000. By contrast, in 2006, horse slaughter in the United States and the export of horses for slaughter tallied about 150,000, according to the USDA.

Horse slaughter has no shortage of opponents, mainly advocacy groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute and PETA. The Humane Society asserts that the conditions under which the horses are transported to the slaughterhouses don't address the unique needs of the animals, which are crammed into low-ceilinged trailers designed for cattle, sheep and pigs that don't allow horses to hold their heads at a natural height. USDA regulations permit horses to be transported for 24 hours straight without food or water. Once at the slaughterhouse, horses are exposed to the loud noise of the plant, slippery floors and the odor of blood, all of which terrify the animals and trigger their flight response, said Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary professor at Tufts University and a member of the leadership council of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

Supporters of slaughter counter that the process is humane. Former U.S. representative Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, a policy adviser for the Livestock Marketing Association, said U.S. regulations for transport of horses to slaughter were created with the input of veterinarians and others in the field. The captive bolt gun, for example, that is used to render the horse unconscious before its throat is slit has been deemed acceptable by the American Veterinary Medical Association, he said.

Efforts to stop horse slaughter have gained momentum in recent years as public awareness has grown. Last year in the House and Senate, bills were introduced that would prohibit trafficking in horses for human consumption of their meat. In December, the New York Racing Association announced that it would ban any trainer or breeder who sells a horse to slaughter. Other mid-Atlantic racetracks also have no-slaughter policies on the books, including Pimlico and Laurel Park in Maryland, Colonial Downs in Virginia and Charles Town and Mountaineer Park in West Virginia.

Still, some people, including my own horse's vet, argue that the practice is a necessary option. "When the slaughterhouses in the U.S. were closed, no one asked, 'Now what?'" said Carol Swandby, who has worked as a track vet for 25 years. She argues that before slaughter was outlawed, alternatives should have been in place to deal with the nation's unwanted horses. The roughly 10 thoroughbred rescue organizations that serve the mid-Atlantic region -- which use donations to care for or to find homes for the animals -- are all full, Swandby noted.

When I asked whether it would be more humane for people to euthanize their unwanted horses by injection, she said that euthanizing a healthy horse is a hard sell to many owners. "They've cared for these horses sometimes for years. ... They're part of the family," she said, explaining that the livestock auctions, where meat buyers often purchase horses at low prices and transport them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter, allow owners a little hope. "There's always the chance that a little girl will see the horse, fall in love with him and buy him."

***

I started calling State Deputy "Pilot" as a nod to my father, who was an astronaut. As soon as Pilot arrived at Moon Rising Farm, my trainer, Roach, gave me a list of treatments to get him healthy again: powerful de-wormers, medicated shampoos, special shoes, visits from the equine dentist and chiropractor, long trail rides. He was turned out in a lush grass field with five other geldings where he could graze all day and run at will. It all seemed to be working.

At the same time, I started teaching him that he could use his body for something other than running: that he could bend his neck and ribcage and relax his jaw; that he could walk, trot and canter without pulling at the bit. Eventually, I asked him to jump. Every request I made he complied with. When I groomed him at the end of our rides, he would nuzzle his head into the crook of my neck and rest it there.

I began planning to enter us in competitions. But one morning in May, three months after I had bought him, something went wrong. As Pilot was eating his breakfast, he stopped suddenly and stretched his neck toward the ground, coughing hard. He stood there, motionless, with his nose just above the ground, making a sound as if he was trying to swallow.


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