What to Do on Kentucky Derby Day

We humans excel at making use of other animals, extracting wealth through that use, exhausting them, disposing of them. This week, the 145th Kentucky Derby will showcase these habits.

Frivolous, frenzied pressure surrounds the horse called Omaha Beach, who is dubbed most likely to win. Because the racing industry is all about ROI, this horse and the others will run so hard their lungs bleed. Racetracks use a diuretic called Lasix to stop the horses from bleeding through their noses.

UPDATE: Just three days before the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Omaha Beach was removed from the race, having come down with breathing problems associated with a trapped epiglottis. Inflammation of airway structures can cause a horse’s epiglottis to get stuck in folds of tissue, according to Equus Magazine.

Trainer Richard Mandella calls Omaha Beach “a kind horse. A horse that’s easy to be around.” Evidently we are just sensitive enough to perceive kindness in the other animals—even as we amuse ourselves at their expense. Even as horses continue to die in professional racing. Fatalities include Kentucky Derby horses Barbaro (April 29, 2003 – January 29, 2007) and Eight Belles (February 23, 2005 – May 3, 2008)…

And as long as the horse breeding business exists, so will the auctions and the killer buyers. Tens of thousands of horses, including racehorses, go to slaughter each year. With horse slaughter disallowed in the United States (it stopped in 2006), the unwanted animals just get a longer, more excruciating journey over the Canadian and Mexican borders for a slaughter. Don’t kid yourself about this. That $3 million purse isn’t buying sanctuaries for four-year old horses, either.

The racetrack industry is under scrutiny for drugging horses in the Triple Crown events. HR 1754, the Horse Racing Integrity Act, would create a nationwide standard for testing in racing horses, implemented by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Churchill Downs, Inc. opposes the Horse Racing Integrity Act. The major animal-advocacy groups back the bill.

Given the temptation to push boundaries to win, the racing industry will keep tormenting horses—drugs or no drugs. If we’d ask serious questions, we’d find no integrity exists in horse racing.

And this Saturday’s Derby would be the last.

This Saturday, let’s all refuse to don bonnets. Let’s decline to stick mint leaves in glasses. Let’s stop making light of this event, making bets on this event, and allowing its realities to go unmentioned. Let’s act upon a baseline of decency, speak up in our social circles, and start treating horse racing as the blood sport it is.

Why Don’t Campaigns Against Horse Slaughter Work?

Much U.S. activism focuses on the slaughter of horses for human consumption. Year after year. If slaughter administration by the U.S. agriculture department stops, then the focus shifts to the live export of horses to slaughterers in Mexico or Canada. It always seems to be one or the other, and although charities suggest that enough donations and clicks and letters could end it, it never ends.

How much of the dialogue delves into the breeding and breaking of horses? Practically none. In fact, most advocacy groups frame the argument against horse slaughter as an affront to our equine companions, or the idea that we owe them better treatment for their history of service to humankind. bridle

Their service to humankind isn’t open for debate. We’re so used to being served that the matter of whether horses originally wanted us on their backs never even comes up.

Full disclosure, lest I sound preachy about this: I have ridden horses. For the most part, I enjoyed the activity; and for the most part, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I am deeply sorry. From the week I became vegan, I resolved to never, ever do it again. The transformation of horses—who arrived on this planet long before we didinto our recreational vehicles, into items we exchange (our use of horses) also makes them available for slaughter (the decried abuse); I now understand how I participated in the injustice.

Our acceptance of the riding in the first place causes hundreds of horses to die every year on racetracks worldwide, and that prompts the racing industry to invest in research on horses in order to investigate speed potential and injury treatments. The plight of ex-racing horses, and any owned horses who pass their primes (or the primes of their owners’ attention spans), may be a chain of sale, resale or donation to charity, neglect, and the ultimate handover to the killer buyer.

What finally happened to those horses I rode? I doubt any died of old age under the gentle care of a sanctuary. Out of the 9-million-plus horses in the United States, how many do, and who is supposed to ensure that happens?

The broader message of horse-slaughter opposition

What is the message of a campaign to ban the human consumption or the live transport of equine bodies? Having entered the chain of resale, horses who are not slaughtered for human consumption, one might assume, are likely to be turned into some other product, such as food for zoo animals. Their bodies are going somewhere. We don’t see horse cemeteries in suburban pastures or at riding schools.

And if we say horses shouldn’t be slaughtered and shipped to restaurants in Italy or Belgium, then some other animal will appear on the same Belgian or Italian menu that would have featured the horseflesh—a selection that should arouse no more ethical outrage, if our morals are consistent, than the average North American pizza. Issues involving the human consumption of animals always press us to reaffirm the vitality in supporting restaurants offered by vegans. This makes much more sense than backing a campaign that scolds people for eating this and not that animal, or one that pushes the slaughter of certain animals over administrative borders.

And by framing the eating of horses as a “barbaric” foreign habit, the humane community routinely enables donors to miss the meaning of what they do at home, and the advantages people derive in our own regions from the pervasive commodification of animals.  To put it bluntly: No humane-charity CEO wants to trouble the conscience of the donor on horseback.

The underlying trouble: domestication

Our form of dominion over cats and dogs and horses—a dominion that we accept and even celebrate—certainly connects with humanity’s domination of these same animals in other ways. Our habit of making toys or companions out of dogs and ponies who have no say in the matter sets the stage, for example, for training animals to go into wars and exploding buildings, or for their millions of deaths in shelters, through auctions, and in laboratories each year.

Despite charity groups who refer to owners as “guardians” and despite animal law writers’ insistence that their household animals are more than “mere” property, the human who lives with a domesticated animal is in charge of every major situation in that being’s life. It makes no more sense to refer to our control over other animals as guardianship than it does to claim that slaveowners would have been guardians of human slaves simply by uttering the term.

Farrier at work - Wikimedia CommonsRecall Charles Darwin’s words: “Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equals.”[1] We rationalize and perpetuate our dominion over other animals in part by making ourselves their benefactors and pointing out that we do love specific animals; but do deep feelings of love for these animals justify domestication generally—or does that deep love lead us to challenge it?

I support rescue groups. I appreciate anyone who helps animals with nowhere else to turn. At the same time, I hope the rescue community will agree to question the root cause of the animals’ vulnerable condition. To admit that rescue keeps us in control, to acknowledge the sad aspect of the dependent state that we put them in, forcing their reliance on the sheer luck of being scooped up by a decent, sympathetic human who has the means and will to look after them. The point of advocacy can’t be to slather euphemistic language over human dominance. Nor is it about exclaiming how much we love our individual animals at home and yet refusing to acknowledge the overall unfairness in training animals to live in our homes and paddocks—for just as long as we say they may.

All of these beings have been selectively bred from ancestors who lived on their terms in their spaces. Autonomous communities of free-living animals. Why do we always have to mess with that state? I’ll sign off by linking a video of the free-living horses known in Mongolia as the Takh (Equus ferus przewalskii). Once these communities were wiped out by human hunting, military activities, and farming. But about 250 of these horses are now re-established in Mongolia’s Hustai National Park, an area where they had co-evolved with wolves of the steppe ecosystem. The Takh have developed complex patterns of social conduct to defend themselves from natural predators. But when they die, as they all do, the horses go back into the stream of universal energy in the ways they have done since the dawn of their being, and long before the dawn of ours.

[1] CHARLES DARWIN, METAPHYSICS, MATERIALISM, AND THE EVOLUTION OF MIND: EARLY WRITINGS OF CHARLES DARWIN 187 (1974; transcribed and annotated by Paul H. Barrett; with a commentary by Howard E. Gruber).