Horses Need On-Track Advocates. Track Operators Should Foot that Bill.

Marion E. Altieri, New York WriterDriving at the speed limit up Nelson Avenue in Saratoga from the south, my heart welled with joy as I checked out Sheikh Mohammed’s Greentree Farm (Darley) on the right, and headed toward the backstretch gate.

Ah, but before I could get into the track for the glorious first day of the Saratoga race meet for 2016, I had to stop for horses crossing from their rented barns at the harness track, onto the steeped-in-history Clare Court on the Saratoga main track.

The heat was rising even at this hour (approx. 9AM), and the day held all the promise that every Opening Day brings:  the world’s most beautiful horses; trainers, owners and jockeys who hold hope in their hearts for those horses, to conquer the world.  And the dreams and joy of thousands of race fans and bettors, who soon would stream into the track from Union and Nelson Avenues.

Yes, it was a gorgeous start to this wonderful Opening Day, and I had a song in my heart.

Until I witnessed something I never want to see again.  And I know that I will see it again, so that’s why I’m writing this piece.

What I saw was a horse who’d just crossed onto Clare Court.  He or she did not want to work out—even to walk today.  Clearly, this horse was rank:  bucking, bending neck.  And in pain because the exercise rider was pulling on the reins so hard, his mouth had to have been in Big Pain.  The guy was yanking the horse with his right hand and smacking the horse’s neck with a crop on his left.

While he didn’t appear to hit the horse’s neck hard, still—it does not make sense, from a practical standpoint, to hit and thereby p-off a creature who’s already upset and angry.

Horses—this exercise rider seems to have forgotten—are prey animals.  So if an idiot human being is on the back of a prey animal, and is hitting said animal—that animal is going to object.

The only reasonable response to this statement is, “Duh.”

As I sat in my car, the drama further unfolded.  Rather than gently, lovingly talking to the horse, stroking his neck and trying to calm him down—the predator then began wailing with the crop on the horse’s back end, on the left side.

Now, I don’t know anything about “standard wisdom” for exercise riders, but to anyone who knows anything about prey vs. predator responses—for a predator to beat the crap out of a prey animal, and then to expect the prey animal to cooperate!—marks the predator as an idiot.

It also marks him, in my book, as an abuser.

I’m not a horse trainer, nor have I ever claimed to be one.  But I did ride for over a decade, starting in childhood and—even as a child—I knew that being kind to Patches was a far better way to get what I wanted out of my favorite steed.

The more the predator whipped his butt, the more the horse objected.  Ummmm, YEAH.  If someone was beating ME, I’d object.

And if I was about 10 times bigger than the abuser—I’d be working on a way to try to kill the predator.

But the horse was at a disadvantage because he had the bit in his mouth, and the predatory exercise rider was on his back, putting the horse in the most-vulnerable of positions.

When the predator started wailing on the horse’s back end, I yelled,


The exercise rider looked at me as if I was insane.  I glared at him and repeated myself.

At that point, a very kind older gentleman rushed over, took the horse’s head in his hands, made the predator loosen the reins and eased the bit within the aching horse’s mouth.  When I drove down Nelson, I could see the older gentleman trying to calm the horse as the rider slid off.

From what I figured by the white JP initials on the blue saddle towel, the horse is trained by John Parisella.  Were I Mr. Parisella, I’d have a serious Come to Jesus Meeting with that exercise rider.  That man has no place touching vulnerable prey animals.  I don’t know or care if the guy has ego problems—needs to feel superior—couldn’t think of another way to calm the horse—or was sad today.

I just don’t care.

Whatever his problem—there was no excuse for hitting that horse in the neck and hitting-and-hitting his behind.

Sure, you can say that the horse didn’t really feel the whips on the butt.  Honestly, I don’t know if any human can really know this.  But I do know that the horse felt those snaps of the whip on his neck, and could hear the anger in the predator’s voice.

The psychological connection that horse and rider could have had is never to be, for a connection on that level must be initiated and nurtured by the one who’s in the predatory position.  That man had two choices:  bless a horse, and help the horse to trust humans—or to break his spirit, and teach him that humans are not to be trusted.

The human made a lousy decision.

And that’s why I’m writing this article tonight.  I’m bone-tired, and weary after an otherwise-lovely day, and of working.  But tonight I must speak on behalf of that horse, and of other horses who may suffer the same emotional and physical abuse at the hands of humans on a race track.  Humans who never should be allowed to work around or with animals.

Like most of you reading this, I’m here for the horses.  I’m here because I love horses, for hundreds of reasons that I’ve outlined in past articles.

But I cannot claim to love horses and stand by, passively watching as someone does emotional and (probably) physical damage to them.

And neither can you—this is why so many of you readers are involved with horse rescue and retirement organizations.

And you might be open to a suggestion that I have—a suggestion that I wish owners and operators of race tracks all over the world would institute as policy.  My suggestion is that every race track hire a Horses’ Advocate.  Someone just to seemingly-wander around the tracks where they work,  on a regular basis.  Do spot-visits to the workouts; to barns and to every environment that puts horses and humans together.

We all know the phrase, “If you see something, say something.”

And that’s fine.  Some people will see something—then call the owner or CEO of a race track—and tell them about the abusive situation they witnessed.   And the CEO who really loves the horses who’ve been entrusted to her/his track—s/he will end the abuse, right then-and-there.

It’s not enough to say that “…We love horses…tracks have to take responsibility for every single horse on their property…yada, yada, yada…”

No, it’s not enough:  every person who runs every race track here in America and around the world owes their livelihoods to horses.  Therefore, the moral, courageous, grateful thing to do when one of those horses is abused is to terminate the abuser and get the horse into the care of a veterinarian and other professionals (Reiki masters, acupuncturists, etc.) who can start to work on the psychological and physical damage that may have been done to that beautiful creature.

Those horses help every single one of us who works in horse racing—to earn a living.

The very least that the industry owes The Horse is a formal system in which every track is required to have a Horses’ Advocate on-staff, to watch the workouts—check the barns—find and root out abusers right at the start.

No horse ever should have an emotional beating to match multiple smart taps to the neck, and wailing on the butt.  No horse, anywhere, has ever been so ill-behaved that s/he should ever be hurt by the very people who are supposed to guard and protect her/him.

I propose, therefore, that every race track be required to hire a Horses’ Advocate Perhaps the Jockey Club even could make it a requirement. 

Nothing gets done in this world if everyone offers only suggestions.  Track operators need to stop pussy-footing around, saying and writing that they advocate for horses—but then either don’t-know-about or turn-a-blind -eye to—abuse that’s happening right beneath their noses.

Why do I stay in this sport?  Because I hope to help make the place more nurturing for horses, and more egalitarian for women.

If you see something, say something.  But say it loudly, so that someone actually hears you.

Race tracks in America and world-wide:  create the job, Horses’ Advocate.  Hire a strong, unafraid personality to fill that job at each of your tracks.

And don’t back down when someone defends their abusive actions with the words, “He needed it…”

No one–no horse–deserves to be treated badly, when loving treatment and a kind voice will achieve the desired results.  If that exercise rider actually got to know the horse before he rode her/him—if they’d developed a relationship—it’s doubtful that he could have wailed on her/his butt.

But if he did get to know the horse, and still took out his frustrations (and stupidly thought that screaming and hitting a frightened horse would make it better)—then the Horses’ Advocate would see to it that the victim horse really had a voice, a voice that’s loud, clear and doesn’t back down.

If programs like this already are in place at any tracks and I’m not aware—I’m glad.  If they’re not in place—if no one has a Horses’ Advocate—then I have just one question:

Why not?

And then I have one statement, to that man at whom I yelled today:  if ever I see you do that to another horse…you’ll have more to worry about than an upset equine.  You ARE being watched:  if not by me, then by someone else who loves horses, and who cares.