How to Grow Horse Racing? Let’s Start with the Basics: Don’t Instill Fear of Horses in Your Kidz.

This morning I saw a video that, at first blush, delighted me.

Then, that same video angered me, and made me want to throttle someone.Marion E. Altieri, New York Writer

Almost simultaneous to my overwhelming desire to throttle a stranger, a memory came into my mind.  But let’s start at the beginning:

We in horse racing waste time and breath, debating back-and-forth about how to grow the sport, healthily into the 21st Century.

How do we get horse racing off the virtual Page Two of channels like, ESPN?  (Where Horse Racing usually appears under, “Other Sports,” that include hot-dog eating contests.)

How-how-how?  How can we get people to the track?  How can we get them to bet?  What-in-God’s-Name do we do, to bring paying customers through those turnstiles, and keep them here? OhMyGod, OhMyGod, OhMyGod!  What can we DO!!!?????  Do we need more face painting opps, and bouncy-bounce houses?  More dixieland bands at the entrances?   More Big Hats or mammograms for the “ladies”?

More beer-bust days for college-aged kids?  (This one is a Bad Idea, from the get-go:  give free admission to people with college IDs–sell ’em cheap beer–let ’em hang out in the sun, drinking said beer for 10 hours–then, load them into cars, and out into traffic filled with unsuspecting potential victims.  Brilliant concept.)

Ahhhhhhhhhh…no.  No, to all of it.  A horse race track is a track where…let’s take a guess…horses race.  If anything detracts or distracts from that mission, well, that’s a failed Mission Statement.  CVS doesn’t sell shoes and bras.  Horse race tracks shouldn’t sell anything but…wait for it…horse racing.

I’ve written this many times before, that it all begins with The Horse.  If you’re not interested in horses, you won’t become a real fan of horse racing.  If it’s just gambling that you seek–go to Mohegan Sun, or another place to throw your money into a slot machine, or flush it down an otherwise-well-disguised toilet.

If you’re just a gambler who thirsts for cash–go away.  There are plenty of other ways to blow your money on betting, but we don’t want you in racing because your negative vibe (and utter disregard for horses) is bad mojo.

So the people we DO want at the track are those–womyn, men, grrrlz and boyz alike–who love horses.  Who at California Chrome and Sally Bonneauleast like horses, and are open to the possibilities.  People who aren’t afraid of horses.  Being afraid of a horse is akin to fearing your housecat.  Yeah, you know that KitKat could kill you by biting and scratching wildly if he wanted, but still you willingly close your eyes at night with KitKat snuggled in your arms, because you’ve developed a bond of trust.

But, you argue–horses are huge.  Especially Thoroughbred race horses.  Huge.  Up to 1,200 pounds.

Yes, they are.  Still, they’re prey animals, so they’re far-more afraid of YOU, than you should be of THEM.  (A horse who’s deemed to be a “biter,” in psychological terms, really is just a bully.  And we all know that bullies strike first, out of fear.  Case closed.)

Grandma on Horse '50sSo, how can we get people to race tracks?  Get them in contact with horses.  Work with farms–your regional and state Equine divisions of Cooperative Extension–4H–etc.–to meet a horse.  Introduce your children to horses, at the earliest ages possible.  I was first sat on a pony’s back when I was six months old, and introduced to a horse or pony as often as my Mother and Grandmother could get me near one, until I began learning to ride Western on a Quarter Horse when I was four years old.

By that time, I had no fear of horses, whatsoever.  You see, I grew up with horses as part of my natural landscape:  I didn’t think of them as being zoo animals, creatures to be observed but never touched.  They weren’t foreign objects to me, regardless of their size relative to my own.  They were just horses–they belonged to my cousin–so, by extension, they were family.

I am not unusual:  hundreds of thousands of people–including, I’d wager, the Olympic equestrians who are on the world stage right now–started as small children, who were plopped onto a horse and NOT told that they had reason to be afraid.

Passing your own fears onto your children is NOT doing them any favors, folks.  All you’re doing is growing a new generation of people who were told to be afraid, and so–they were afraid.  Of horses.  Of the dark.  Of monsters under the bed.

So it was with great glee that initially this morning, I smiled as I saw a video on FaceBook, of Assateague Horses, running wild and happily around a group of bathing-suited humans, who were camped out on the beach on Assateague Island.

I guess that the humans–in their urgency to Get a Tan–had neglected the fact that this island is NOT THEIRS.  That island belongs to the Horses–the State of Maryland oversees it all,  under the umbrella of a National Seashore.  But make no mistake:  Maryland did not own that land before the ponies arrived.  There was no Maryland–OR Virginia, where the same breed lives under another name, Chinoteague Ponies.

The video showed the Horses, walking and cheerily clip-clopping around the beachgoers–over their towels, foraging in their “pick-a-nick” baskets for food–in general, just having a lovely day at the beach.

Too bad that the humans involved were neither savvy nor bright enough to realize that these Horses meant them no harm.  I find it impossible to believe that, on a 32-mile-long barrier island that’s internationally renowned for being the habitat of feral horses–that not a single human being on that beach gave even a moment’s thought to the notion that, DUH, yeah, some feral Horses could show up.

And if the people didn’t think about that possibility, of course, they weren’t prepared for what to do IF the Horses stopped by for a snack.

The Horses, who’ve been around that island since at least the 17th Century–possibly, even, the 16th Century, as victims of a Spanish galleon crash–have survived for all these years by knowing how to find food.  Food during the summer, to get them through the brutal, coastal Maryland/Virginia winters.

The   official webpage (see below) asks directly that visitors to the Island “…give the horses the space they need to remain wild.”  That, for those of you who are too dense to read between the lines, means,

  •  Don’t try t to touch them and
  •  don’t try to feed them.

So, the intelligent–thoughtful–kind thing to do when the ponies in the aforementioned video descended on their beach, the humans there should have stood, walked with their children around the Horses, to a place where the horses were not.

The horses were neither acting aggressively, nor angrily.  They were playing in the sand, and finding food.  From what we saw, no humans were in any danger, at any time.

But I wouldn’t blame the horses, if they DID decide to charge the humans.  Many of you reading this may have had an experience where someone acted like an idiot–screamed in your face–acted afraid of you–then expected you to slink away.  The horses had every right to start kicking and biting the stupid humans who screamed, and who allowed their children to scream.

The stupid humans who’d never taken their children to a place where they could meet a horse or pony in person–gotten to know the equine–and, without putting the idea into their impressionable little heads–thereby could have taught their children that there’s nothing to fear in a horse, when you respect the horse and her/his space.

At least, if the grown-ups had thought about that before dragging the whole family off to a beach where horses live–the little girl (“Bella”) who squealed that fearful-little-girl squeal that cuts like a bullet through your brain–wouldn’t have made that ungodly, raising-the-dead sound.

Bella simply would have gone with her Daddy to a safer place, while excitedly talking about the pretty horsies who sat on her blanket.  That would have made a beautiful memory, but Bella’s parents weren’t savvy enough to think about the opportunity they may have had on that day–and did.

I ‘cite here the synopsis of a tale I’ve told on this ‘site in the past, that of Black, the big, retired Thoroughbred who worked for a couple of summers at Saratoga, as the pony for his owner, an outrider.  She’d loosely tied him to a tree, and, as I was distracted by the Racing Form–didn’t see or hear the 1,200-pound animal as he sidled up next to me, to rummage through our cracker boxes.

I looked up, was delighted, then went back to reading as Black continued to munch ’til his owner got back.

No muss, no fuss.  No squealing, by either of us.  Just a lovely shared moment for a woman who was blessed as a baby, to have parents who exposed her early to horses–and a horse who was very cool when hanging with humans.  (Outriders’ horses have to be bomb-proof, and good with humans.)Marion E. Altieri and Bella Attrice

So…your assignment for this lazy Sunday afternoon…read the article by the National Parks Service in Maryland.  Watch the video, and think about how you’d react in this situation.

Then, find the kid who’s youngest in your tribe, and take that kid to meet a horse.  A pony.  A zebra.  A unicorn.  Anything that looks like an equine, and gives the Equine Vibe.

Always, with the permission- and supervision-of the person who owns or caregives that equine–let that tiny child get to know the breath of that equine on her/his balled fists.  Show her/him how to approach an equine, without fear.  (They can smell fear, you know–and, since they’re herd animals–they’re thinking, that, wow–  “The human [predator] is afraid, so there must be something to fear!”  They don’t realize that THEY are the object of your fear.  Ironic, isn’t it?)

  1.  Teach your kids not to fear horses.  
  2.  THEN, take them to the races at Saratoga, or any other race track.
  3.  Walk right past the face painting, straight to the pony rides, or the place where children are encouraged to meet a real, live horse.
  4.  Let your child figure out that relationship between the first equine they met–and that horse at the track–and then,
  5.  VOILA!–take them to the RAIL.

Watching YOU drink beer, sitting in front of a huge screen at the track never will teach the next generation to love horse racing.  Your kids can watch you drink beer at home.   Simply follow the five steps outlined above, to rear your children to be smart, savvy, fearless humans who love horses–and who love watching them race.

That, my friends, is one of the organic ways to grow horse racing.  The Assateague Horses just wanted a romp on the beach, and instead they got a Storm of Stupid.  The horses at your local track want to race, and see your children’s admiring faces standing at the rail.

In this scenario–Pick Four, or not–everybody wins.

Photo Credits:
*  Thank you to Sally Bonneau, for the wonderful photo of you with California Chrome!
*  Wild guess, that my late, dear Mother took this photo of Gram on an unknown horse.  Photo taken in the 1950s.
*  Thank you to Ronnie Betor, first for introducing me to Bella Attrice, then for taking this photo of the beautiful grrrl with me.  <3