Horses are a big deal in Kentucky. When I first toured the Louisville Seminary campus, I was delighted to see a beautiful fountain/trough at the historic Gardencourt Mansion that once held water for horses to drink. I never attended the Kentucky Derby, but if you are in Louisville in April and early May — even if you are a graduate student with your nose to the grindstone — you hear about horse racing.
Like the Indy 500 in my hometown, the Derby is a beloved tradition, full of flash, fun, and gobs of money invested and wagered. Yet I’ve always wondered and worried about the cost of racing to the horses themselves.
Those concerns escalated when Barbaro won the Derby in 2006, only to break his right hind leg at the Preakness shortly thereafter. His owners and an esteemed veterinarian tried mightily to save him, and for a time it looked like he’d make it. However, the injuries ultimately led to him being euthanized in January 2007. Then Eight Belles broke both front ankles during the 2008 Derby. She was euthanized on the track.
Horses are big and powerful, and some love to run … especially if they’re with a bunch of other horses all running in the same direction. Still, there is much about their physiology that makes them subject to career- and life-ending injury, especially if they are not treated well. Thankfully, there have been efforts in recent years to 1) improve the working conditions and well-being of racing horses and 2) ensure a humane and happier future once their racing days are done.
That’s about all I know of the ins and outs of horse racing. The horror stories and success stories are out there. What I can tell you now is how a couple of retired racehorses at Summit Equestrian Center, where I volunteer as an animal Reiki practitioner and animal communicator, are reinventing their lives and helping humans do the same.
Pirate, formerly Dread the Pirate, was named 2012 Indiana Colt of the Year. He raced 23 times over four years. Between 2012 and 2015, he won nearly $200,000 before an injury cut his racing career short. This big red horse with the white star and kind eyes could have gone to a stud farm, but opted to come to Summit instead.
At 9, he’s got all kinds of aches and pains left over from his racing days, and his ability to carry riders faster than a walk is limited. Sometimes when I watch Pirate walk across the pasture, it looks like every step either hurts or requires extra effort. I can hear him saying, almost like a mantra: “I’m moving … I’m moving.” Last summer, when a couple aches and pains slowed me down, he looked at me and asked, “Are you moving, too?” (I made sure I was.)
Though he can be a downright stinker with the other horses, he’s made friends with one who was involved in a severe neglect case over a year ago. Her physical and emotional injuries continue to surface and heal, and Pirate told me he wants to “show her some hope.” She could not ask for a better buddy.
Beau raced as Jangle in Michigan, West Virginia, and Ohio. He raced 17 times over two years, earning $18,500, and was retired after a bowed tendon at the track. Now 11 and rehabbed, he is a go-to trail rider at Summit.
Beau has his own ideas about what should be happening at any given time, but he does know how to adjust his approach. When Duke, a retired farm horse with his own share of injuries, came to Summit, this big athletic guy was a little too eager to greet him. Their first meeting did not go well. On the day this photo was taken, the two were scampering around like colts. I watched each of them open and give just a little.
As an individual who’s been around the block/track a few times, he’s developed some insight, which serves him well as a therapy horse in our veterans’ program. Like most of us, he doesn’t always choose to use that insight, but when he does, he gets to the heart.
This winter, Summit’s director, Allison Wheaton, asked me to communicate with Beau to see if we could figure out what was behind some uncooperative behavior. I was having a rough week and processing some old grief, but I tried to put that aside long enough to connect with Beau. The first thing I heard from him was that he noticed I was sad, that I didn’t have to hide it, and he wished he could help.
Touched and honored, I thanked him. With all of that on the table — in the hay bag, if you will — Beau was able to tell me what was on his mind and I was able to listen with an open heart.
The tales of two racehorses may be a drop in a bucket of heartbreak and hope, but we don’t have a person, or a horse, to waste. If you want to learn more about helping retired racehorses, a good place to start is Friends of Ferdinand, Inc.