Tag Archives: Thoroughbred

The Breaking Point

I am cheering with my whole heart and soul, screaming really, my throat becoming raw, jumping up and down, urging the beautiful bay filly to keep surging forward.  She is stunning—raw power, gleaming coat, the crooked stripe on her forehead and bright yellow of her jockey’s silks distinguishing her from her older, more sedately adorned rival.  They are in a tight duel—they have led the pack since leaving the starting gate—and now as they crest the top of the stretch, my favorite has started to pull out in front.  I am yelling and kicking and riding my own ride down the stretch, as though my life depended on it, as though by sharing my own energy I can help her to cross the finish line in front.

I am in my parent’s living room, hundreds of miles from Belmont Park in New York, where the Breeder’s Cup is being held.  It is October 27, 1990 and I am 14.  My cheers and encouragement are heard only by my mother and my cat, who quickly left the room as soon as she felt the pulse of my frenetic and overly wired energy.  Until that summer, we had lived just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY, and I had spent many blissful August days standing track side, admiring Thoroughbreds, learning about pedigrees, and cheering for my favorites.  I dressed as a jockey every Halloween, wearing handmade pale yellow and purple silks.  I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about anything Thoroughbred, each article I found about horse racing carefully filed and labelled in a series of big red books which lived in my closet.  On major stakes race days, I listened to the call on WGNA AM radio, religiously watched every Thoroughbred race televised on NBC,  and in the age of the VCR, dutifully recorded the Triple Crown series every year, a true disciple of the sport waiting for a return of the king who would once again wear the Triple Crown.

I am watching the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Distaff, a race for champion fillies and mares aged 3 and up.  The race was largely billed as a showdown between the race’s defending champion, Bayakoa, the six year old phenom and two time American Champion Older Female Horse, and Go for Wand, who had already been voted the recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three Year Old Filly.  It was Go for Wand who I was pulling for—and with just about 100 yards left in the race, it looked like she had it.  She had a nose in front and was still pushing forward.

Go for Wand

And in a split second, her forehand dropped, her neck rolled, and she flipped over, throwing her jockey Randy Romero to the ground before standing and trying to limp her way down the track.

And in that same split second, as surely as I had ever known anything in my whole fourteen years, I knew that I had just watched a horse sign her own death certificate on national television.  Bayakoa went on to win; Go for Wand suffered an open fracture to her right cannon bone.

If you can stomach it, here is a video of the race. 

My screams of enthusiasm became screams of horror, and I felt something come from deep inside my chest which I had never felt before.  I thought my insides were actually going to come out like a scene in Poltergeist— I was screaming and crying and shaking and wanted to throw things.  I was so, so, so angry and on the verge of losing control.  My mother came running, turned off the TV and tried to understand what had happened.  But I just couldn’t speak.

I know now that what I had felt that day was rage.  The flame burned so intense and so hot that after the emotion quelled, I realized that it had taken from me any desire to ever watch a live horse race again.  In one fateful moment, I went from being a devoted fan of the sport to someone who could no longer watch a horse race without first knowing that all of the horses made it back to the barn at the end.

A 2016 article featuring recent research on understanding catastrophic breakdowns in racehorses.

Refusing to watch has prevented me from seeing more contemporary horrors like Barbaro break his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness, or Eight Belles fall at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the result of the same exact type of fracture as Barbaro but in both front fetlocks.  But not watching has not prevented me from hearing about these horrible tragedies and then once again replaying the fall and death of Go for Wand where it is seared into my memory.

I found this image of Eight Belles, who fell after finishing second in the Derby, on Pinterest, and I have been unable to find who originally took it….but it is one of the most haunting images.  Jockey Gabriel Saez tries to keep her calm.

This might not be a popular opinion right now, but I have felt the same way about upper level eventing for years.  I have been an event rider since 1997 and have organized at least two USEA horse trials per year since 2006.  But I am tired of trying to defend the sport when it feels like every time there is a major international contest, one of the participants does not come home.  I have never competed at preliminary level or higher, and I never want to.  I am in no way a part of the upper level eventing community; I can barely even be called a passing fan.  But I am a member of the greater eventing community, and so the loss this past weekend of the talented Thoroughbred cross gelding Crackerjack, and subsequent online civil war about both that specific situation and the greater questions of safety in the sport of eventing, affects me too.

Crackerjack and Boyd Martin at Pau (Dressage)– I haven’t/won’t watch the other video– I just can’t stomach it knowing what will happen.

In recent years, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on what is fair for us to ask our equine partners to do, and how far we should push them.   I am sure I still don’t know the answer. Horses are amazing, powerful, strong and yet so fragile. People will offer trite clichés when a horse or rider dies in the course of sport such as, “well, at least they were doing what they loved.”  But these are hollow and empty words, and are just a way to fill the void left when a vibrant, athletic and enthusiastic spirit departs us in a shocking and sudden manner.  Does anyone really take comfort in them?  I doubt it.

People also like to point out that horses have a propensity to harm themselves even in what seem to be the safest of environments; everyone (including me) can tell the story of a horse fatally injured at pasture or in a stall.  But can we agree that there is some sort of difference between losing a horse through a freak barnyard mishap and an accident in competition?  I think so.

Saratoga Race Track through the lens of an uncredited Times Union photographer. 19 Thoroughbreds died during its 2017 meet, the most since 2009.  Eight died in competition, nine while training, and two from “non-racing related issues”.

It might seem like a stretch to believe that one incident can change someone from loving a horse sport to hating it.  So if I am honest about my feelings regarding Thoroughbred racing, the seeds were there before Go for Wand’s death.  I had seen horses go down before, and their memories still haunt me.  In fourth grade, I wrote a short story about one, Foundation Plan, a dark bay colt foaled in 1982, who died at Saratoga while I watched from the rail.  Seeds can sit and wait for the right set of variables to present themselves so that they can grow into a fully formed thought or emotion.  Maybe value-driven emotions need to germinate for a while before they can come to flower. When the conditions are right, your true beliefs will appear before you in their full intensity.

In an October 29, 1990 New York Times article titled, “Breeders Cup: Track Life Goes On After a Day of Death”, writer Steven Crist notes that that year’s races claimed the lives of three horses and caused the forced retirement of a fourth, Adjudicating, who finished the Sprint but was found to have a repairable fracture later that night.   From the article:

“Go for Wand’s trainer, Billy Badgett, was inconsolable immediately after the death of what he called the “horse of a lifetime” but spoke about it yesterday morning.  “She had never been challenged that way,” he said.  “She just tried too hard.”

Earlier in the piece, Crist notes:  “Casual fans, who had come to Belmont on a rare outing or tuned into the national telecast of the $10 million racing card out of curiosity, were left seeking explanations, while industry insiders tried to explain that this was a horrible concentration of a rare aspect of the sport.”

Twenty seven years later and not much seems different.  While immediate connections grieve, the greater community recoils in horror.  And an industry is left trying to pick up the pieces.



Book Review: Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes

Book Review:  Horse Profiling: The Secret to Motivating Equine Athletes

By Kerry Thomas with Calvin L. Carter

c 2012 Trafalgar Square Press, North Pomfret, VT  170 pages

ISBN 978-1-57076-508-7

Thomas Cover

I was attracted to this book two years ago when I saw it at Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA , by the words in the title of “motivating equine athletes”.  I thought perhaps it would offer me some insight into the quirky and unique personality of the Dark Mare, and it also seemed like an equine topic which was a little bit new and fresh.  Those who know me recognize that I hoard books and I am a slow reader, particularly on equine-themed topics (overall a tough combination of variables), so it was just this fall that I finally got down to really reading this book and understanding what author Kerry Thomas is all about.

Thomas is a self-proclaimed “pioneering researcher and service provider in the field of Equine Athletic Psychology” (from the book jacket).   He has spent time studying the behavior of the American Mustang as well as that of domestic horses in a number of settings.  Thomas has developed a system of assessing a horse’s “emotional conformation”, which looks at the psychology of the horse as opposed to the anatomy of the horse, as in an evaluation of a horse’s physical conformation.  Thomas assesses the social tendencies and behavioral dynamics of each horse as an individual, which then can help to predict their performance capability. It would seem from reading the examples he provides in the book that a large percentage of his clientele comes from the Thoroughbred racing industry, which does make sense. If I were about to invest thousands in a racing prospect, I would sure appreciate knowing whether or not that horse wanted to race.

There is a need for experts who can analyze the why’s of what horses do and who understand that horses don’t act in “bad” ways to make their owners upset.  We need experts who are patient enough to get to the root cause of why horses act in the ways that they do and for why they fail to meet the owner’s expectations, once physical issues have been ruled out.  Thomas and his “Thomas Herding Technique” (THT) aim to fill this need.  Most horsepeople would agree that horses don’t always live up to their conformation and pedigree, in both positive and negative ways.  We can give plenty of examples of horses that had all the necessary raw material in terms of conformation, bloodlines and genetics to be an upper level or elite contender, but who mentally couldn’t handle the pressure or demands of that kind of ridden work.  On the flip side are horses that look like an assemblage of spare parts, horses which have no business doing anything remotely athletic or sporty, who are accomplished, successful competitors.   Thomas tries to get at the root of why this is such a common situation in the performance horse world.

Thomas advocates the importance of breeding horses not just for their physical conformation but for emotional conformation as well.  He says that by considering this quality, we are breeding horses more in keeping with the way intended by nature.  Not every horse is meant to be the leader of the herd, but every horse plays a distinct and critical role within it, and these roles contribute to the overall survival of the group. “Every family member has to be able to fill a role to make the equine herd a success, and it is the diversity of behavior that allows the herd sustainability over time and in changing environmental circumstances” (Thomas, 2012, p. 57).

I had high hopes for this book, but for me personally it became too bogged down in customized terminology (for some examples: “emotional conformation”, “emergent properties”,  “individual and group herd dynamics”, “P-type grading”, “Focus Agility”, etc) which became hard to follow.   Additionally, I felt like the book had a heavy emphasis on the training and performance of Thoroughbred race horses, which did not feel as applicable to the performance of riding horses.  However, I did appreciate that Thomas uses many specific case examples from his personal work to help highlight his concepts, and it is quite interesting to read how he problem solves various behavioral issues in the horses he is asked to evaluate.

While I don’t think I am capable of going out and assessing my horses’ personalities using Thomas’s system after reading this book, there were several positive aspects and messages that made me appreciate reading it anyway.  First, Thomas emphasized throughout the book the critical importance of good equine management in terms of maintaining the mental and physical well-being of your horse.  In Chapter 9, Thomas discusses “The Broken Circle: Potential Withholds and Equine Mental Illness”, and in the ensuing pages, details eight key causes of behavioral problems.  Many of these issues are the direct result of less than ideal horse management, including lack of exercise/excessive confinement,  improper weaning, separation from herd mates, and the stress of a change of career (i.e., a horse used to full work or showing/performance is abruptly transitioned to a retirement setting).   Thomas emphasizes the importance of movement, social interaction and mental stimulus in maintaining a horse’s overall health and happiness.

One more concept which I took away from this book is a reminder that the horse is a creature of movement, and movement/action is part of their mechanism of communication within a herd.  We as trainers need to bear this in mind when working with our horses.  Thomas uses the term “Focus Agility” to define the natural ability of the horse to interpret stimulus while in motion (Thomas, 2012, p 114).  A horse may be physically athletic but if they cannot maintain their mental focus at the same time, their performance will be diminished.  Additionally, horses must be able to interpret stimuli while in motion—i.e., is that thing over there a threat or not, is that thing something worthy of my attention.  To help horses develop this skill, Thomas advocates incorporating simple management strategies to help continuously challenge your horse through “mental stimulus exercises” (Thomas, 2012, pp 43-47).  For one example, on a daily basis, change how your horse enters and leaves his paddock.

Overall, I found Horse Profiling to be easy to read, well-illustrated with current photographs and clearly organized.  I think that the book gets weighed down with terminology that is unique to Thomas’s system; it would have been helpful to have some way of continuously reviewing the terminology and its definitions as you moved through the chapters, or perhaps a glossary of these terms.  The examples cited in the book for the most part come from Thomas’ own experience, and they do help demonstrate how his theories work in practice.  However, I would have liked more specificity in terms of examples of “how to try this at home”—how to classify your own horse’s emotional conformation.

In general, I would recommend this book as worth a read if you have an interest in equine behavior. But be prepared to study it with care before the pieces come together.

3.5/5 stars


From this site,  you can read more about Thomas and his work.  Also, you can download a free excerpt from the book!