Friday, May 30, 2008

Eight Belles On Kentucky Derby Day, 2008

By Melodee Shelley-Bolmgren and Katie Merwick

Chez Chevaux and Second Chance Ranch were invited to share in the festivities of Derby day at Emerald Downs. The Washington horse racing community and Emerald Downs truly care about the health and welfare of thoroughbreds during and after their racing careers. Proof of this is evidenced by the newly established Prodigious Fund which will help us support our missions of thoroughbred transitioning and retirement. They donated table space, two pages of free advertising in the Derby Day Program, and an autographed photo of Street Sense, the 2007 Derby winner, for us to raffle off. Emerald Downs invited us to bring retired and retrained racehorses out on the track between races in a further effort to fundraise for and publicize our efforts. With repeated announcements throughout the day, they called for the fans to get involved, come meet us, and make donations. Melodee and Chez Chevaux volunteers set up and manned the table upstairs while Katie and her volunteers hauled in four retired, retrained and rehomed ex-racehorses to show off in a parade, both in hand and under saddle, before a packed grandstand. It was their first visit back to track since they retired. Regardless of what PETA and other categorical detractors of all racing might imagine, the alumni were happy to be back on the track.

Neither of us actually had time to watch the Derby live. The Chez Chevaux volunteers at the fundraising table watched the race while we hustled trackside to prep the horses to head out onto the track. The Kentucky Derby is the event of the year in American racing. Much of the general public only knows anything about racing on Derby Day. It is usually a joyous day. People dress up, drink a lot, and wear hats. But this year, the Mint Juleps went by the wayside when Eight Belles went down.

Everyone has a speculative opinion. We have our own too. We may agree jointly, and disagree individually on some points. But, both of us do know what we're talking about throughout multiple arenas of the equine performance world. And we do have some things to say: Eight Belles' injury was a tragic accident and her resultant trackside euthanasia, albeit necessary, was traumatic to see. Don't throw a blanket of comprehensive blame on the racing industry. Shortly prior to this years' Derby, two Rolex (Three-Day) eventing mounts, Frodo Baggins and The Quiet Man, were euthanized due to falls at fences in the cross-country phase of the competition. Teddy O’Connor also competed that day without injury, however, just recently he had to be euthanized due to injuries suffered in a freak barn accident. Horses have also broken legs and required euthanization thereby, from the proverbial "bad steps" taken while running barrels, cutting cows, and while bucking, running and playing at liberty in turnout pastures. Oh, and don't forget trailering accidents! No one who loves horses wants to see them die: EVER.

Re: The numerous calls and emails we've received both enquiring and complaining about racing:

(1) Racetracks in America may be dirt or polytrack. Tracks do strive to provide the best surfaces possible regardless. Surfaces are better installed and maintained than any others you are likely to find in amateur performance and pleasure arenas, and/or trails and endurance races. Racetrack footing is groomed and prepped before each race. If you're astride the twentieth horse with studded shoes to go over fences in a three-day event, you're on your own to find a take-off spot that isn't slop! Steeplechase racers and open-jumping stadium competitors may fly over water above fences that are constructed to yield to rider miscalculations and/or an errant equine leg, but they don't solicit immovable drop fences into it as does three day eventing.

(2) Be assured that the condition of the racing surface and the health of the equine competitors is of paramount concern to all connected and with aspirations to the Kentucky Derby.

(3) Jockeys really can, and must, ride well . Quickly, consistently, and in company. If they are hurt, at best, they lose their paychecks. Jockeys will not mount a horse if they feel it is not sound. They are consummate professionals who know their lives are at risk every time they are legged up onto a horse. Pleasure, amateur, and professional performance competitors who cannot ride well, and even those that can, may get hurt, and may indeed occasionally die, but more often than not they have the luxury of merely being sore and temporarily embarrassed.

(4) Risk is inherent in all equine endeavors and interactions as it is in life. All individual creatures on this planet will die. Some people die of "old age", some die doing what they love best, albeit "risky".

(5) Successful racing and performance horses do love their jobs and the people connected with them. A recent example is the Canadian racehorse, Topaz Legacy from Assiniboia Downs, who unseated his rider at the gate and ran the entire race using strategy, tactic and skill to win the race!

(6) We have rescued starving and abused horses from private citizens.We have never had to so do at a racetrack.

(7) Reality stories: Racing owners and trainers may easily invest myriad hours and more than 5 or 6 figures into a sound racing prospect before it becomes evident that the horse doesn't like the proposed job description. Those same connections have donated those horses to our organizations to be retrained for a second career. We must note that racing is the only sector of the equine sphere that has routinely donated such “expensive” horses to us for retraining while they were sound and marketable. They've also donated and asked us to help rehome other sound horses that they didn't feel were physically or mentally suited for the demands and skill sets of racing, and paid board and vet bills for them pending rehoming, whether stabled at our facilities or elsewhere in the interim.

(8) Fact: Many unwanted horses of all breeds do not get a happy retirement. See: The Unwanted Horse Coalition. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reports that in excess of 100,000 horses are annually transported from the United States to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered. These horses suffer miserable conditions enroute. Their deaths are unnecessarily violent beyond comprehension. The voices of those who target their criticisms of equine endeavors at racing might better direct their concerns for equine welfare to this ongoing situation.

(9) Some two year old thoroughbreds are physically and mentally ready to race. Others are not. Nor will they be at three or four. The same applies to any equines' potential entry into pleasure and performance careers. Ultrasounds and other available veterinary technologies, coupled with a capable trainers' lengthy experience and duly-earned hands-on instincts can be employed to make educated decisions utilizing the best empirical information available at any given moment.

(10) Race and performance horses can, and do, retire sound. Glo's Mo, a Second Chance Ranch retiree, began racing at two and retired sound at ten years old without injury.

(11) For those that believe all horses should run free in "nature": Begin by thoroughly educating yourselves with an investigation of the mustang herd management policies and practices of the Bureau of Land Management. When think you know it all and you've earned your Equine Doctorate ( do consider, a Doctorate in conventional education usually takes at least seven years, forty hours per week)...try an apprentice practicum with any equine professional and work sixteen hour days 24/7 , weather notwithstanding, for an additional year. Then write your thesis and GO ON to start your real equine world education by launching your own training barn or rescue.

(12) Or, go on to Veterinary College: Equine Veterinary Practitioners have completed four years of University (for a Bachelor of Arts /or Science Degree) and four years of Veterinary School. Surgical accreditation will take another three years. Veterinarians at Teaching University Hospitals and Racetracks are committed to their practices and lifelong learning. We have stood with, by, and held beloved equines when immediate humane euthanasia was the only answer. Vets do not want to euthanize a horse for whom any hope of recovery exists. Doing what had to be done expediently for Eight Belles, while compassionately providing her with every measure of dignity possible as the whole world watched, had to be both a profound personal misery and the ultimate test of triage and professionalism under fire.

In closing: Racing is neither cruel nor evil. No equine and human interaction is without inherent risk. Domesticated horses rely on their human connections to care for them. While there are a small number of less than caring humans in all equine arenas, one cannot fault an arena-at-large for the perceived actions of a negative minority. All evidence indicates that Eight Belles’ connections strove to do the best job they could for her at all times. The safety of all racing participants is paramount to the industry and the industry continually works to maximize policies that promote safe outcomes. See: The Washington Horse Council.

Most importantly please recognize that all of us, from every side of the table, are working toward the same goal; to protect and provide the best for horses. Second Chance Ranch and Chez Chevaux are dedicated and responsible nonprofit equine welfare organizations. You can help a race horse today by donating!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Transitioning Thoroughbreds -Day 2

New arrivals at Chez Chevaux  start their first morning in a new barn displaying  typical eagerness for breakfast and curiousity about the morning routine. They are happy to find out that the humans feeding  and cleaning stalls always have some carrot treats in hand!
After breakfast, it's turnout time. For some TBs that are unaccustomed to regular turnout, we begin with monitored and incremental turnout. Whenever possible, after suitable introductions and monitoring, our horses are turned out in twos with a compatible playmate. New horses will begin turnout in the arena alone, but will be able to socialize over the fences with the horses in both the east and west adjacent turnouts. No halters are left on during turnout time. All horses that can be turned out stay out for at least half the day, weather permitting. The turnout  areas are big enough that they can really run if they like. While turnouts are not available while away at a show, it's an important component in keeping horses happy at home. We will reject any potential adoptive placement that does not have regular and adequate turnout. While thoroughbreds at the track do not have free turnout, they do get PLENTY of exercise and attention. The average performance or pleasure barn is unlikely to offer that amount of exercise . Here, turnout time is a must.
Unless we have to leave early for a show, they get at least one hour turnout time before schooling .   
When schooling time begins,  new horses will be moved out of the arena and into a paddock where they can watch (and they do, with interest!) what's going on and get a sense of the routine. After a couple of horses are schooled, I'll bring the new horse back into the arena for a little more time at liberty, and then,  it's time to see what they do(or don't)know about longeing.
Some OTTBs need a substantial amount  of "R & R" before they are ready to think about starting a new job, while some are immediately eager to get involved with going in a new direction.
With horses I know have some previous familiarity with a bit, I'll begin by bridling (without reins) and attaching the line to a plain snaffle bit. Using a "Y" attachment that clips to both sides of the bit and then to the longe line eliminates the need to switch the line when changing directions. 
I always begin using a bit on OTTBs as some, who may have no prior clue about longeing, equate the circle to the hotwalker and want to pull and play. The occasional OTTB will still pull HARD in a regular snaffle. If so, then I'll utilize a gag snaffle.
For a horse that has no prior clue about longeing, I'll be happy with three or four revolutions, in both directions, at something resembling a circle at a decent trot. I don't generally bother with the walk at this stage, and I don't encourage the canter yet as OTTBs, unless they  possess a natural collected canter, are likely to get heavy on the forehand on the longe circle at this point. It should also be noted that some OTTBs don't respond at all to  "Whoa". If half-halts don't work, then I'll decrease the circle size and finesse them into facing me and halting.  I think it's a waste of time and often a source of confusion for the OTTB to try and perfect the halt on the longe intially. If a horse has no understanding of "Whoa", it's quicker and easier to offer bribes: On the way to turnout every morning, and whenever being led, I stop and say "Whoa". Equine complicity, or any reasonable attempt at it, earns a little piece of a carrot.  Also a good way to teach them to stand still (for moment anyway) at the mounting block. OTTBs are used to moving forward while a rider is being legged up. 
The saddle is now put on, and the reins to the bridle. One or two revolutions at the trot, with stirrups down, in the horses' best direction, then it's time to get on. I introduce them to the mounting block. If they stand still a moment or two, then they get the a little piece of carrot. Yes, with a bit in their mouth!
I like to have someone on the ground stand with them and try to keep them quiet as I mount. 
Beginning in the horses more supple direction,  it's off large around the arena at the walk with an approximately 20 meter circle in each of the four corners. It is key to keep the circle large enough to ensure than the horse does not lean on the inside shoulder or counterflex. Should this go well, then the next revolution will include an upward transition to the trot. As this gait is powered by two diagonal pairs of legs, then a suggestion from my properly placed inside leg should prompt the horse to begin the trot from the inside hind and the outside fore, with my upward posting diagonal accompanying,or forward and lightened inside seatbone, if sitting, this transition. We'll  once at the trot (sitting or posting as best suits each horses' natural way of going) and utilize the circles' completion for the downward transition back to the walk. If the horse shows no response to the half-halt, or leans on the bit (can be an OTTB habit) we'll continue the circle at the trot and I'll become more insistent that s/he engages and moves their hindquarters to the outside of the circle and off my inside leg, engaging the outside hind leg (the opposite diagonal pair from the upward transition)for the downward transition to a half-halting outside rein. During these upward and downward transitions, I am able to assess how naturally supple (or not) the horse is and establish some communication thereby of the basic aids ( especially for the less-than-supple horse), and develop the best individualized action plan for teaching the basics of a subsequent and essential lesson: The shoulder-in exercise. 
As the last circle at the walk is completed, I'll ask that the horse halt as we come back to the rail utilizing the same downward transitional aids. Should I get a halt, and hold it for three seconds, SUPER!!!
Reverse, same as above.
This usually goes well as by beginning with the horses' more supple direction, we're ready to work on their less flexible side.
Remember, most people aren't wholly ambidextrous; nor are horses.
Paying attention to what's going on with my mount through every step s/he takes, and making adjustments as needed, establishes the framework that assures the horse that a rider is, and should be, always open to feedback and dialogue. Comfortable horses are, or will become confident horses and then re-training can proceed swiftly and easily.
This entire session shouldn't take more than 20 minutes. That's enough. Remember the OTTB's prior work, schooling and attention span...races are run in a few minutes! Throughout the session, I praise all positive efforts the horse makes.
The reward for doing, or trying to do, what I've asked, is that the horse gets to stop doing it and go play. The tack is taken off, they get a little piece of carrot, a roll in the sand, and turned loose in the arena for a few minutes before it's back to more turnout before  lunchtime. The new horse usually runs a victory lap, showing off for the other horses who  have been watching throughout to see how it went!


Friday, May 23, 2008

Transitioning Thoroughbreds -Day 1

We frequently receive   phone calls and emails from well-intentioned potential first-time horse owners enquiring about adopting an OTTB (Off-The-Track-Thoroughbred) or a rehabilitated and retrained rescued TB. While we never discount an adoption applicant without previous hands-on equine ownership experience, Chez Chevaux is committed to ensuring that the best possible permanent match is made for every horse and human. Our adoption application process will verify that potential adopters are willing and able to make the necessary  time, training and financial commitments.
In the case of OTTBs, particularly those directly exiting a stall at the racetrack, a structured transition into a lower-impact performance paradigm is key. OTTBs have had excellent , yet specifically focused, care and training. They are accustomed to, expect, enjoy and anticipate  a predictable routine of feeding, exercise, shoeing, grooming,  handling and, as needed, prompt veterinary attention. A racehorse leaving a successful career has, in fact, enjoyed his/her  job.
Psychologically, the OTTB best benefits when the transition from the backside to a transitional facility is made with the consideration and knowledge of what each horse is used to in mind. There will, naturally,  be changes in routine and environment, but it is important to institute them incrementally and positively. 
It is much easier to transition an OTTB right into a new environment than a rescued TB. OTTBs have had positive human interactions and they are neither sick,starved nor abused. The OTTBs may, intially, miss familiar faces and their stable buddies, but they  generally adapt more quickly as they lack the anxiety factor of rescued TBs (who can be very afraid that things can get WORSE... hay does help lessen that worry pretty quickly!). The most pathetic and lengthy rehabilitative rescue challenges we've faced have been TBs who left the track happy and healthy and then transited through one or two homes that became progressively less attentive. 
So, what does Day 1 look like when any TB arrives at Chez Chevaux?
First, a walk around the perimeter of the barn and the barn aisle so they can see where they are, settle,then into their stall where a meal of (for OTTBs)  whatever hay they are used to is waiting for them. Our regular feeding program includes 4 daily servings of hay and a.m and p.m supplement feeding. OTTBs are often used  to having full haynets in front of them. Throughout the first  week, we make sure they have some good grass hay available, when stalled, between feedings. For underweight rescues, mini-meals of second cutting orchard grass hay will be fed. All of our stalls have attached paddocks and an incoming horse will be housed next to a calm, friendly and happy resident that can serve as a social ambassador. Should a new horse require stall rest or limited movement for rehabilitative reasons, we can close off paddocks or offer a small paddock. Horses are supremely intelligent herd animals that glean much from watching and interacting.We can see the barn from the house and my office and we monitor how quickly a new horse relaxes in his/her new space. Domesticated horses like a predictable routine and they relax and settle in most quickly when it is apparent that a logical routine is in place.
As the incoming TB relaxes and demonstrates additional curiousity, we may introduce some turnout and a hand-walk around the arena on Day 1, although that's usually  Day 2. 

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thoroughbred Identification- Consider Microchipping

Chez Chevaux is a rescue organization devoted  to thoroughbred horses. Priority is given to ex-racehorses. As such, we only accept purebred thoroughbreds as residents.We are happy to offer any referral assistance that we can to those who contact us enquiring about placement options for any equines in need. 
While all of the TBs currently at Chez Chevaux are accompanied by their original papers, we will be microchipping them. We also directly assist, as possible, TBs with or without their papers that  we don't have room for here, provided that we can establish that they ARE TBs. 
The Jockey Club is the Registry that maintains records and issues the Registration Papers for thoroughbred foals. A complete set of registration requirements may be found by visiting the site and searching the Interactive Registration Help Desk.
In 2001 The Jockey Club inaugerated identifying DNA as one precondition of TB foal registration. While microchipping TBs and the reporting of the same remains optional, the Jockey Club does maintain records regarding the TBs for whom such information has been reported.
Personally, I would like to see standardized microchipping become a mandatory addition for TB foal registration. Although thoroughbreds that raced will have been tattooed inside their upper lips, those that did not are unlikely to be. Those tattoos fade over time and may often become indecipherable as TBs age.
Whenever possible, we contact prior connections of an incoming TB to let them know where the horse is now. To some it may be a comfort, others are shocked, and there may be those that don't care.
Please see below regarding TBs that could be quickly identified:

King 5 Broadcasting Story 

The Thoroughbred Times 

For the TBs that don't have readable tattoos or their papers in hand, an implanted microchip could provide an added technological safety net if someone with a scanner was there to look for it.
If auctions were REQUIRED to scan all horses for microchips, and any microchipped horse going through auction without original papers and/or a permanent brand inspection card (the brand inspection card is not, alone, necessarily a wholly accurate means of identification, but a number of western states do require it for interstate transport) was held at least three days for identification to ensure it wasn't stolen, it could help buy more  horses some time.
Consider: A neighbor left her home to run a few errands on a Saturday afternoon. When she returned, three of her four horses were right where they should have been: In their turnout pastures, eating grass...but, her Friesian gelding was missing, along with his halter and leadrope. 
Luckily, he was back at home by evening. 
Two teenaged girls (unknown to the owner) had trespassed onto the property and stolen the gelding.  Several miles down the road, they approached a home with a barn and deposited him there, along with the highly suspect story that they found him wandering loose down the road. The Snohomish County Sherriffs' Department had been contacted immediately by the owner, and, thankfully, by the person who stalled him pending proper reunification with his rightful person.
This gelding is papered and microchipped. 
But, had he been transported to an auction, such documentation might not have helped much if a scanner and some wait time wasn't routine auction protocol.  


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Emerald Downs

On Saturday, February 16, Susie Sourwine, VP of Marketing for Emerald Downs announced a new (and first ever) fund for off the track Thoroughbreds. It is called the PRODIGIOUS FUND, named after a horse who raced for seven years and retired, healthy, in 2007. The proceeds for 2008 will be divided between Second Chance Ranch and Chez Chevaux. Owners and trainers at Emerald Downs have been very supportive of our work. They are committed to finding good homes for the horses who leave the track and we are a valuable resource for them, however, we need funding to keep the program going! The Prodigious Fund will be a popular option for owners to support and honor the horses they love, all the way through retirement. I am extremely honored and grateful to Emerald Downs for introducing the fund, and for their continued generosity! In past years, Emerald Downs and the WTBA have been dedicated to promoting our work and donating to the cause. Ron Crockett, President of Emerald Downs, kicked off the fund by personally donating $5,000!