You’ve heard it, and you’re going to hear it more: Racing is cruel. Eventing is cruel. Regardless of the sport receiving the label, the opinion usually surfaces after a disaster — a horse dropping dead on the track or hung up in the middle of a complicated cross-country obstacle. Such occurrences are horrifying, but do they mark the sport as cruel' What is “cruel”'
Blatant cruelty is universally agreed upon: starvation, unsanitary conditions and grossly inadequate basic care. Less clear are issues such as whether long feet on gaited horses, poling jumpers or 100-mile rides are cruel. Some folks think they are.
Obviously, it’s cruel to compete a lame horse, but what about the old campaigner whose legs carry an assortment of thickened tendons and distended joints' Is this “cruel”' Who decides'
Cruelty needs to be defined. It can’t simply be making a horse do something he would not “naturally” do. That would eliminate all equine sports. No horse is going to walk up to you, get down on his knees and invite you to take a ride. But is cruelty forcing a horse to do something he does not want to do' In some instances, yes.
Whipping an exhausted horse across the finish line is cruel. However, that doesn’t make racing cruel; it’s the trainer’s poor preparation of that individual animal that is cruel. Riders/trainers involved in such acts should be, and generally are, heavily fined and face revocation of their licenses if the cruelty persists.
Cruelty must be assessed on the basis of the individual incident — not the type of sport. Any horse competed without proper conditioning is being abused. This includes hopping on the backyard horse for a spur-of-the-moment ride he is not fit enough for.
The horse must also be properly schooled. Overfacing a horse with a jump he does not know how to handle is cruel. Competing a horse beyond his ability is cruel. It is our responsibility to accurately assess a horse’s talent and compete at an appropriate level.
A more subtle but equally valid consideration is whether or not the horse is “happy.” The happy horse performs his task with eagerness, ears pricked, attentive to the directives of the rider. Shouldn’t this be a consideration' If a horse has an assortment of battle scars that flare up from time to time, but he tears through the hunt field with sheer joy, is it really in that horse’s best interests to be reschooled for a discipline he finds restrictive'
We have an awesome responsibility to provide for our horses’ general health, to institute training programs that adequately develop strength and skills, to detect and treat injuries in a timely manner and to devise sports that are challenging but within the abilities of the horse. We also must nourish and support the intangible heart and spirit of the individual animal. Cruelty lies not in a specific sport but in failing to meet any one of those responsibilities.
’Til Next Month,
-Eleanor Kellon, VMD