After 15 years at the racetrack, I can no longer watch a horse race | Elizabeth Banicki

I galloped thousands of horses in my life as an exercise rider. I cannot remain silent about what I ensure – particularly after the deaths of ponies at Santa Anita

I have come to a time in my life where I cannot watch a horse race. It evokes too much anxiety and dread, flashbacks of tragedy, so I close my eyes and pray only for the horses to make it home safely. It is an odd thing considering I spent 15 years at the racetrack and couldn’t have defined myself outside of it. As I write this- after a recent rash of deaths of horses at Santa Anita Park– I sit in a pasture outside Austin, typing and watching my 20 -year-old former racehorse graze. I took him off the way when he was five and had to be retired because he had already fractured both hind ankles. One carries a pin in it to this day. It would be years before they stopped blowing-up with fluid any time he did anything above a walk.

On of my earliest recollections of being on the way was at 15 years old. I was sitting on a bale of straw in a barn on the backside of Philadelphia Park Racetrack. My boss, a horse trainer, came striding down the shedrow and handed me a cheesesteak sandwich from the backside kitchen. He told me to keep watch. Hot walkers with steaming wet ponies circled the shed like fish in a bowl.” You see anyone aside from these guys strolling ponies, keep telling me ,” he said with icy eyes. Then he and the bridegroom ducked into the dimly light stalling with the horse we had shipped in to run that day. They hovered around the horse’s head in a corner administering something the bridegroom later told me” was to help him breathe “. I turned back to watch what they were doing and hear the rasping of a lighter and considered wisps of smoke. They whooshed the smoke into the horse’s nostrils and in short, panting whiffs the colt pilled the smoking into his lungs.

The horse ran third the working day and I never could determine with any certainty what the smoky treatment was. Perhaps something altogether benign, yet the scene has maintained a sinister presence in my memory. As it turned out, that day would be only the beginning of what I would see during my life as an exercise rider on the backsides of America’s racetracks.

I galloped thousands of horses and so many were combating injury and otherwise malfunctioning legs that one of my strongest general recollections is of working from on top of their backs to actively help them from stumbling and falling. I galloped ponies who moved so poorly it was as if every step was a new agony. Their chronic pain coupled with the unnatural way they are forced to live can lead to depression, frustration and listlessness. Some ponies get so angry they charge, teeth bared and intent to hurt, anyone strolling by their stall door.

Either in the forefront or in the subconscious of every rider’s mind when legged-up on a racehorse is the fear that they might go down. At top speed a transgres leg spells the final moment for a horse and perhaps for the rider as well. Riders are on constant lookout. Ponies that are chronically injured but still in develop, still operating races, are called ” cripples” in racetrack slang, and a trainer who engages in the practice of treating their ponies this route is called ” a butcher “. These are words all racetrackers in America understand. The rigors of training and running ensure that virtually no horse finishes a career unscathed and most are done by five years old.

Eventually I attained my way to Santa Anita in Los Angeles. At Santa Anita I landed a undertaking with a prominent outfit galloping some of the best-bred horses in the world. Though I is currently working on the top string for a prestigious trainer, I was not exerting the stars. Instead I rode largely the “sore” horses, the ones who needed nursing through their gallops. Some warmed up and their step softened and procured a rhythmic safety. In those cases, I settled in as passenger staying out their way as they developed themselves. I was routinely reprimanded for not making my ponies gallop fast enough, because in my barn overall fitness took priority above the quality of the legs. If the legs didn’t hold up there was a fresh situate waiting to be shipped in. For a time, I galloped a small two-year-old filly who was in a bad way. I worried about her and so I alerted the jockey ahead of a race to be careful. The following morning the assistant trainer marched into the barn and announced:” We have a leak .” My offense was considered treason. My filly finished that race safely but sadly a few years later her jockey been participating in a accident during a race that left him in a wheelchair and his horse dead.

Though I had always been uncomfortable with the culture of forcing ponies to run, I did also have relationships with many who loved to develop. Galloping a healthy, voice and happy pony who loves to run is the most spiritual, magical thing I’ve experienced. Any exercise rider or jockey will tell you the same. A bond can be established that it truly otherworldly. But when a pony is hurt, aggressively medicated, and forced to train and race repeatedly at speeds that surpass their natural tendency, then it constitutes abuse. The current standard in American racing- lots of medication and extreme speeds on legs too young to endure it- is abusive and the ponies have no choice in the matter whatsoever. It isn’t simply an issue of animal rights, it is one of ethics and morality.

I came to a time late in my career when I could no longer ignore inside of me what I was find outside. The tapping of ankles on a three-year-old that released a projectile stream of fluid followed by steroid injections. Ponies hobbling to, around and from the track. Young horses breaking their legs in half. I justified doing my job by telling myself, and sometimes others, that these horses would have to train whether I was there or not, and if I could make it easier on them by being kind, letting them go slow and cutting the distance short when I wasn’t being watched, then I was helping in some way to combat the greater doom they faced. I hope to some degree this was true. I know many riders who felt the same. I don’t fall back on those excuses now, however still conflicted I am thinking about racing. The way was my home and to this day I would feel that way. I also understand the dilemma for backside people who need to make a living; they are not the ones ultimately responsible for what racing has become.

The horses must be protected. It’s high time that become priority number one. There are billions of dollars in the upper echelons of racing, so an industry-sponsored thoroughbred retirement program is an absolute must. Additionally, an industry-wide overhaul of the status quo for medicating ponies, one that invites federal oversight, and a solid reform of training techniques should be addressed immediately and remain on the agenda for the foreseeable future. I was delighted to see The Jockey Club has now called out for aggressive and dramatic changes in regulation. If American racing can espouse the rights and a focus on the wellbeing of its equine athletes, only then can the sport maybe recover its poorly tarnished image.

But for today, I look at my racehorse in his retirement, I shudder to think of what could have been. Yet an even darker believed is for the horses who still have races to run, races they may not survive.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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