Saturday, May 31, 2008

Horses in New York

I'm in the US for a couple of weeks to see my son graduate from Harvard Business School and just to visit with my daughter, another grad student at NYU, in New York. One of the items on the itinerary of this trip has been a trip to the American Natural History Museum on Central Park West to see their exhibition The Horse. A couple of months ago I received an email from one of the curators of the exhibit asking if they could use my photo, The Eighth Generation, the picture here of Mme. Wegdan el Barbary and her Arab mare Bagdada with Bagdada's filly. The filly is now a mare herself, since I took the photo in 2005. Unfortunately, we couldn't take any photographs inside the exhibition and they are not going to print a catalogue, so I will frame the photo for Dany when I get back.

The exhibit is delightful, including equine skeletons and physical information along with examples of saddles and bridles from history and different ethnic groups and information on the activities of horses and humans throughout history. Outside in the park surrounding the museum there are some fiberglass casts of life-sized horses that have been decorated by artists. It's a welcome break for me as I'm missing my equine and canine crew here in the Big Apple.

Being a big city, New York doesn't have that much space for horses, but they do have the carriage horses in the park. My daughter and I took about half an hour the other day opposite the Plaza Hotel to do a good inspection of them, as every so often we hear cries about the "abuse" of these horses. After extended conversations with the horses and much petting and hand nuzzling, I feel pretty confident to confirm that these horses are in no way abused. All that we saw bordered a bit on fat, as a matter of fact, with well-trimmed feet and properly fitting harnesses.

If some people think that having to pull a carriage through a shady park during the day is abuse, well, they should probably try standing around in a walk-in closet all day with nothing to do. The fact is that when the working conditions are reasonable, horses would prefer working to not working. It's much more interesting.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, May 05, 2008

Learning to Slow Down

Saturday was the Kentucky Derby, not an Egyptian event but horse people are horse people world wide and we were all horrified to see that the young mare who came in second had to be euthanized on the race track at the end of the race. As someone who raises and trains horses, I find this particularly upsetting. I still remember so clearly the death of Ruffian, one of the most spectacular mares in racing in a horrendous racetrack breakdown in the late 70's. I don't believe in keeping horses in glass cases lest they get a scratch, but it is so definitely time for the equestrian industries to clean up their act.

By equestrian industries, I mean not just the thoroughbred flat track racing industry in the US, but also other equestrian industries as well. We have the tourism stables here in Nazlit Semman where young horses are shipped in quantity to be sold on, to be used for tourist rides at the Giza pyramids, and all too often to be injured, overworked, and improperly cared for. In Egypt and much of the Middle East we have both Arabian and Thoroughbred flat track racing and we also have the heavily industrialised FEI endurance racing, which is actually not much more than flat track racing but on incredibly long distances. What all of these industries share in common is the fact that they are making money through the use of horses but are not looking out for the best care of their raw materials...the horses.

Horses are not machines. They might not be the rocket scientists of the animal world, but they are social animals who know their friends and family, they are capable of extraordinary care for the puny humans who presume to climb on them and boss them around, and they do much of what they do for humans out of an amazing trust, misplaced as it may be. The flat track industry is probably regulated more by the customer support for the events than anything else and the editorial from the New York Times that the title of this post links to points out that the industry needs to stop and take a hard look at the way that the race horses are bred, trained and raced. People will get tired of seeing lovely horses die at very young ages. After all, there is no reason that race horses can't wait to race until they are four, five or even...GASP!....six. Most serious horse people know that horses get better as they get older, like humans, and that they aren't even really mature until they are about seven years old. I don't start my horses under saddle until they are four because the spine of the young horse hasn't stopped growing until then. They have plenty to learn in terms of training and socialisation before they handle a rider, and when they do, they have a pretty good idea of what is going on and how to deal with it. The main reason for racing horses young is to get back the buyer's investment as quickly as possible. Big business strikes again. Wake up guys! It isn't called the Sport of Kings for's called that because only kings could afford it. No one ever made a lot of money on horses..they are how you make a small fortune out of a big one.

Endurance racing and three day eventing are theoretically amateur sports, or at least what passes for amateur these days. In the old days of my youth, an amateur sport was one that you did for fun, not to win a cash prize or to make a living. The International Equestrian Federation (the FEI) is the umbrella group for the national equestrian federations that are supposed to be overseeing these amateur equestrian sports. According to their website, they are supposed to be be the guardian of the welfare of the horses participating in FEI disciplines (show jumping, eventing, dressage, endurance, driving, and so on). They are supposed to be there to be the spokesman for the silent partners who give everything they have to the sport, including, all too often, their lives. Unfortunately, the FEI makes its money from the very sports that they are supposed to be supervising.

Its income comes from the fees it charges those who are putting on FEI events, to which a portion of the prize money (what happened to the amateurs?) that is offered at the events is added, as is a fee for drug testing and supervising personnel and so on. It is, therefore, in the corporate interest of the FEI to have big events with lots of sponsorship and television rights and excitement. Eventing horses and riders have been paying a very heavy price for this lately with a number of deaths in the last few weeks, including two horses euthanized and two riders injured (one, Laine Ashker, very seriously...her horse Frodo was one put down, a dream horse who had been in the film Lord of The Rings). At some point, one would imagine that if the governing body were really governing, they would take a long hard look at something other than the balance sheet. (By the way, the charges for each service are available online on the FEI website at

In the end, a major source of the cancer, as I see it, comes from the push to make equestrian sports television friendly spectator sports. Personally, I don't want to watch horses on television. I'd rather be riding.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani