When humans fail horses

There’s been a lot of chatter going on this week on social media about what happened to Mongolian Groom in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. I’ve seen it discussed by so many different people, from so many different backgrounds. Some are blaming the track, some are blaming officials, some are even blaming Mongolian Groom’s pedigree (that one I don’t particularly agree with).

Seeing what the non-horse people are saying is probably the most troubling. It’s easy, as an “insider” who understands the animals and the sport a lot more, to shrug off those opinions or roll your eyes at them, saying they’re just the uneducated public. But the truth is, their opinion is what’s going to make or break this sport. Public perception matters, and what’s happening now is the ultimate PR nightmare: a horse breaking down on prime time tv at a track that has been making headlines all year for horse deaths. The public sees jockeys whipping the tar out of horses, a horse’s leg turning into a spaghetti noodle underneath it, and then voila – yet another death. It’s incredibly bad for racing, and honestly it doesn’t exactly shed a positive light on ANY equestrian sports, as far as the public is concerned. They don’t know the difference.

The videos of Mongolian Groom’s last few workouts also make you wonder what exactly happened here. The horse didn’t look good on these videos.

https://www.xbtv.com/video/workout/mongolian-groom-galloped-at-santa-anita-park-on-october-31st-2019/?fbclid=IwAR0lQs4Jj8ZeM8V_n2NZsuLNVYaukterCUqPCgn19c3kLpFcfsoKWcWEg6w

He’s also had a pretty packed schedule. In the last 12 months he raced 13 times. He spent all spring training and racing at Santa Anita when horses were dropping left and right. He traveled to the east coast and back twice. He’s done 9 stakes races since April of this year – 7 months time. At one point he even did two Grade 1 races two weeks apart, with a third less than a month later. Not a schedule you see that often with a hard-running stakes horse.

Mongolian Groom had a heck of a year, with no breaks. He finished pretty consistently in the money and put up speed figures between 105 and 126 all but one time. If his record tells us anything, it’s that the horse was definitely a trier. He showed up and he did his job, time and again, right up until he couldn’t. This wasn’t a horse that colicked, or had a pasture accident, or whatever myriad ways that horses find to die on a regular basis. This wasn’t a case where everything was done right and the horse just fell on some shit luck. This was man-made, on the world stage, while in service to entertain people, with a lot of questionable factors involved. Combine his record, how he looked in those workout videos, the controversy surrounding Santa Anita, and what happened in the Classic… it makes me feel like humans really failed this horse along the way. Massively.

That’s the part of this that is so heartbreaking to me. The shit storm is really tough to watch, but honestly… maybe the sport deserves it. Maybe all horse sports do. Maybe we ALL need to do a better job of looking after these horses, and if we can’t do that, if we can’t put the well-being of the horse as the highest priority, then maybe we don’t deserve to have a sport. Business is business, yeah sure I get it, but at what cost? I will never be comfortable with the idea of horses being disposable. And using up a good horse certainly isn’t limited to just racing, you see it all the time. Shoot, there was an eventer that did Burghley (didn’t finish, but made it about halfway around), Blenheim, AND Pau. And how many people are out there showing 3+ days a week, 20+ weeks a year?

Maybe I’m overreacting or being a bleeding heart, or maybe I’m just tired of seeing horses pay the price. It’s been a long year, with way too many lost horses in several sports, and my heart is weary. We haven’t done our best by these horses. But I do know one thing… if we don’t fix this – if racing doesn’t fix their massive PR problem, and if all horse sports don’t sit up and pay attention to what’s happening here – it will trickle down to all of us. Someday the industry as a whole will have to answer for this, and that day is coming.

45 thoughts on “When humans fail horses

  1. It’s the fundamental issue of social license to operate, and a good portion of my research with horses.

    We’ve had big problems with it in Australia due to the high number of catastrophic injuries to horses running in the Melbourne cup over the last few years.

    The cup was on this Tuesday and had the lowest attendance in over 20 years which is a telling sign of public perception regarding “the race that stops the nation”. One of the runners fractured its pelvis during the race but luckily should make a full recovery.

    As you stated, it does the sport – all equestrian sports really – no favours to see the same issues that cause the public concern cropping up time and time again with little done by the industry to change or improve the welfare situation.

    By the same token, it’s frustrating (at least here) for the activists that decide they care about horses only for one week a year and offer no viable solutions and merely exist to point out problems. I’m neither for or against the racing industry. There’s good and bad everywhere and when you cross animals with money there will always be scummy people who are willing to sacrifice wellbeing for a higher dollar value. But shutting the whole industry down doesn’t really help the horses either and they are supposedly the reason the activists want it gone.

    Big conundrum and one I could ramble about for a long time 😅

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    1. Man, the animal rights groups here are active all the time, and all horse sports get painted with the same brush. They don’t know the difference between racing and trail riding – to them riding is riding. They’re loudest after things like this, for sure, but they’re always there. And these incidents lend credit to their extremism (which I agree, isn’t good for the industry at all in any way – they don’t understand the effect that many of their demands would have). It goes to show though that we have to police ourselves well and thoroughly and promptly, or whether we like it or not eventually outsiders will police us, which isn’t likely to be good for anyone.

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      1. There are a small contingent that remain active year round, but otherwise they crawl out of the woodwork for the spring racing carnival crying “nup to the cup”. This year was particularly bad after the ABC released an expose into the treatment of horse handling in abattoirs (but only discussing the number of TB and STB horses going through) which was appalling no matter where you stand on the racing debate.

        We do need to start holding ourselves and the industry as a whole to a much higher standard if we want to be able to justify the use of horses in performance/pleasure riding. It can be such an old fashioned and stagnant place that affecting change is often slow and met with great resistance.

        The rider weight ratio issue is a perfect example of that.

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  2. I understand that horses perform at a high level only when they want to. It’s like that in dog sledding and other animal driven sports. The animal has to want it. But the horse doesn’t get to decide what drugs are shot into it, how much they train and when they race. They don’t look at the weather, the turf and the temps. They go because they love to run and it is an amazing thing to see. It’s our job to make it safe. It is our job to see to it that beyond an unimaginable accident or bad luck (pasture injury, aneurysm etc) that they return to the stable healthy in mind and body. That is where we are failing. Endurance is no better. In fact I’d argue it is way worse at the moment especially in certain areas. Eventually it will stop. Whether that is by banning sport or the industry making major changes is yet to be seen.

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      1. I think AERC endurance (*not* FEI: that’s a whole different beast) is the one equestrian sport that *does* watch out for the welfare of the horses, especially when compared to just about every other popular equestrian sport out there at the upper levels.

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        1. I’m going to disagree. The drug testing is WOEFULLY inadequate, and the competitors know it. The vetting can be good, but I’ve also seen it massively fail. At the regional level it’s a hard point to balance. Unfortunately for AERC, it’s too broke to support better choices.

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      2. Endurance the WORLD OVER needs to watch itself.. We have good welfare standards in Australia but yes, drug testing is thin on the ground and plenty of people knowingly sell to the Group VII countries. And plenty of THOSE are in positions of power on the National governing body…

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        1. It horrifies me that anyone would sell an endurance horse to the Group VII countries. It’s like a deliberate wanton act of cruelty to a horse – they KNOW what will happen to it over there. It is like the TWH big lick owners claiming they don’t know that their horses are criminally abused to get the gait. When either of these two groups claim they don’t know what’s happening, they are the only horse people on the planet who are don’t know. I’m all for putting penalties on owners. If we could hold sellers accountable for knowingly selling a horse to abuse, I’d do that, too.

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  3. We were discussing this briefly at the barn on Sunday and my trainer mentioned that horse racing has really taken to giving a legal (but unapproved) drug called Osphos to their yearlings so that they Xray better/cleaner. The logic seems to be that yearlings don’t Xray well because their bones are growing and this masks it or changes the way the bones are growing, or something to that effect. I haven’t done any research on it myself due to lack of time — but just logically, I would think a navicular drug given to young, growing horses for this purpose (or any purpose, really) could potentially weaken their growing bones, causing a slew of issues once they are in training and/or racing. Seems likely to be related, but again, I’ve not done my own research on it. This is just what the conversation was the other day.

    Also, that horse was 3-legged lame in that workout and I can’t believe he wasn’t scratched or DQ’d.

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    1. Osphos is a drug that was FDA approved for use in humans with osteoporosis. It acts on the bone, stopping bone from, basically, naturally shedding dead tissue. This artificially “strengthens” bone. In a compromised individual, this is critical. In a healthy one… it’s not great. You’re encouraging the bone to keep older tissue instead of shedding it as new is created. Interestingly Osphos and Tildren are no longer used in people. “We have better solutions now,” say people in the medical and pharma industries. Personally, I wouldn’t use these drugs on my horses. And the important thing to note is these drugs DO NOT grow more bone. They will not regrow arthritic tissues. They will not repair damage done. They just keep the horse from naturally shedding old dead bone tissue.

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      1. Just to be clear. That action of Osphos is exactly why it does work in some navicular cases. I do think it can be a good option in those situations. Otherwise… no.

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      2. Thanks for the added details! So,if the bones aren’t shedding old and/or damaged tissue to regenerate it and as a side effect, strengthen themselves, presumably they would be seriously compromised.

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    2. I disagree that he was 3-legged lame in the workout. Nothing of the kind. There are a LOT of higher-level horse performers in all kinds of horse sport who have a little this or that going on, and still perform well. The same is true of human career athletes. I saw a horse moving a bit funky in the workout video, but there is no way to know from that video how serious is the condition.
      My caution is that over-stated claims actually undermine the argument to take greater care. It encourages people to disregard the warning.

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  4. I don’t have any answers for the problems in racing, but holy crap, that video. That poor horse was failed on every possible level by his people. It’s just so sad.

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  5. Of course I’ve already started sounding off about this, as you know… but to reiterate the point I made on FB- how the hell did this horse get to race? What about doing soundness jogs publicly? Bringing more transparency to racing? And what about changing how early they are started as colts/fillies? I don’t necessarily want the whole industry to go down, but agree that if they can’t even appear to put horse welfare first, then maybe it deserves all this trouble.

    PS I almost shared this on my page, but I’ll share it here:
    https://www.paulickreport.com/news/ray-s-paddock/a-gun-to-our-heads-california-trainers-struggle-with-what-lies-ahead/?fbclid=IwAR1UpKl8TiepAbycxP_kZyTNUuiCgHz4S4jeqxqCF9qs8Zym6srH-pzjLQk

    The fact that they are lamenting the loss of their jobs and not coming up with solutions for the horses, or pondering what happened to these poor horses… It just makes my blood boil. Granted, that could be thanks to some editing choices by the publication, but it sure does add fuel to the fire.

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    1. So, I’m going to put my neck out and say that I’m not wholly behind pushing back the start date of these horses. Science doesn’t back up starting later as being better for overall soundness. Personally I prefer my horses to have been started earlier. With early conditioning, I think their bodies are more able to withstand stresses later. That said. We need to stop overstressing horses. Period. That means too many races too close should be regulated.

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      1. I suppose I should have clarified- it’s not just the starting, but the gallops at young ages that I think are hard on them and don’t make for life-long soundness. It would be interesting (in a morbid way) to learn the training histories of the horses that have died at Santa Anita.

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      2. Except you can get the same improvements in bone density and tendon strength by chucking them out in a large paddock with a mob of youngsters to play run and generelly – you know – be horses. The study showing improved soundness with early starts was comparing ridden animals with young horses stalled and/or in small paddocks. So you can produce the same effects on bone without all the mental and gastric side effects by – you know – letting them be baby horses. I don’t have an issue with early starting, done properly, and some big bolshy babies (and entire horses) benefit from an early start and getting the ground rules down. But the claim that “early starts make sounder horses” is scientifically dubious.

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  6. This terrifies me. I love horse racing, but every single race I watch now I’m nervous one is going to break down. I’ve seen breakdowns in person and they are gut wrenching. I agree with everything you said in your post. This is going to affect ALL horse sports and if we don’t take care of it ourselves and stop this crap from happening, those who have no idea about horses are going to do it for us and it won’t be pretty.

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  7. I’m not sure how all those track vets they had brought in didn’t notice what we can see in the videos of his workouts. That’s something, right? Are there any rules about how often horses are allowed to race? Or time in between big races? Maybe that’s something that could be tracked and have restrictions.
    I agree with you, this horse’s people failed him. He had a heart as big as he was, and he deserved better.
    I’m not anti-horse racing. There are plenty of wonderful trainers out there that do right for their horses. But there is a lot that needs to be fixed if it’s going to continue.

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  8. I don’t even have words anymore. I’ve written four comments and deleted them because none of them adequately express what I want to say. I am angered by what seems to be rampant deaths and career-ending injuries across many disciplines (humans and horses alike). I’m tired of explaining to non-equestrians that I am not abusing the horses I ride. I am disheartened at the (lack of) response by the racing community at large.

    I was briefly encouraged by the reports that Santa Anita had substantially beefed up its safety efforts. I’m glad for that. But they/racing need more. Especially in light of the video(s) that have surfaced of MG and what appears to be unsoundness before the race. I don’t know the horse and it’s hard to judge snippets of video accurately…but it certainly doesn’t look good.

    So many things…it’s hard to even know where to start. We need to act before we get shut out by the non-equestrian community.

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  9. I’ve been a (conflicted) tb racing fan ever since I was a horse crazy kid. Watching Secretariat’s Belmont was one of the high points of my life. Watching Ruffian’s catastrophic breakdown in a match race with Foolish Pleasure was literally heartbreaking. They didn’t bring out those handy green curtains back then. You had to watch that magnificent mare stumbling around, still trying to race, with her leg dangling. It made me physically ill.

    Sir Barton – first triple crown winner in 1916 raced 31 times. Gallant Fox had 17 starts. Omaha – 22. War Admiral – 26. Whirlaway – 60. Count Fleet – 21. Assault – 42. Citation – 45. Secretariat – 21. Seattle Slew – 17. Affirmed – 29. American Pharoah – 11. Justify – 6. Secretariat’s breeding rights were syndicated for a record breaking $6 million with the stipulation that his racing career was over. Affirmed was syndicated for $14.4 million. American Pharoah for $13.8 million. Justify for $60 million.

    I love to watch thoroughbreds race, and I believe they love to run. But greed is ruining the sport. Partly to blame is the race to the breeding shed, where the serious money is made. The real crime though, is not putting the well being of equine athletes first – which leads directly to drugging and running horses that are not fit to be raced. All for the sake of entertainment, and the almighty dollar. JMHO and apologies for the rant.

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    1. CFS, you said exactly what I would have written, including watching Secretariat and Ruffian. The highest of highs, the lowest of lows, and then Barbaro, too. I’ve been a racing fan for as long as I can remember and Thoroughbreds will forever be my favorite breed. But it’s getting to where I’m almost afraid to watch them run. Last time I went to the track (at Fairmount Park in IL, a small outfit) there was a horse who was clearly lame in the paddock. I couldn’t watch that race but he did finish, thank God.

      I’m also a PR practitioner and have watched with mounting horror as the reputation of racing, and indeed all horse sports, has plummeted with the general public. Even casual acquaintances at work are giving me side-eye when I mention something about being a rider, and I dare not even speak of the Triple Crown races unless it’s with horse friends. Not even some of them anymore, actually!

      It’s very, very bad that TB racing is top-heavy with wealthy people who apparently don’t care what John Q. Public thinks. It’s very, very bad that there is no central governing body that can finally get its act together to start fixing what’s broken (Ban. The. Drugs., for starters) What is it going to take for that to happen?? But this billion-dollar industry is clearly in jeopardy. If you have no bettors.. and no tracks… there’s no more racing in America, even if you’re Sheik Mo. The status quo MUST change.

      (Apparently our lawmakers will be of no use, either, considering Big Lick is still going on. Talk about VISIBLE torture of horses. Anyone with two eyes in their face can see THAT.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I really struggle with horse racing and this is why. I have had multiple OTTBs, and they are the gamest horses on the planet. We as their stewards in life have an obligation to protect them and we are failing miserably. We need to do better.

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  11. As someone who works in the racing industry for one of the “good guys”, but also is getting increasingly frustrated with the disparity between horse racing (thoroughbreds specifically, my experience in standardbreds was much more pleasant) and my sport of choice (endurance), here are my over-simplified thoughts:
    Abuse follows money in ANYTHING. There is a price tag on everyone’s morality. For some of us, that price is just higher than others. The second you involve money in a horse discipline, morals start to slowly go out the window and the risks to the horses go up. Don’t believe me? Look at the horse welfare in AERC endurance where you get a t-shirt if you complete v. horse welfare in Dubai where there are millions of dollars on the line. Unfortunately, horse racing is the one discipline that is a business first and a sport second. You cannot “fix” horse racing without cutting into profit margins. Starting horses later means having to feed/vet/shoe/train them longer before you see a return on your investment, not to mention having to somehow keep these fragile beasts sounder longer. Also, it would make them harder to rehome. You’d be hard pressed to find a single racehorse that is actually sound enough to pass a pre-purchase exam. Ask me how I know. I can’t name a single one in our barn. And again, I work for a low end operation that really takes very good care of their horses. Plus if you pull all the unsound horses, the races won’t fill and the track won’t make any money. Studies show that turn out helps with bone density, but you can’t keep hundreds of horses in a handful of barns on a dozen acres with turn out. And more property would mean more money spent and therefore less profit. I don’t know what that means for the future of racing except that there is no easy solution. When you’re spending millions of dollars on baby horses just to be able to get a toe in the game, you want a guarantee that you’ll make some money back. For a lot of people (not me personally) that means taking a risk on a horse with some ugly x-rays. Mongolian Groom was in third when he broke down. 11% of $6M is a lot of money. What would you do for half a million dollars? Would you risk a horse’s life? Would you risk a stranger’s? Would you lie to a jury? Would you slap your best friend? Where’s the line? Money talks, and the horses pay the price.

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    1. I saw today that Lone Star Park in DFW, Texas has it in their budget to build more round pens to give the horses some version of turnout. It’s no pasture, but it’s at least progress in horse welfare!

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  12. Some time ago, my local paper, the Toronto Star published a debate about horse racing safety. The No, it’s not safe side presented more or less what commenters have said here. But it was the Yes side that was enough to give a gopher the heartburn. It was written by a vet, no less, who you’d think would know better and not be an ass kisser for the industry. (Except of course it pays him.) He starts off with “Does the racing of horses carelessly force them into a danger zone? No. Horses love to run and compete. They do it naturally.” And claims as evidence that foals and weanlings hold races among themselves in their pastures “to see who is better at what they do best. It is what they love to do.” Hello? Young horses have no notion whatsoever of competition. The running around is simply spontaneous play, like all young animals engage in. The vet then goes on: “Spend a morning … at the track and you will see horses receiving specialized care from passionate horse-loving people who spend long hours each day grooming their horses, preparing their stalls and feeding them treats. ” Wow, what a bunch of saints – oops, *passionate* saints – those people are! All done, not for money – no, no! Out of the goodness of their hearts, no doubt. But, just what is that “specialized care”? And just what is in those “treats”? The vet sums it up; “All of this is to enable [the horses] to do what they love to do and do it impeccably.” Again with the love! After describing all the wonderful things the industry has done to make racing safer (tell that to the horses who died at Santa Anita), he actually goes total mushy little girl who loooooooves horses by recounting how, in a recent Preakness, a horse that dumped its jockey at the starting gate “didn’t turn and go back to the barn. He raced with his fellow competitors, beating a couple of them to the finish line.” This guy is a vet and doesn’t know that this horse was not competing but simply staying with the stampeding herd for safety’s sake??? Forty years with horses tells me that it is a romantic notion to say that horses “enjoy” or “love” racing – or stadium jumping – or dressage – or endurance riding – or reining – or western pleasure – or trail riding – or “big lick” Walking Horse shows…. They do it because we require that they do it. Talent enables some to excel so that the work is perhaps easier for them than for others. And in more cases than we would like to contemplate, they do it because they learn that not doing it brings unpleasant consequences. If horses can be honestly said to “enjoy” or “love” anything, it’s my opinion that it’s being out in a grassy pasture with an amenable herd in which everyone knows his or her place and squabbles are few, plus a pal for mutual withers-nibbling , a sand and/or mud bath area, fresh water in the tubs, and shelter from bad weather. End of story.

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  13. So I’m going to pull the brakes on the alarm over the trotting video that was linked in the blog post. I’ve been watching performance horses go for over 25 years. I’ve spent the last two years micro-eyeballing my own horse for lameness, day by day, during a period that we struggled with some marginal conditions that had to be addressed to keep them from getting worse (he’s much better and past it now, thankfully, but it could always come back so I watch watch watch).

    The ‘trantering’ of an eager but compliant horse who wants to step up to canter but is checked back down to trot may be confusing some people. That’s not lameness.

    There may be a little touch of hinkiness in some of his steps. But it isn’t much, and it isn’t consistent.

    SO right here & now: Watch the warm-up ring at any high-performance horse sport event that has seasoned show horses with a lot of miles, and you’ll see a *lot* worse among horses that still get the job done superbly. Every career athlete (human too) is nursing a few things that are a little bit off. Plenty of champion 5* horses, all disciplines, couldn’t pass the standard PPE. And they aren’t breaking down.

    It is up to the humans who manage them to continuously evaluate and make wise decisions for their welfare.

    My own horse, who has currently been to one tiny schooling show, is slow to start the day on the longe because of a little arthritis in one hind leg. We start slowly and gradually to allow the fluids to work into the joint, and then he’s fine for the day. That is common among working horses of all kinds.

    No one could evaluate MG’s trot in that video but someone who knows extremely well how he goes from day to day, even early warm-up to real work. As an outsider who doesn’t know how he normally travels I see no serious alarms. I’ve seen much more pronounced ouchiness that would abate with a proper warm-up in performance horses from here to there. That’s my take, for what it’s worth.

    But yes — that video will mislead people who don’t know how performance horses commonly go, and will make the public perception that much more confused.

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    1. I respectfully disagree with both points. There are moments when he’s about to break into canter, but if you watch all the videos available from the week before, he consistently moves like that, even in a pure trot.

      And I’ll be honest, I see A LOT of top event horses and jumpers go all the time, have for my entire life, and almost never see anything like that. A horse that moved like that would get rung out of a dressage test. Period. Full stop. It would not pass the jog at an FEI event. How MG looks is, IMO, nowhere near one that “takes a few minutes to warm up”. I have one of those too, but if he looked like that horse does, I’d be on the phone the vet. I don’t know what sports have horses where movement like this is typical in a top level sporthorse, but YIKES. I haven’t seen it myself outside of racehorses.

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    2. I feel the need to clarify that I’m not saying that I think it was ok for him to go that day. I’m saying there is no way I could know based on that one look. I have no opinion, either go or no-go, without a good deal more input.

      I don’t know how much the screening team that passed him to race had to look at and what other information they had (vet records, etc.), so I have no opinion on whether or not they did their job adequately. Of course MG’s own team would have had much more information to evaluate (and yes I agree that his racing schedule was very concerning).

      It is easy to take alarm over what we see in an internet video, which represents a snippet of time and often doesn’t have much context. That makes me very uncomfortable, and not just with horse videos.

      Another thought is why the elite levels of eventing do a Wednesday inspection. It isn’t just to check for unsoundness to compete. It is also to benchmark each horse’s way of going before the performance, for comparison after cross-country. So the inspection after cross-country has a greater depth of information than just the one look.

      That’s what I find to be missing from evaluating based on a single video that could be subject to interpretation. Was he moving like this yesterday? Does he always go like this, or is it related to racing? What does the vet say, and when did the vet last look at it? Etc. & so on. I just wish there was more available before making a call that could affect the future of people, horses, and even the sport itself.

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      1. There were several videos over the course of that week that I saw, not just one. He looked concerning in all of them. They also admitted he tied up days before the race, which could certainly have impacted his movement and biomechanics (which is generally why it requires more recovery time than that).

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  14. Also for what it is worth … this is the video of Justify the day after the Kentucky Derby.

    After he takes a few steps on the gravel, THIS is 3-legged lame.

    This horse went on to master 2 of the toughest races in America and win the Triple Crown, all within just a few weeks of this video.

    So – yes, it is about the manage of the horse provided by the people around him. And yes, some do it better, others do it badly. But it is really hard to jump to a conclusion after just one look at one horse for a few minutes of warm-up. 🙂

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      1. Going to jump in and side with Amanda here… Sure, lots of horses come out a little stiff here or there. But are we asking those horses to compete at the highest level on those days? Levels that ask the horse to give everything they have? Nope. That’s why the highest level classes have jogs to check for soundness. If a horse came out like MG did in those earlier work videos, it would be spun at the jog.

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        1. Agreed. It’s one thing to come out stiff and work out of it. God knows I do that every morning when I get up to workout. It’s also one thing to be excited and be “trantering.” But those 2 scenarios are not the same as having a consistent hitch in a leg at a pure gait.

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