Horse Racing: Breeding by the Numbers

In the Ring

Once a mare has foaled nothing remotely normal ensues. Breeding stallions typically remain on the studs and the mares, now-fertile only 7 to 10 days after giving birth, are transported to these farms for re-impregnation.

What becomes of their foals?

The journey to the auction ring begins with the nurse mares. Due to the urgency of re-breeding the broodmares after foaling, the Thoroughbred foals are abruptly weaned and cared for by surrogate mothers known as nurse mares. The tradition of breeding ordinary mares to ordinary studs to induce lactation has been practiced for many years. Originally these mares served to nurture rejected foals or those whose mothers died in childbirth.

Today this is a thriving industry as a result of the explosion in breeding numbers and the frenzied quest to mass produce foals in hopes of producing a single racing champion. Just like the broodmares, the nurse mares are subject to the same recurrent cycling of pregnancy losing their foals prematurely and are leased out to profitable breeding farms as surrogates for the privileged Thoroughbred foals.

The fate of the nurse mare foals compared to their Thoroughbred complements however, are categorically opposed. While the thoroughbred foal is coddled and valued as a potential race horse, the nurse mare foals are merely the by-products of the industry. A fortunate few may be rescued by horse advocacy groups but the greater part are killed by clubbing or other means, some are starved to death and others are sold to the tanning industry for their hides also known as “pony skin”. Since it is illegal to send foals under six months to slaughter, they skin them to manufacture high-end “Cordovan” leather products.

Foals reach their maximum commercial value as yearlings. As commercial breeding of Thoroughbreds escalated during the 80’s and 90’s so did the prices for yearlings. What was once considered normal no longer was in vogue and a new breed of ‘enhanced” yearling was born. Gone were the natural ways to prepare the weanlings for the ring and what emerged in its place is still controversial today.

The demand surged for large, muscular, sleek yearlings with straight legs; by definition “correct”. These sought after attributes are achieved through aberrant measures that put enormous stress on these young horses. They are fed high-protein, high-carbohydrate diets and administered steroidal drugs to build muscle mass and bulk. Confinement is typical as is forced exercise using treadmills
Even more disturbing are the surgical procedures coupled with corrective measures used to straighten their awkward legs.

“Toeing out is corrected by stripping – pulling back the edges of the periosteum, the tissue that protects the bone, to stimulate the side of the growth plate that has fallen below and caused the asymmetry.”

“Knock knees are corrected by insertion of screws, wires or staples that retard growth on the side of the plate that has raced ahead.”

Many breeders are apprehensive to use these methods but feel forced to due to stiff competition from others whose only goal is “big money”. None of these methods are natural nor are they long-lasting as a result of rapid and superficial growth that takes place during the first year of the weanling’s life. For the most part it is uncertain what these procedures will generate later in life and some claim that these surgeries may in fact contribute to unsoundness. Moreover there is no apparent correlation between straight legs and performance.

Once these yearlings are ready for their debut in the auction ring, the ruse continues. Analogous to a beauty pageant, these young horses literally gleam. Having been taught to walk correctly and pose for the audience they make their awe-inspiring entrance. Polished coats, glinting noses coated in Vaseline, along with their lustrous eyes and ears coated with baby oil and feet painted with black equine nail polish they are magnificent creatures to behold.

But are they real and will they perform? The cursory nature of their preparation makes it difficult for even the most seasoned buyer to differentiate between a potential winner and an average run-of-the-mill horse. Even so, the cruelty and abuse these literal “babies” are subjected to is in itself reprehensible – all for the sake of money. Commercialization has effectively demonized the racing industry.


Researched and Written by JANE ALLIN
© Int’l Fund for Horses 2011

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