At a recent LOPE event, a well-dressed rancher approached me. He was a leader in the racing industry for many years and even ran his own breeding farm at one point. Fingering his cowboy hat, he squinted at me and asked, "You’re LOPE, right?" In response to my nod, he said, "You’ve been doing this for years now!" Leaning in, he then asked with a note of incredulity, "Can you really find homes for these horses after racing?"
I was taken aback by his tone. He sounded surprised, skeptical and a little bit disapproving, as if I worked with gangster pitbulls. The idea that I might truly enjoy working with ex-racehorses or find it a pleasant vocation seemed far beyond his perspective.
And yet he was once a leader in the racing industry. How could he have such a negative view of racehorses? Didn’t he know (as I do) that these horses retrain well for new jobs? That they are awesome athletes in many careers (not just jumping)? And that the Texas-bred racehorses are often especially kind and easy to work with (due to their ranch-raised childhoods and good foundations under saddle)?
The answer appeared to be no to all of these questions. As we talked, I realized that he truly believed that racehorses were tough cases, hard to work with and even more difficult to retrain. Although he was a rider himself, he preferred his equestrian partners to be sturdy Quarter Horses bred and trained for western disciplines. For him, racehorses appeared to be in an entirely different category.
It seemed strange to me that someone closely associated with racing would be so uninformed (almost to the point of bias) about the horses in his industry. He seemed like a friendly, affable person -- but had less knowledge about ex-racehorses than some of the schoolchildren who visit LOPE on tours.
Most race trainers, outriders and jockeys already know a great deal about the athleticism and trainability of racehorses for post-track careers. But from my conversation that day, it became clear to me that this knowledge isn’t necessarily automatic for race owners (or even some breeders).
As the national racing industry struggles with the challenge of racehorse welfare (an issue strongly linked to public perception of the sport), it seems that their outreach efforts might need to include educating some of their own leadership. It is very difficult to be an effective advocate for something that you don’t understand -- no matter how good your intentions.