For goodness' sake, stop improving the horse


For goodness' sake, stop improving the horse


For goodness' sake, stop improving the horse

Bejore it’s too late to tell a horse from a cut-down giraffe, let’s put a halter on breeders and trainers who’ve forgotten what their animal was really made to do, says ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

FOR CENTURIES, according to horsemen, we’ve been improving the breed of the horse. It’s hard to see how, judging by the most improved of all horses, the thoroughbred. From an animal that has slugged along beside man for thousands of years, pulling stumps, hauling beer wagons, tilling the land and carrying warriors into battle, he’s become a Fancy Dan with legs like a cricket, bulging eyes, a torso like Sheila the Peelah and the disposition of a couch case. If the thoroughbred were hitched to a bread wagon, he’d kick it to splinters. He’d need four months to cool down enough to pull anything. If he’s left to forage for himself, he loses weight. He wears blinkers so that he can't see who's riding him, or whether something's gaining on him, as occasionally he tries to bite another improved horse that’s passing him. He shies at a coffee mug on a fence rail and won't go near a workhorse. If a Sunday rider threw a leg over him, he’d lob him downrange before anyone could say “tallyho!"

This animal that used to carry 480 pounds of armored knight into battle, now carries a saddle like a shoehorn and a man the size of a riding crop. He runs for seventyone seconds, cools off lor half an hour, gets sponged down with warm water, rubbed with liniment, tightened up w'ilh bandages, fed a vitamin - supplemented diet and w'aits for a chance to bite his trainer—and who can blame him? From an animal that used to deliver the mail nearly two thousand miles over plains and mountains from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in less than eight days, and pull the stage four hundred miles from London to Edinburgh over primitive roads in all kinds of weather, the horse has been developed into a fragile precision tool that keeps breaking its legs on scientifically prepared tracks manicured as smooth as a pool table. The owner of one really improved

horse told me that it broke both its front legs the first time it raced: “If you cough they break a leg. If you spit they break a leg."

The thoroughbred is given to bone ailments, splints, spavins, growth on its legs, torn ligaments, sore feet, quarter cracks and broken bones. Its legs are its weakest part. They're beautiful, delicate, as slender as a maiden's wrists anti make the horse look very dainty when prancing in the paddock, hut snap like toothpicks under the pounding of high speeds. Much of the time their beauty is invisible, because they're encased in running bandages, cooling bandages, padding, bell boots and various contrivances designed to help them hold up a horse. Trainers trying to keep a representative of this paragon of horseflesh on its feet long enough to pay for its vitamins, are skilled at holding thoroughbreds together by blistering bucked shins, making bow'ed bones subside with mud packs, ice packs, liniment and bandages. A stable doesn’t smell like a stable any more, it smells like an emergency ward.


The thoroughbred costs up to one and a quarter of a million dollars. is photographed more than girls, can earn tw-entv thousand dollars for a moment’s dalliance with another thoroughbred and is frequently all washed up at the age of three. In 1960. Victoria Park, considered by racing fans the greatest (i.e. the fastest) three-year-old ever bred in Canada, ran third in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Preakness, won the Queen’s Plate by nine lengths, then, on being flown to California, kicked the side of the airplane, injured his leg and was unable to race again although his age was comparable to that of a young man still in college.

The horse has been bred into a special machine that comes out of a mechanical starting gate like a cue ball



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“The way a harness racer lifts its feet is embarrassing. The show horse has become a freak”

accompanied by screams, shouts, buzzers and belts on the backside by a professional who gets the highest pay of any athlete just to get every

ounce of effort out of him. Just thinking of it has made the race horse a nervous wreck that sometimes sweats so much it's in a lather before it's started to run. It's so high-strung it has to be given a goat to shame it into eating, an alarm clock to stop it stall pacing and a lead pony to remind it how a horse should behave. Some try to dig holes in their stalls and bury themselves before a race. I saw one chestnut gelding that just kept looking through me and twitching its

lips like an old man reciting poetry to himself in an all-night diner.

Another horse swayed, like a polar bear, from one side to another of a vertical strip of webbing. "They got a thousand live hundred gadgets to stop them doing things like that.” a furious looking follower of the sport of kings said, "and none of them work."

One ultimate end-product of the gentle, patient beast that has waited for his master outside grog shops, delivered his milk and enchanted his children, leapt into the air as I passed, screamed and came at me as if it were going to break through the webbing, but that horse would have had to set a new track record to catch me.

A groom who was cold-walking a hot-blooded champion started at the sight of me as if I'd pulled a gun on him.

"Over there! That side!” he yelled, leaning hack against a horse that had apparently been improved right out of its mind. "This is a rotten one. He's liable to go for you."

At another stable where a hand from Kentucky had previously told me regally they had nothing but wellbred horses, an ex-jockey demonstrated just how well bred one of them was.

"He won't let you touch his chin,” he said. "Watch.” He reached out. The horse flattened his cars like a rabbit, bared his teeth, snaked out his head so fast the jockey jumped almost as high as I did. “See what I mean?” he said thinly.

"I'll say this.” replied one old-timer, looking thoughtfully out of a trailer over some bottles of liniment when I asked him if he thought they were improving the breed. “I don't think they're getting any worse.”

They're not getting any better, either, and they won’t until man stops trying to improve them and starts leaving them alone. The horse is now being imported in special small sizes to fit children members of pony clubs. He costs Daddy $300 plus a monthly fee as high as the payments on a car for board and private or semiprivate accommodation.

The range horse is regularly transformed from a perfectly good-natured and useful animal into a bronco by a device called a bucking strap which the hero on top of him yanks up into

his crotch. With the aid of spurring this makes the horse do the only sensible thing: try to get rid of the rider, and more power to him. The show horse, which provides a quick means of galloping into society, is no longer an exemplary specimen of his type, as he used to be when shows included fire-engine horses and draft horses. He's often a prancing freak with rat tail, whisk tail, braided tail, braided mane and everything but a beehive hair-do. He's taught to stand like a rocking horse until he forgets how to stand normally. He’s taught to hold his tail at an aristocratic elevation by men who fold the butt end of his tail into position with a thing like a hair net and hold it there until the tail won't come down, at least until the show's over.

Harness horses are made to lift their feet in so affected a way that it's strangely embarrassing to anyone who remembers the horse when it used to pull a milk wagon. This is done by rigging the horse up with a system of ropes and pulleys, or by putting chains around its ankles. One horse lover at the Canadian National Exhibition Horse Show told me that he has fashioned his own device out of tire chains and found he got better results if he left them on until the horse’s feet were sore.

The ultimate in the things you can do to a horse is called dressage, which is the big word now in horsey circles. Dressage is a technique of supertraining, and when you're through with ordinary dressage you move into Haute Ecole, brought into full flower by the Viennese Riding School.

"Haute Ecole," writes one of its exponents, “is unrewarding as a form of art, for after long years of training, that which one has created, a horse trained to perfection, lasts only for a restricted number of years.”

This isn't surprising, for among other things, the horse learns to hop on its hind feet, to pirouette, do the Spanish Trot, the polka and the Piaffe, which means trotting without going anywhere (“The impulsion is directed upwards instead of forwards”) and it is taught by leading the horse to a wall and inducing it to step forward and simultaneously holding it back. But "one should be especially careful not to interfere with the reins as a

sensitive horse might fall over backward.”

If the horse hasn't fallen over backwards, it’s only because he still retains some strains of the noble, patient animal he has always been believed to be, and has been around man long enough not to be surprised by anything a man does. The horse was domesticated long before written history began. The only wild horses today are mean-looking four-foot ponies called Equus przewalskii, after a Russian explorer. They roam part of Western Mongolia in herds of fifteen or so, each headed by an old stallion. (The mustang of the American west, w'hich was used by the Indians to make things tough for the white man, was z horse that escaped from the Spanish explorers and later bred w'ith escaped Percherons from Canada.) All the great civilizations w'ere founded with the help of the horse. It became a revolutionary instrument of w'ar, either as a charger or chariot horse. (The ox and ass did the plowing and hauling until relatively recent times.) One of the most famous war horses of history was Bucephalus, the charger of the two-fisted drunk and conqueror, Alexander the Great. Bucephalus lived to be thirty, had a city named after him, and was one of the first known art critics. When Alexander said that a painting by the Greek artist Apelles was all wrong, Bucephalus stepped up and whinnied. Apelles, a true artist, told Alexander that his horse knew more about art than he did.

The medieval armored knight rode a massive, hairy-hoofed charger that could have folded one of today's fourfooted ballerinas by just leaning on it. It weighed 2,000 to 2,500 pounds, and needed every ounce of it, because it had to ram its rider into another rider on a horse just as heavy. If a knight in white armor revisited the earth today on the horse he really used to ride, and rode up to a waiting princess, she'd think he was some nut who was trying to bring back the popularity of the draft horse.

These horses, the Flemish Horse and the English Great Horse, became the Shire and Belgian and Clydesdale. These in turn were bred with lighter strains from the East, to produce the horses that did all the work of the world until the first steam engine and the automobile replaced them—horses like the Percheron and Hackney and Coach Horse, along with some, like the Hunter, that didn't do any useful work but were rugged, durable animals all the same.

With changes in warfare and the need for more mobile animals, the desert breeds from Arabia and North Africa and Turkey were imported to England. The owners began to see how fast they could go, riding them themselves, the horses racing three or four heats of four miles each in an afternoon and carrying a man that weighed 168 pounds and sometimes much more, over a rough course that followed the lay of the land. Eventually the snooty English stud book decreed that it would accept only the names of horses descended from three founding fathers known to posterity as Godolphin's Arabian: Byerley’s

Turk and Darley’s Arabian. Thus the improvement of the horse began, although it was many years before indi-

cations appeared of what form the improvement was to take, as when the great American horse Man O' War was refused in the stud book because his background was sketchy.

Looking back on the record it's hard to see how' the horse has improved. It can go faster for short distances. If bursts of speed are what count, he’s got it. But he isn't the horse he used to be. Even in the field of harness racing, a homespun North American sport which still preserves

some of the attributes of the horse, it’s hard to see how they improved over gay old hoofers of the past, such as the famous trotter Goldsmith Maid whose mother hauled a cart for a hat peddler. Goldsmith Maid was a farm horse herself who began her career by carrying a Negro boy and his girl friend to town bareback to get married, and ran faster the older she got. until she set a world record at seventeen and just to prove that it was no fluke, did it again when she was nine-

teen. In the 18(K)s bets were made on one-hour trotting records: that is, a horse trotted a record distance in an hour, then other horses tried to trot the same distance in less than an hour, and a horse called Tom Thumb trotted one hundred miles over Sudbury Common in England in ten hours and seven minutes, pulling a sulky weighing 160 pounds. A pacer called Pilot, foaled in Canada, was picked up by a peddler, hitched to a wagon load of supplies and trotted all the way to

New Orleans, and evidently felt better all the way for when he was bought in New Orleans by a Major Duboise, the major couldn’t find any takers for a race.

The horse that is dramatized as the peak of perfection of his kind — the thoroughbred — doesn't seem to have done much better in comparison to old-timers. The mile-and-three-eighths and mile-and-a-half records were made before 1930, and the records for all distances from two-and-an eighth to two-and-seven-eighths, except one, were made before I 926. The four-mile record was made by Sotemia in 1912. The reason the horse isn't being bred for staying power any more is that it's easier to train them for short distances. Conscientious breeders, trainers and race-track owners are trying to get longer races on their cards in an effort to get the horse back to something resembling what it used to be before they started improving it.

But horse racing today is largely a product of the racing fan, who hasn’t improved in years. He doesn’t ride horses or particularly like horses. He reads newspaper columns by writers who make fun of horses and writers who offer such lofty essays on improving the breed as LOOT FROM THE LOWLY: PROFITS FROM PLATERS ARE PROVEN IN THIS LUCRATIVE WORKOUT (September 1962 American Turf) and SURE FIRE METHOD: A DROP DOWN SYSTEM THAT PICKS WINNERS AT FANCY MUTUELS (from the same issue). The track follower spends an afternoon standing in a litter of stubs trying to figure out how to make some money without working for it, calls the horses dogs if they don't come through and leaves an afternoon of watching the breed improved mumbling things like “I could walk faster.” The horse is ridden by a man who often doesn't sound as if he's concerned with improving the horse. (“I can make anywhere from $30,000 to $ 1 10,000 a year as a jockey, so 1 don't care how hard life gets ... 1 diet for money:” Erie Guerin in Saturday Evening Post) and he’s often trained

by a man who has just given up barbering or laying concrete blocks to start improving the breed. The brandnew trainer has passed a test that indicates that he knows what a horse is, and if the distance is short enough all he needs to do is wind up his thoroughbred to a pitch just short of driving him bonkers, and if the horse is scared enough by the jockey and headed in the right direction, he'll run a fast race, covering the short distance at speeds described to me by one breeder as “ridiculous.” What he's really doing of course, is bolting.

“I doubt if there are thirty-five trainers in North America, who can train a cup horse, to carry weight over a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half,” I was told by a horseman from Kentucky, as we watched a horse head for the paddock looking sideways from its blinkers like a maniac, baring its teeth, spraying gravel and scattering people, including the jockey who was to ride him. "Bring him right through here! Bring him right through here!” the Kentuckian shouted amid a scene that looked like a TV report on an Algerian riot.

In the popular picture of the horse in its noblest form, he’s usually looking out toward the track, ears pricked to the distant sound of the bugle, every inch a champion. I think one with more significance is a scene I saw one evening when 1 came across a trainer in a leather jacket playing with a relaxed looking horse that looked to me as if he were reverting happily, for the moment anyway, to a plow horse. They both sparred with one another, the horse made elaborate jabbing motions with its muzzle, the trainer called it fondly an old goat, turned to me as if he'd just remembered something and said, “You know things are different around a race track now. We used to play ball around the stables just for fun. Now we have a league. We wear uniforms, and play for a prize.”

It struck me as a pretty good summary of what’s happening to a lot of things today, including the horse. ★