The Writing Life

I’m writing my second novel right now, the further adventures of Connie Holt of the McCutcheon Equine Insurace Agency. It’s tentatively entitled, “The Painted Stallion.” This time it’s trouble in the dangerous world of the steeplechase and a new love affair. Usually when I exercise by walking, usually at a track or down the road to my town, I line things up in a row mentally, so to speak, about the current plot situation. Thus prepared, I go confidently to my computer to write my self-imposed 1200 words per day. But in the process of putting my thoughts into words, I find often that my mind says, “That won’t do!” And all my preparation was for nothing. This morning for instance, I found more research was necessary about the race course described in the book, I ended up suddenly dissatisfied with the heroine’s race attire and made it more characteristic of her personality, and I heightened a bloody scene with–yes–more blood.

The Omak Suicide Race

Coors, Wrangler, Pepsi: corporate sponsors of the Omak Suicide Race, notorious for the number of horses killed or injured as they’re spurred through the course. Twenty horses have died in the Omak Suicide Race in the past twenty-one years. In 2004 alone,  three horses died.   Miraculously, there were no fatalities this year. But the race will probably be held as usual in the second weekend of August in 2006. Based on the race’s infamous history, there is a strong possibility that during the four heats over four days, more horses will die or be injured.

As described by Vivian Farrell, the Omak horses are whipped and kicked into performing feats that are antithetical to the way their bodies work. That’s why the race is so dangerous. The following information is taken from Farrell’s posting at

In leg one, horses gallop to “Suicide Hill,” and then throw themselves down “an almost complete vertical drop of approximately 225 feet at a 62 degree angle.” In such a sharp drop, horses can’t see far enough ahead to know where to land their feet, due to the blind spot in the front of their foreheads. Indeed, they don’t realize where the ground is. The impact of  hitting the ground blindly may damage their vulnerable legs. They also can’t see the horses ahead of them.  All the horses running down the hill are handicapped in this way, and collisions and pileups are a foregone conclusion, resulting in injury or death.

In leg two, horses who have survived the first lap (and some may already be injured), immediately plunge into the rocky Okanogan River and must swim across. Hitting the water, they sometimes land sideways, having lost their balance coming down the hill. They may get caught up in the reins or panic. It is easy for a horse to drown here. Farrell explains that horses don’t feel the ground beneath them in the water and tend to panic. They have a problem with breathing when trying to swim. And high blood pressure from the effort of swimming results in nosebleeds. “Because there is no support from the ground and there is little or no resistance from the water, the amount of energy required to move forward in the water is significantly greater than that required to move forward on land….[Swimming] 500 yards is about equal to a one mile gallop.”

In leg three, the surviving horses are must run up a steep hill. Farrell writes that horses in this part of the race may suffer fatigue, cramping and possible permanent muscle damage due to acidosis (buildup of lactic acid and carbon dioxide.) The same thing happens to human athletes when they get a “stitch.”

Farrell says that this race is not only dangerous physically for horses but mentally as well. From long experience, she’s learned that horses are much like humans in that they remember what they have been through and “also what they are about to endure.” They can hear and smell so acutely that the loud noises at the race hurt their ears, and “smelling” the fear in the other  horses makes their ordeal that much worse. She concludes that “the tumult of such an occasion as the Omak Suicide Race must be an assault on their senses that is debilitating and petrifying.” The psychological trauma will probably last forever in the survivors.

For more details and what you can do, see

Background article “The Race Where Horses Die

Video of the event:

American Race Horses: Inbred, Overmedicated, Overworked

Sleek Thoroughbreds in the peak of condition, racing against one another in that fluid, rhythmic movement they have, their jockeys guiding them in the quest to be the first to cross the finish line.

What’s wrong with this description of a horse race? Right. “The peak of condition.”

Anyone who keeps up with horse racing knows that horses today are breaking down on the track, some so badly that they have to be euthanized. Barbaro, who in 2006 broke his right rear leg, stayed alive for eight months, but succumbed to laminitis. Then came George Washington’s death in 2007 at the Breeder’s Cup. He fractured his right front leg.  And finally, the pitiable sight of Eight Belles, who broke her two front ankles shortly after she’d come in second at the Kentucky Derby this year. There was no hope she could be saved due to the inability to bear her own weight, and she was euthanized right on the track. These horses were high profile racing horses and their deaths brought home to racing fans and the American public the true condition of many American horses: inbred, overmedicated, and overworked.

As the public has become increasingly aware of the problems with the horses themselves in racing, some critics have called for a ban on racing. They believe that race owners and trainers are engaging in horse abuse. Others are calling for reforms in the industry, hoping that the sport of kings can continue. Implementing reform, though, is complicated. Of course, those of us who love horses and want only their well-being think changes should be implemented as soon as possible. But for one thing, there is no national governing body to implement changes on a national level. Indeed, in the long run, Congress may to step in and bring pressure to bear on the states to do something.  At present, however, some states and horse racing associations are working on plans to change the sport, in some cases, radically, in hopes of saving it. From my research, I’ve seen that well-intentioned people in the sport—individuals and groups—are not in complete agreement as to what should be done and those who have made plans to study the situation are not moving as quickly as they should. Reforms should have been made long ago.

One seemingly simple reform could be to reorganize the schedule for the Triple Crown races so that horses are not so physically stressed. Frank DeFord points out that the “Derby [early in May] is run at a mile and a quarter … a long distance for young 3-years-olds to cover.” The second race, the Preakness, comes only two weeks later [italics mine] and is shorter than the Derby. The young horses run a long race first and a shorter race second. Then, three weeks later [italics mine], comes the Belmont, a mile and a half, “a distance virtually no race horse in America runs anymore….” It is clear that such close scheduling doesn’t allow enough time for the horses to recover completely before the next race. Americans should look to Europe for the right way to schedule races.

Three changes have to be made in racing if horses are to survive.

(1) Breeding practices must change. At first blush, this seems impossible because inbreeding has become so ingrained in the sport. Horses are bred for size, speed, and early development. This means that a young colt would participate in only a small number of races and then be offered for lucrative stud contracts. The horse will then further contaminate the breeding population.

The long history of inbreeding within the industry, which was supposed to produce the most desirable characteristics in race horses, has made today’s horses the products of a thinned gene pool. Weaknesses have been bred in. For example, USA Today of May 6, 2008, said, shockingly, that “all 20 horses in [the] Derby were descendants of prized stallion Native Dancer, a 1950s horse whose offspring are known for being precociously fast and for suffering leg injuries.” Mike Celizic sums it up: “Animals are bred to beyond the limits of their own mortality for the sole purpose of running around in circles so that people can bet on which one will get to the finish first. And, while the horses are born to run, there is the bothersome fact that it is necessary to put small people with whips on their backs to keep them focused on their goal.” While Celizic concedes that the horses are generally treated well and that there should be no ban on racing, he does emphasize the business of the sport and the effect on the fragile animals in the races. Horses should be chosen to race whose bloodlines are more varied and thus the animals have stronger bodies. A change in breeding practices would take a long time, and would involve a radical change in the minds of breeders, owners, trainers, and everyone else who makes a living from racing.

(2) Outlaw steroid use in all states and regulate the use of painkillers. Readers are well aware of the anabolic steroid scandal in baseball but may not know that steroids are legal for horses in some states. An example is the current two-time winner Big Brown, whose trainer Richard Dutrow readily admits that he has been giving his horse steroid shots monthly. It’s legal in the states where he races Big Brown. Why are steroids given to horses? Proponents of steroids say that these drugs “increase their [horses’] appetite and give them more energy as they undergo training and year-round racing.” Horses that are on steroids bulk up just as human athletes do. But those who argue against the indiscriminate use of steroids say that they predispose a horse to injury; horses should be rested, not injected.,0,5424999,print.story

One group wants to see four anabolic steroids regulated by January 1, 2009. The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, working with the Association of Racing Commissioners International states that the four steroids, which may have therapeutic uses for some horses, should have regulated cut-off times: a 30-45 day cut-off before a race, and banned on the day of the race. The Federal Drug Administration approves Winstrol, Equipoise, Durabolin, and testosterone. These steroids would be regulated, not banned. Besides putting us back where we are now, it seems, three of the above can be found in intact male horses; thus testing is harder. Horse people argue whether the drugs should be tested in blood or urine. And there are no tests for some seventy other steroids. Another complication to reform lies in the federal government’s interest in this problem and possible intervention on its part.

The Excessive use of painkillers is another problem. Bob Ford writes that “Since the 1970s, when the racing industry legalized the use of medications that are prohibited everywhere else in the world [italics mine], horses have been able to run despite pain—because they don’t feel it. Lasix, the anti-bleeding agent, is standard here and anathema everywhere else. Butazolidin [an anti-inflammatory drug] is administered as if it were aspirin.” Ford says that the banned drug Mepivacaine “deadens pain so well that a severely injured horse will literally run its heart and legs out for you.”

(3) Install synthetic tracks. Proponents of the artificial track claim that it is safer and easier for horses to race on, there are fewer deaths and breakdowns, the track is water resistant, and it requires less maintenance. Bill Finley reported in January of this year that “So far, as a whole, synthetic tracks are producing about 33 percent fewer fatalities [italics mine] than conventional dirt tracks. Those numbers come from a study being conducted by Florida-based veterinarian Dr. Mary Scollay . . . .” Finley points out that many horses are being saved, who if racing on dirt would have had to be euthanized or sustained injuries that ruined their careers or kept them from racing temporarily.

However, Dan Johnson points out some drawbacks of these tracks. There have been some maintenance problems, contrary to manufacturers’ claims, Polytrack froze at Turfway Park and Woodbine in Toronto, and some horses prefer dirt and have problems on artificial turf.  And Andrew Beyer says that artificial tracks have an anti-speed factor, and maintains that “plodders” win on Polytrack. Breeders would have to breed a different kind of horse if artificial tracks were installed.

Ongoing research shows that artificial tracks are promising. Racetracks considering a changeover should, however, test the new surface for an adequate amount of time to make sure it’s everything that has been promised, and that horses are safe on it.

Barbaro, George Washington, and Eight Belles—and many more who haven’t made the news—literally raced themselves to death for their owners, trainers, and investors. It should have been clear a long time ago that American horse racing has become all too often the sport of greedy people who see nothing immoral in sacrificing the horses they use so badly. There must be radical change before more horses die: change breeding practices and race horses with varied bloodlines; ban steroids and regulate painkillers; and finally, provide artificial track that will be easier on the horses’ bodies, particularly their legs. Racing slower is not a bad thing.

Wild Horses in Trouble

The February 2009 National Geographic magazine, both paper and online, has an excellent but sobering article about the plight of the wild horses in the ten Western states where they are trying to survive. Writer Alexandra Fuller gives a little of the history of the horses and mentions “Cattle Annie” who was largely responsible for federal protection of the horses. (See my article about Cattle Annie in the “Protecting Horses” section.) Fuller points out that the wild animals have been besieged by stock men and their cattle and sheep, machines on their range, helicopters, cars, and trucks, and now the added insult, the struggle to find oil under the Western ground where these animals live. The Bureau of Land Management is supposed to see that they are safe and that they are kept at workable, manageable levels on the Bureau’s 258 million acres. The Bureau oversees about 30,000 horses. At prescribed intervals, a number of horses are rounded up (called a “gather”) by helicopters and cowboys and the animals have uncertain fates. A particularly interesting part of the article deals with efforts to try a contraceptive solution to reduce the numbers of the fertile mares, but Fuller says that the Bureau is cool to the idea. What’s going to happen to these horses who many feel represent the spirit of America?

Frontal lobes only 3.5 percent of a cat’s brain

All cats’ frontal lobes are 3.5 percent of the brain compared with dogs’ at 7 percent and we humans at a whopping 29 percent. I learned this from the wonderful book I’m reading, Animals Make Us Human. Written by the champion of animals, Dr. Temple Grandin, the book’s chapters are divided into dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens and other poultry, wildlife and zoos. I started reading about cats first because I live with the mysterious little beauty in the picture whose name is Autumn.

Dr. Grandin explains a lot of mysteries I’ve wondered about in Autumn and all the cats I ever owned, and indeed a lot of mysteries remain to be solved.

Just because a cat’s frontal lobes are a smaller part of the brain, does not mean they are stupid. Indeed, they are, according to research veterinarian Dr. Karen Overall, who investigates behavioral medicine, “. . . really bright, inherently cognitive individuals. [People] forget the most critical need [for cats] which to me is the intellectual one. I think we haven’t given cats or dogs the credit they deserve for their cognitive capabilities. I think we’ve got an epidemic of understimulated cats whose intellectual needs aren’t being met.” “Intellectual needs”, indeed!

On the basis of what Drs. Grandin and Overall say about cats’ needs to be stimulated, I performed a simple, unscientific, stimulation experiment today. I took all Autumn’s toys away except for his well-loved foil ball which he hasn’t been interested in for a long time. I put it on a table where it usually isn’t found. After he’d eaten his breakfast, he found it immediately on his tour of his house, and later when I was at the computer, he meowed several times from down on the floor. There he was , the ball in his mouth for me to throw, a game he used to play with me when he was a kitten. He played fetch down the long upstairs hall at my house even batting it into another room at one point, until I had to go back to the demanding computer. A happy little experience for Autumn and for me thanks to Dr. Grandin’s book.