Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Second Tuesday on Franklin Hill Farm: At the gate

Social sustainability and horse racing

By Bettina Sperry, with invited contributions from Steffanie Simpson

Horse racing is now facing major changes. Shrouded in a confusion of politics and economics at the state and local levels, the industry on a broader scale is taking a strong hit of national reform and proposed federal regulations through H.R. 3084, the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015. H.R. 3084 The bill was introduced to establish national standards to improve the well-being of racehorses through the control of racing medications. H.R. 3084 is arguably well-supported through the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity, comprised of such entities as the Breeder’s Cup, the Humane Society of the United States, the Jockey Club, and a host of others having a deep interest in the thoroughbred racehorse.
    We are a changing society. As I recently said to a good friend, respective of an article on banning fur farms, “We’re not settlers anymore.” His response, “I am not sure what the connection is between killing animals for fur and our not being settlers anymore. Oh, wait a minute. I think I see. When we were settlers, we had a legitimate reason for killing animals for their fur (to keep us warm and alive). But now that we are civilized and into ‘fashion,’ our reason is frivolous and illegitimate. Got it!”
    I do not compare horse racing to fur farms, but both are within the purview of a changing society. There was a time when we didn’t understand or comprehend, or even consider, the rights of animals or of their desire to be alive – and of course, the central underlying issue, many people didn’t care. That isn’t the case anymore. On the heels of a long historical trend and way of life, a paradigm shift is occurring in the relationship between the domesticated animal and his longstanding companion, man. The animal rights movement is forcing an awareness of, and some legal protections for, the rights and ethical treatment of animals, particularly farm animals.
    And horse racing isn’t the only industry affected by this pressure. Farms linked to the food industry also feel it, not only here in the United States, but worldwide. Ethical treatment of food animals and the quality of the resulting products entering our food chain have long been the impetus for change in agricultural food production. Following the release of a rather gruesome video, McDonalds recently took a stand against animal cruelty found at a Tyson Farms poultry producer. In “Economists Reveal Top Ten Trends Likely to Impact the Pork Checkoff,” the Pork Board noted animal welfare and farm practices as one of the most pressing issues facing the pork industry in the years ahead. No different, even milk producers are being viewed critically for their mistreatment of dairy cattle. Consumers are demanding change in the practices used to raise and slaughter animals for consumption. A social sustainability movement is well on its way into the lives of farmers, slaughterhouses, and your neighborhood food market. It stands to reason that the horse racing industry is facing similar watchfulness, though – while horses are not anticipated to make it to our grocery markets – we do have horse racing consumers who are viewing our ever present, though often hidden, ways of life behind the barnyard gate.
    In, “Sustainability, thoroughbred racing and the need for change” (2015), Iris Bergmann references a “public expectation of how farm animals ought to be treated.” In speaking of social sustainability as a part of the growing discourse on sustainable agriculture and policy, Bergmann goes on to state, “Social sustainability thus refers to the social acceptability of how animals are treated.” Sustainability is, as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) in the report, Our Common Future, “development that meets the needs of present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
    Horse racing and sustainability as linked concepts? In the sometimes harsh world of horse racing, this may sound strange and some will wonder what this means, what is required, and how to implement sustainability on a personal level. Sustainability is a large word, with an even larger meaning, and with an even larger context of application. Sustainability has roots as early as ancient civilization and is derived from human progress, advancement, enlightenment, growth, population, farming, consumption, industrialization, capitalism, exploitation of raw materials, and concern for the environment and replenishment of the earth’s natural resources, as is referenced by Jacobus A. Du Pisani in “Sustainable development – historical roots of the concept” (2006). Beautifully stated, thus fully quoted:

The term “sustainability” was first used in German forestry circles by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in his book Sylvicultura Oeconomica (1713). Carlowitz suggested nachhaltende Nutzun (sustainable use) of forest resources, which implied maintain a balance between harvesting old trees and ensuring that there were enough young trees to replace them. –Du Pisani, 2006
    The challenge to render horse racing sustainable calls on us to re-examine our practices, to ensure that we protect what our professional and economic growth depends on – the thoroughbred racehorse. The Jockey Club’s 2011 Round Table Conference Presentation, “Driving sustainable growth for Thoroughbred racing and breeding,” cites the downhill trend of horse racing and the causes for the decline, and puts forth a list of growth strategies for the industry. At the top of the proposed growth strategies: fewer, better racing days. That should hit home quickly, for many.
    This is what we see in the trenches of horse racing. Racing days are being cut and purses slashed – and the outcome is predictable. It’s a downhill slide and tangle. Negotiation for an increase in racing days is a mere act of ingratiated diplomacy coupled with the prayer of hope that racing will continue as it has in the past. Not so. The statistics put forth during the Round Table Conference indicate a troublesome trend. According to McKinsey Report, not only is the fan base declining and race days as well, but attendance at races is also down, starts per horse are down, foaling is down, sales of yearlings and sale prices are down, racing purses are down, and owner losses are up – all of which will continue over the course of the coming years unless, as they say, sustainable change is made. As Bergmann reminds us, “For most of its existence, the thoroughbred racing industry has taken the thoroughbreds and the public for granted. This comfortable existence, however, is now disrupted and cannot be reinstated.”

Am I an animal rights activist? Most certainly. On my own farm, I reinvest racing earnings back into the farm for the benefit of the horses, and the estate has provisions established for the care and quality of life for the duration of each horse’s life. I am very careful to understand and appreciate the gift of horse ownership that I’ve been handed, and at times have created. Sustainability on this farm means that I work to ensure that balance is maintained between the enjoyment of racing, the enjoyment and personal benefits of farm ownership, and the seriousness of the longevity of life that these horses will live, meaning that they may outlive me. I work the farm and business so that it is sustainable over the course of time for each generation of horses.
    Easy enough said, but a lot of planning and articulation of intentions is set forth with each step I take. On the other hand, the strategic goal of “fewer, better racing days” is wreaking havoc on many other racehorse owners, not to forget those employed or aligned vocationally with the racing industry – making care and quality of life for racehorses sometimes difficult to implement. People are going without paychecks and struggling to make ends meet while attempting to continue providing care for the horses. It is important to know that, for the owner, horse racing is extremely expensive. Racing few and fewer days impacts the finances of a racehorse owner. Training costs are considerable. Daily training rates run upwards of $50 per day, at $1,500 to $2,000 or more per month per horse. Farriers [craftsmen who trim and shoe horses’ hooves] for racing alone can cost over $100 each month. Veterinary services can run several hundred to several thousand per month in the event of a catastrophic horse illness. If one is fortunate enough to own a farm on which to house the horses, there are costs associated with that, too. There are legal fees, equine dental fees, and an array of other hidden costs associated with racehorse ownership. Owning thoroughbred racehorses is a heavy matter. In light of the costs of racehorse ownership, and being the scholar that I am, I find it very difficult not to remember that there’s a larger system to which I belong – one in which the outcome for horses is not quite the gift that my own horses enjoy, nor are other owners undergoing this wave of hardship and change as delicately as I have managed to do.
    Complexity theory, a theory that arises out of the quantitative fields of physics, engineering, economics, computer science, and biology, reminds us that the racing industry is part of the broader economy and political system, much as any other major industry is. Racing is a complex network, an industry of multiple parts and subsystems that interact independently and interdependently – a network in which no one part acts alone. As such, complex systems are non-fragmentable. What each component of our industry does, and how it does it, has a rippling effect on the rest of the industry.
    We reap what we sow when we fail to remember the impact of not being attentive to the negative perceptions held of horse racing within the public sphere, especially these days in light of the animal rights movement and of projected national reform and anti-doping regulation. We reap what we sow when we ignore the signs and indicators telling us things are headed south.
    But we also reap what we sow when we take care of what we have over the long haul. Adapting, evolving, growing, and shaping ourselves to meet the expectations of the broader public look wise in the face of an ever-growing threat of job losses, track closures, hurt jockeys, and downed horses. Sustainability in horse racing, as aligned with the historical context and definition provided, calls for re-examining our knowledge, beliefs, and values to ensure the alignment of our practice towards the unselfish protection and care of the very thing that is core to our professional and economic growth – the thoroughbred racehorse. It means finding balance between the inevitable human experiences of excitement, greed for purse, and quest for wins inherent in horse racing. It means meeting the finely tuned needs of a highly competitive and well-cared for athlete. It means evolving horse racing with high standards, transparency, and respectability as a sport.

Author’s Note: Steffanie Simpson is a lifelong agriculturalist, with a degree in Agricultural Economics from Virginia Tech and experience in sheep, goat, beef, and horse production. Along with her husband and son, she raises Katahdin sheep in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia, on a small acreage forage-based system. Research is conducted on the farm in parasite resistance, lamb growth, forage quality, and reproductive management. Steffanie home schools her son and speaks at seminars and conferences on the development of pasture systems for all species of livestock, and on finishing sheep and goats on forage.

Copyright © 2015 by Bettina Sperry


  1. Bettina, a friend on Facebook, commenting there, had this to say about your column: "Great post Morris. I enjoyed it!"
        I wonder why everybody else is keeping so quiet?

  2. Bettina, I followed your link to Carlowitz's treatis Sylvicultura 1713 and was fascinated by the life of this cosmopolitan scholar and administrator of state forests.
    Indeed, he first argued for "nachhaltige Nutzung" of forests.
    Thanks for this enlightenment.

  3. We are delighted that a West Virginia scholar-farmer, writing on a blog boasting "from around the world" in its masthead, should have enlightened a resident of Germany on a biographical point about an 18th century German scholar! Thank you, Bettina; thank you, Rolf!

    1. Hans Carl von Carlowitz was rather a learned 17th century man, well connected with other great men of his times like Jean-Baptist Colberg. He was a precourser of the age of enlightenment.

    2. Ooh, Rolf, right, I stand corrected. He lived by far most of his life prior to 1700, died in 1714.

  4. Wonderful reminder, with regard to Christopher-Joseph Ravnopolski-Dean's reminding Americans today that somebody was here before us - in more than one sense: "Sustainable Agriculture in Native America."