The Retirement They’ve Earned
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 22)
The horse rescue community has concerns about the horse racing industry and rightly so. The horses are often very young, and the risks great. The pressure to win has led to bad practices like the use of drugs, which makes the physical risks to the horses even greater. As with human athletes, there is a problem of medicating the horses when they are injured so they can perform, which leads to further and greater injuries. And there is the sad fact that many of the owners regard their horses as monetary investments and have very little in the way of a relationship with them that is not connected to winning. Consequently, when their horses fail to win, or become too old to win, they are not put out to pasture and a well-earned retirement as they should be, but are sold at auction and along with the many horses who have never run but are unwanted, sent to slaughter.
All this concerned me, and I discussed it with my friend Bo Derek, who is a passionate advocate for horses and also a member of the California Racing Commission. Bo agreed that there were serious problems, but progress was also being made. The use of steroids had been banned, much as it had for human athletes and some of the tracks had set up retirement programs for their horses, when they were finished with their careers. But as with other species that depend on humans for survival and whom humans covet in return, there is a problem with over breeding. This means there will be a surplus of horses bred for racing who will never win or produce a return on the investment. As I acquainted myself with these facts, I thought his was perhaps the biggest problem of all, and that it might be helped if owners were charged a fee each time a new foal was born and if the fees could be directed to a retirement fund to support the horses that didn’t make it, or those that did when their time was done.
One woman I met who was doing something about this problem was Helen Meredith, a former jockey whose United Pegasus Foundation provides a retirement home for 63 racing thoroughbreds. Through her foundation, Helen has personally purchased these horses from racetracks and from auction sites where she negotiates with what she calls the “meat-killers” to buy them so they can be saved. I visited her on her ranch in the beautiful Tehachapi mountains and brought her a truckload of hay for her horses. All of five feet tall, Helen is a remarkable woman. Although her outdoors life has cracked and weathered her skin and given her a hardened look, underneath is a heart that is as soft and caring as any I have encountered.
She was born in Scotland and started racing horses in France when she was only fifteen years old. That was when her love for horses began and why she has devoted her own retirement years to saving her thoroughbreds. They come out of tracks like Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs and have won millions in purses before they outlived their usefulness and were discarded. We walked through Helen’s pipe corrals and she gave me the history of every thoroughbred there. Music Merci had earned $1.5 million before being abandoned, while another named Time to Pass, won $539,000. All together, Helen’s horses had won over $9 million in purses in their youth, but when their racing days were over they were sent to feedlots for slaughter, which is where Helen rescued them.
I inspected her facilities and programs and found them impeccable. Her barns were up to code, and every horse at their right body weight. She said to me, “I just want to allow these horses to retire. They’ve earned this.” Then she told me, sadly, “I reached out to PETA and the Humane Society and they told me to thin out my herd, basically to euthanize them. I am very grateful for your help.”
As we moved through her corrals, I felt like I was walking through a sea of champions who now had no one to care for them but Helen. We paused for a moment among them, and as we stood in silence watching these magnificent creatures, I asked her what motivated her to work so hard to keep them alive. She turned to me and said, “I know every race each one of these horses has run. I know what it takes for a racehorse to get there. I have trained them and ridden them. It’s not easy what we ask of them. They do what we ask of them, they train so hard, and they win thousands of dollars for us, and then we turn around and abandon them when their racing days are over. They have earned better from us. They have a right to retire and be taken care of.”
Then she turned to me and said, “April, horses are in my heart. My heart will never go cold. Do any of these horses look to you like they need to be killed?” I said, “God no.” You could see how much life was still in them and I agreed with her they had earned the right to enjoy it. I thought, it’s so easy for us to kill these animals when we feel them to be a burden and an annoyance. And there are no laws to prevent this. It doesn’t say much for us that when a living creature becomes a burden to us we just throw it away. When a horse’s life has reached its natural end, and it needs to pass over, then euthanasia is the proper and kind course to prevent further suffering. But for one of these magnificent beings to end up in a feedlot while still brimming with life, and to be auctioned for slaughter, for meat, is just horrible.
As we walked through the paddocks among her thoroughbreds, they came up to greet us as though to say, “Hi who is this new lady?” As they did so, I felt a rush of emotion. All this hard work I do, I thought, the ten hours of driving to get me to this ranch, the hours I am spending with Helen and arranging for the hay, and raising the money to pay for it, all of it, is for them horses, and the life we can give them.