Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

If Only for a Moment

Reflections on participating in the Regeneration Project “ethnographic pop-up theatre” at the 2016 annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association

By Tamar V.S. McKee, Ph.D.

Located on the unceded territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh First Nation, my current home of Squamish, British Columbia (where I serve as a professor in anthropology at Quest University Canada) is a far cry from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. While social media brought the #NoDAPL protest into my everyday consciousness since August 2016, I often felt this physical distance acutely when adamant postings and strident conversations across social media platforms like Facebook only felt like I was screaming into the wind. I felt the action of solidary, but did anyone else receive it? As we watched people flock to Sacred Stone Camp and affiliated camps, my husband and I so wanted to jump into our van and head east, but life with a young family and the oncoming winter told us this was not wise or feasible.

That is why when I attended the 2016 AAA meetings in Minneapolis and heard of the planned Standing Rock / #NoDAPL rally, I found myself outside the convention center where the meetings were being held, joining the circle of other attendees holding banners, signs, and flyers to show their solidarity with the Water Protectors. Occurring just a week after the election of Donald Trump, being able to finally join my solidarity in-person with others felt doubly critical and healing – if only for a cold but solemn moment in the Minneapolis chill.

So when Deb stepped up to the megaphone and announced her ethnographic pop-up theatre initiative and its intention to raise consciousness and donations for Standing Rock, I knew immediately that I was in. By Deb’s invitation, we were being called to not only further stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors but to literally act for them – and in the process raise some much-needed funds. Finally, I did not feel like I needed to scream into the wind anymore.

Deb’s session began early the next morning, and I arrived to join a number of anthropologists already in the room. Contrary to the many sessions I attended at the meetings, this group felt and (quite frankly) looked different than my usual AAA cohort or my colleagues back in Squamish. It would take more rigorous research and reflection than this piece allows to look into why that was, but all I knew at the time and remains with me still, was that it was refreshing and – again, this word comes up for me – healing to join such diverse company for the cause of Standing Rock.

As we all formed a circle and moved into the warm-up exercises guided by Deb, another sense of distance slowly emerged for me, reminding me of a childhood when I acted in local theater groups back in my home state of Colorado. My longing to become a performer had long since been eclipsed by the academic path, but in that convergence of the AAAs, Standing Rock, and Deb’s Re-Generation Initiative, the two identities and desires could at last coexist. In audionotes I took after the experience, I shared: “Felt really good to be able to express towards something I felt so personally, spiritually, and politically passionate about. Such a good, revitalizing combination.”

Warm-ups complete, Deb then led us into the heart of what the Ethnographic Theatre of the Contemporary would be for our specific performance. “WATER IS LIFE!” was the slogan we were to effervescently manifest by performing together. What did such a performance look like? First, a selection of the attendees were called upon by Deb to read pieces both written by themselves and others. They were a combination of spoken word poetry about Standing Rock and attendant, timely co-struggles in the U.S. (such as #blacklivesmatter), or excerpts from fieldwork interviews indexing Australian Aboriginal resistance movements to natural resource extraction and political oppression. Then Deb read an excerpt from a conversation she had while at Standing Rock with Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Iroquois Confederacy. “We know those dogs, they fed us to those dogs,” Lyons told her, in tandem reference to the mercenary dogs who were sicked on Water Protectors in North Dakota in September 2016, as well as the violence wrought by Columbus’ first encounters with indigenous resistance in the now-U.S.

After these pieces were read, Deb gave us our first “scene” to act out: that of repeating a phrase we heard in, or was inspired by, one of the pieces just read. We were to walk around each other while repeating a phrase, encouraged to change direction when the moment felt right, and even change the phrase we were saying if we heard something from someone else that bore repeating or reinterpreting. With that, on Deb’s cue we were sent into frenetic motion, “scurrying” as I recalled it in my audio notes. What did I end up repeating? It actually was not anything I heard in the pieces or the phrases my fellow performers were saying. What “bubbled up” for me as if it “had a life of its own,” however, was still in reaction to everything we were doing:


“It’s too painful, it’s too painful, it’s too painful…”


After chanting this around the room for a bit, it came to me to hold my hands up to the sides of my face like I had blinders, as if to say, “it’s too painful [I don’t want to see].” I do not know if anyone else said the same thing over and over again, or had a repetative, performative signature action; I just stayed in my tunnel vision and mantra. Every now and then, if what I overhead from someone came across loud and clear, I’d shift my mantra to: “stop saying that, it’s too painful…”

Why did these discursive and performative gestures become my form of embodied expression and, ultimately, my contribution to our official performance? As I reflected upon this in my audionotes:


[…]the whole point was to act like someone who was too afraid, too cowardly, too emotionally-incapable to see beyond herself, to be able to bear witness, much less do anything, for the surrounding suffering and rage. Afflicted from afar, called into seeing via Facebook and the distance, the privilege bubble (and then some) – but could also hide behind, disconnect from it with the swipe of a screen or the click of a button. “It calls upon me in ways that I say are too painful… Would require a painful extraction from my everyday apathy, compliance with the structures that enable me but constrain the others… It’s too painful to confront, to change, to engage, to agree with your side, to acknowledge beyond the active silence and response in my head…”


In addition to acting out someone who was scared of confrontation (to say the least), I also felt as though my performance could be read in a radically juxtaposing way:


My performance could also be doubly read as speaking for the victims of the problems (Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, Trump, violent hegemony and oppression, etc) we were entangling as a performative group: “it’s too painful” could also be read as someone feeling so hurt, so victimized, so threatened, so disempowered as to feel crippled by the pain. Traumatized into inaction.


But during one point in rehearsal, when Deb then called out to “stop!” and address the person we ended up facing, another, more trouble juxtaposition showed itself to me:


At one point in our scurrying rehearsal, Deb asked us to “stop!” and turn to whomever we were closest to and repeat our sayings. I ended up next to an African-American woman who, during our name introduction exercises, said her name (it now eludes me) and then “fight!” with a fisticuffs gesture. She repeated her [rehearsal] phrase, “I can’t breathe!” and I countered with “its too painful.” As we kept repeating our phrases, so much came out for me. It was like she was telling me there was a problem – I CAN’T BREATHE – and I was copping out on her: “It is too painful to help you. I cannot help you because it is too painful.” Our skin color suddenly became symbolic vehicles, and we were performing representations of how different racial populations approached and experienced social discord [when “white” and “black” were placed in apartheid-like hierarchical value to each other]. African-American communities and individuals in the US [are] crying out for air to breathe both in symbolic and visceral ways. “Come bear witness! Come climb out of that bubble!” Euro-American communities and individuals, seeing this pain and suffering, both acknowledge it but ultimately privilege their own pain over any action or lasting solidarity. Reaffirmation of these blinders.

We were acting, but with every repetition of the words I felt the meaning of them shift and grow. I did start feeling like I was a white person who would truly say “It’s too painful, I can’t deal with this.” I live and know this history a lot more closely than an African-American one; I felt indicted for the 500 year old privilege my skin color has conferred onto people appearing as I do. I cannot represent beyond this, but I can help represent beyond this. What is that fine line between acting a position and being that position…?


Such radical, and revealing, reflexivity about our situatedness as performers and symbolism as characters was but one aspect of what made our performances “ethnographic.” Our performances were also “interpretations of interpretations,” as Geertz always reminds us, for at key moments in our rehearsal there were other pauses to consider what we were doing – but this time as a group when we were imagining and constructing group “tableaus.”

After our individual mantric scurrying, Deb then coached us on how to make “tableaus” and why. Collectively, we decided on isolating out four phrases from our scurry session to illustrate in groups of 4-6 fellow participants. I ended up helping illustrate – “Our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” – with the author of the spoken word piece from which this saying came from, a woman who I had done eye-contact exercises with in the warm-ups, and the woman with whom I had previously exchanged the eye-opening (no pun intended) phrases with. What serendipity to be in this group! Our tableau came together so effortlessly (as I think everyone’s did), even though intrinsic to the exercise is that no one plans together ahead of time what they are going to do. Instead, Deb just counted to “three” and we all struck a pose that we felt best illustrated our group’s phrase. Each group performed our tableau poses for each other, and the groups who were not performing analyzed the performing group’s tableau for how it gestured to the chosen phrase in what was evidently an embodied, symbolic, and discursive entanglement.

Finally it came time to perform this first in “public,” which became whomever passed by our performance space in the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Centre. Deb designated this space with a line of “Water is Life” flyers and nondescript bag in which people could offer donations, as we were essentially busking for money. “Water is life!” she called out to commence the performance, and we began our mantras and scurrying about. “It’s too painful….” “I can’t breathe!” “We know those dogs…” murmured across our performative mass until Deb called out the signifying “WATER IS LIFE!” and we all gestured towards the reading of the spoken word poem about Standing Rock, including our tableau phrase, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!” After the spoken pieces were read, we then performed our tableaus in pre-determined succession, ending with “the struggle ends in our beloved country!” which I took to be inspired by the piece about Australian Aboriginal struggles over political sovereignty and respect.

And what of our tableau, “our voices take flight, with Dakota we fight!”? What did our serendipitously-configured group come up with? In the final performance, our tableaus ended up coming together in three counts instead of just the instantaneous freeze we started with. For our first count, we all started low to the ground, as if we were fighting off boots and batons that wanted to crush us. On count “two,” we started to rise, emerging from our abuse, ready to take action. On count “three” we hit our final and cumulating poses. Some of us stayed low, still fighting off assault. Others started literally reaching out as if to allies standing right next to them or as witnesses just a few steps away. For my part, I paradoxically did what could be interpreted as the exact opposite of my “It’s too painful…” blinders walk. I shot up to stand tall, arms extended to the sky with hands wide open, every muscle in my body taught with purpose. My face was cast skyward and my mouth was wide open, screaming to… To whom? Was it the wind I felt I’d been yelling into all the months before as I watched dogs attack Water Protectors? Or was I screaming at “the eyes of the world” like in the song “Biko,” written by Peter Gabriel, to really SEE the mercenary-style corporate violence being met with prayer and peaceful resistance? Or was I pleading to the heavens, to the Creator, to look out for us in our precarious times, to save us from each other, to instill the wisdom in us to help each other…

In the actual performance, I ended up holding this position for many, many minutes (I did not count) in a row. My mouth grew dry from the silent screaming. My eyes burned with holding them so open, like a fierce tantric diety. My muscles ached to be released from their taughtness, especially my neck as it held my face skyward for so long. But it was the least I could do, this offering of body, time, and energy. It challenged myoptic thinking and reacting. It confronted and appropriated the once-stultifying pain. And this offering – at least for me, but I also hope for others – healed the distance between silent screams and standing in solidarity. At least, if only for a moment.


Poetry and Grasslands

I am launching a new series of blog posts, sharing poems I wrote during my Tibetan odyssey years 1999-2009.  The poems track back and forth between years, juxtaposing naive discoveries with increasingly complex and concerning entanglements.  I’m not trying to follow in the tradition of Westerns – injis – representing Tibet; rather, this is my truth spoken in poetic lines (I rarely rhyme or use meter, and nearly all of them are in zero draft form) I scribbled in my field notebooks and journals over solitary cups of tea, in the midst of momo parties, waiting in airports, or contemplating with the mountains as my companions and witnesses.  This is much more about laying bare the discovery of myself through the muse of “Tibet” (which I encountered in five different nations: India, Nepal, China, U.S. and Canada) and excavating my non-academic writing and voice in a post-dissertation world.


Roof of Hotel Tibet (1999)

Tin roofs

Shingled roofs

We call them shanties

Held down by rocks

They call them home.

Monkeys thunder over them

In the morning,

A sound becoming familiar.

We watch

Buzzards, crows, hawks,

Pass circle upon circle

On the currents

Of the sky.

Snow glazed mountains

We call them the Himalayas


Behind greener mountains

Terraced gardens

Prayer flags whispering white

By the currents of the sky.



Making Tea (2006)

He took the tea out of the bag

I leave the tea in the bag

To make early evening chai

While an old woman

Collects hair from the street dogs

As they wag their tails

Wait for their turn

And follow her down the street

When she has taken what she needs.

I fight loneliness even here

As I watch the street below.

But then he calls up.



Knotted Tongue (1999)

Learning instinct?

Only if it died

Only if it went somewhere

So deep inside

It took a journey

Across canyons of clouds

And mountain passes

10,000 miles high.


Hurt and worry


When your only way

To get a meal

To answer a call

Of curiosity

Is to look a fool.


You’re a fool

When you purposefully

Knot your tongue.


Momo Party (2006)


The deftness of tactility

Shaped dough into half moons

Twirling hash into tobacco

Moving, fluttering

Like butterflies

That live for only tonight.



I Cannot Be an Inji Anymore (2006)

Working in and with the Tibetan situation

Causes me to assess my own life

What I have, what I have lost,

And what I can regain.

It causes me to look at my own life,

What my heritage is,

Where I come from,

Who I come from,

And what remains incomplete,

Unknown, un-retrieved,


But not irreconcilable.

Working with artists,

I wonder what my own journey

Would look like

If I took the time to explore it,

Confront it, and express it.

I will always believe in Tibet,

That it is a free country

And that someday His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Will return.

I will always pay witness,

I will always speak out,

Always lend my support,


But I cannot be an inji anymore,

I cannot be an outsider anymore

To something I must make a life


I cannot be an outsider

To my heart anymore.

So, I turn to what is left undone

In my life,

In the life of my family

My fatherland (payul)

My culture, my talents.

I need something inside my soul

To believe in.

I cannot fight China

I cannot save Tibet.

Not like this,

Not with a restless heart,

Discontented heart, confused mind,

From halfway around the world.



Churchill Downs

Looking at the grandstand and famed twin spires of Churchill Downs from the starting gate

My essay, “When Conscience Meets Capital,” garnered a lot of comments through this blog from a variety of perspectives and reactions. I also engaged in many exchanges via Facebook too, but those were more conversational, reactive, and ephemeral. This is not to discount such discourse, but I found the comments I got through the blog to be valuable in that people were self-motivated to write to me and share their perspective. So, the following essay is comprised of these voices (anonymous) with minimal interference or interpretation on my part. For organization’s sake, I have grouped the comments into four sections: “There Is Only a Dark Side,” “There Is Light, Afterall,” “Criticism of the Essay Itself,” and “Appreciation of the Essay.”

 I especially found the criticism leveled at the essay to be challenging, exhilarating, and ultimately the stuff that makes one a better scholar and more honest human being. One commenter questioned why I did not engage with the issue of drugs more, pointing out that reliance and abuse of such substances is a society-wide issue, not just one contained to racing. Great point, and an issue I do cover more in-depth in my dissertation, though I stop short of linking the use of equine performance-enhancing drugs to larger, human societal trends for the sake of staying on task with my primary research data and thesis of redemptive capital. (If you are reading this, I have friends who are amazing scholars of drug culture I can refer you to.)

 Another commenter took me to task more philosophically, arguing that a being’s ultimate value should simply be one’s “will-to-live.” Such ideas are grounded in the Humanist tradition of knowledge that emerged out of Europe circa the Renaissance, and while I too tend towards a “live and let live” approach to life personally, I know (via my research as an anthropologist and a life as human being who also knows what it is like to have one’s redemptive capital depleted) that we live in a much more divided, contingent, and brutal world than that. What exactly is “will” – is there ever an acultural, ahistorical, unproblematically universal definition of this? And what of those beings who lose that will and would rather die? What of their rights and existential implications then?   This is what I mean by “contingent.” Also, redemptive capital is meant to be something of an “oxymoron” – but not as “unfortunate” as this commenter suggests. We live in a conflicted world, torn between conscience and capital, and “redemptive capital” aims to index that – not come out somewhere on the sublime level where all problems are solved by one side triumphing over the other. I have been reading a lot of bell hooks’ work in the writing of my dissertation as she is not only an amazing scholar of feminism, class, and race in the U.S., she also hails from Kentucky. A quote from the chapter “Kentucky is My Fate” (page 6) in her book Belonging seems appropriate here:

If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live.

 As the Kentucky Derby will be running this coming Saturday, May 3rd, I also offer this essay as a revisitation of where Thoroughbred horse racing stands as it is about to enact one of its most important rituals and races. This is a sad Derby year for me personally. Not only because of the PETA video and the uproar (and ongoing polemics) it caused, but also because the horse I rooted for in 2012, Dullahan, passed away from colic last October 2013 after just having been retired from racing. He was the half-brother to Mine that Bird, who is apparently being (problematically) valorized at Churchill Downs for the Derby this year, as the first comment below indicates…


“There will be no redemption, come May. The Downs will welcome Leonard Blach, owner of Mine That Bird, a Kervorkian proponent of horse slaughter for human consumption. He will arrive, with an impressively decorated bus and Mine That Bird, in tow. The Downs will show the movie “50-1” where Blach and Mark Allen (Bird’s owners) are portrayed as small-time players who make the Big Time and win the Derby. Churchill Downs knows full well that Blach is the Expert Witness for Valley Meat in Roswell, NM. A decrepit slaughter house, 2 minutes behind Blach and Allen’s Breeding Barns. When opened, Valley Meat plans to kill 121 horses per DAY for human consumption. Churchill Downs is fully aware but is holding their breath, that it not be made public, at least till the Derby Party is over.”


 “How it has been forgotten the very fact that these majestic beauties have carried the human to war & died for it; how they died in underground mines for the human needs; how they labored for human food 20 hours per day…and now…now…they are being used for gambling, like cards or dice or anything that CAN JUST BE THROW AWAY, DISCARDED like a SOMETHING…where have our beautiful, majestic PARTNERS from decades together with and  for us, where have they gone? WHAT HAVE WE DONE??



“The sport of Kings disgraceful fall from grace is taking it’s toll on everyone involved in the horse racing industry. Time to clean it up once & for all. Stop racing babies & there will not be a need for most of the drug used & there will be far less injuries to treat. Plus the drugs given that have no effect except to harm the horses….here is on vet’s view…    Quote  I am honored to have permission to post this answer to my question “What is your opinion on thyroid medication in race horses?” the answer was as follows:

“Trainers administer thyroid hormone to their horses with the hope that it will be a PED. As you know, it will increase lean muscle mass, increase the basal metabolic rate (HR, BP, etc) and eventually cause nervousness and anxiety which these inexpert trainers read as the horse is ” ready to run” when in fact, it is a sign of toxicity. The international governing body for all other equine sports, the FEI, has put thyroxine on its controlled substances list as having the potential to be a PED. I also believe it belongs on the banned substances list in horse racing. The other reason I have been told it is given to racehorses is due to the fact that abuse of cobalt as an EPO like substance, can cause low thyroid activity. So the bottom line is we need to enforce the standards of practice for vets which would require a blood test documenting hypothyroidism before an individual horse could be prescribed the medication. Then regular tests would need to be done to be sure the supplementation was adequate. In nearly 30 years in practice I have never had a patient under 10 years old with even borderline thyroid hormone levels. And never in a racehorse. I do regular screening for endocrine assessment and they are always high normal as we would expect a young thoroughbred to be. Thank you very much for caring about this issue. We need an army to confront the corrupt practices.”

~ Dr. Sheila Lyons, Founder and Director, The American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation…unquote”


“Thank you for this perceptive essay on horse racing. I have often decried the culture of the racetrack where magnificent animals are treated as machinery, prone to mechanical breakdown and kept on the track with quick fixes until they crash and burn.

The culture of racing is one where people lose their humanity by increments. Being competitive means taking advantage of drugs and procedures that ease pain and hide injuries only to move a horse from barn to track prematurely. There is no time for natural healing. No time for kindness. No incentive for ethical veterinary practice. No regard for horses and jockeys.

The horse that forges to the lead in a race is said to have heart. But the  trainer, the veterinarian and the owner that used drugs and cruelty to get him to the starting gate are themselves heartless.”


“Horses have no hope while humans continue to look at them from the view point of what they can get out of them. Nobody asks me what I am I doing with my cat, and if it is being wasted. Of course, there’s a huge financial difference in the up keep of horses and most other animals. At what stage will people realize that they Did get their pound of flesh out of horses hundreds of years ago. The history of humans and their relationship with the horse, is in general, an awful reflection of unrelenting human greed.”



“How’s this for redemptive qualities of the thoroughbreds and of the industry?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJqfopve7CE The industry is beginning to care and what is happening is often very, very good.”


“Everything about the sport of racing is taking it’s toll on ALL involved…time to clean this industry up once & for all…”

“Thoroughbreds. To a shy girl who felt more at home with horses and books than parties and proms, they represented all that was beautiful and courageous about a world that could often be painfully cruel.

I was, and at times still am, that girl who is in love with horses, especially Thoroughbreds. What  happened this past week will help to shape the future of this sport. Please note that I said “sport”, not industry.

My bachelor’s degree in Animal Science views most human-nonhuman animal relationships in the context of industry. The dairy industry. The poultry industry. The Thoroughbred industry.

Could this be the problem with racing? If we view racing as an “industry’, are these horses no more than machines that are “disposed of” once they break down?

I am glad that a light is shining on the dark, dirty secrets of some parts of the backstretch.

Whether that light will be bright and strong enough to ignite the necessary change is the question yet to be answered.

There are good people on the track and the farms who do love and care for their horses. I worked with them, and hope to count myself in their number.

I want to be an agent of change for the sport. The focus of my master’s studies in Anthrozoology is humane retirement solutions for Thoroughbred race horses. This is the least I can do for the horses whose courage I hope to emulate.”



“As an anthropologist, I expected you to take a wider view of the use of drugs and veterinarian practices on the racetrack. I am not speaking about illegal drugs, but about the ones which are legal, such as lasix. Let me say first, that I pony horses on the racetrack. I have never owned or trained a thoroughbred. So I think I have a unique viewpoint. My income does not depend on whether the horses win or lose. I have no stake in their performance results, but I’m there everyday and witness their daily routines. I personally think there is way too much medication and medical procedures on the track. But I think the problem goes much deeper than the racetrack; it goes right to our society’s belief in and use of drugs. I thought you, as an anthropologist would understand this connection. Society as a whole relies on drugs instead of healing for so many things. In small amounts and in specific instances, drugs can be very beneficial. But they are misused when they are used in a “cure-all” blanketing way. It has been my experience, that most trainers give medications in order to help their horses. Not to help them win at all costs, but to be healthier and more comfortable. PETA would paint all pain-killing meds as abusive, but I would be willing to bet that almost every one of them have taken aspirin on occasion. It’s a matter of degree, and a matter of being able to know where to draw the line. At what point does the use of medication, or of medical procedures stop being beneficial and become abusive? For most trainers and vets, it isn’t about bad intent, or being unfeeling, it’s about carrying what in small amounts is beneficial, too far. Human medicine is just as guilty of this trend as veterinary medicine. More is always better, or better to be safe than sorry. Take the anti-depressants, the sleeping pills, put the kids on ADHD meds, etc. It’s a bad societal mind-set rather than just a race track one.”


“The author seeks a middle ground morally between the philosophy of reverence for life, which says that the value of a living being is sustained by its own will-to-live and that of Aristotle, who said that animals were only things that have their value assigned to them by their owners. She uses the unfortunate oxymoron “redemptive capital” to attempt to balance the contradiction between a moral outlook and a monetary one suggestive of getting a return on an investment. But between the outlook that a horse sustains its own value by its own will-to-live and that of the person who assesses it according to his judgement about its “redemptive value” there is ultimately no middle ground. A choice must be made. Perhaps all indeed is darkness in the world of horse racing. Foals are torn away from their mothers and given to nurse mare foals. Foals with less “redemptive value” are slaughtered. Horses are raced too early out of owner greed with the consequence that horses suffer injuries. Horses who are judged to have no “redemptive value” meaning return for their investment are sent to slaughter if they do not promise to win money on the racetrack. “Redemptive value” is a disingenuous term. It suggests that horses must still be looked at a return on an investment of some kind, whether monetary or one of conscience. But horses don’t exist in order to offer anyone opportunities for “redemptive value”. They exist, like each human being and give value to their own lives simply because they will-to-live. This means each horse seeks to express its own nature freely and to seek joy and avoid pain and the fear of death. Is it possible that the need to show some light in the dark world of horse racing is simply motivated by the fear that the money lobbying power of the race horse industry is too great to be defeated ? There is no middle ground in some contradictions. Either a horse has value because of its own pursuit of life liberty and happiness or it has some value, including “redemptive value” assigned to it by either a God or human being playing the role of God over Nature.”


“An endoscopy, as shown at 1:07, has nothing to do with shooting drugs up the nostrils, as you put it. On the contrary, it shows there was enough invested in the horse’s health to investigate what, if any, problems were causing the horse’s poor performance.” (Author’s note: was thinking of how some drugs ARE administered nasally, not mistaking this for the depicted endoscopy that evaluates the integrity of equine airways)


“how can we humanely end the lives of cows,goats,sheep,and pigs for human or animal consumption but we cannot for a equine? how can we humanely end the lives of unwanted pets for burial in the dump but cannot use there remains for anything of purpose?”



“I saved an OTTB. I require nothing more from him than he his happy to give on any day. He is more than worth my “investment”. I thank you for this article.”


“It is only limiting to think that we are not all connected by a cord from  my heart  through a loop in others we are in this world together and what effects one person or one animal  effects all of us it is not possible for one person to change horse racing but it is possible  for one person to change and help  change to happen. Let us start the change by being responsible owners that communicate their values and expectations to their trainers becoming cautionary not reactionary. If you care about your horse express it by your presence. It is our,the owners racehorse not the trainers. Be involved for now til Usada or some governing body is in place that is what we can do for racing and our horse. Love your article.”

Three Springs

Extraordinarily written account of life as Sherpas serving the Everest expedition culture and the many tendrils this (exploitative?) business weaves through villages, families, and consciousnesses. Brought me back to my research and filming days in the Himalayas, and the same trepidation about what right and responsibility I had to be there.




When there are gatherings in our valley, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, and the children tear about evading adult arms that reach out to obstruct their fun. The men form a long line on low benches along the front wall of the house, patriarchs sitting at the end closest to the fireplace with the wide-legged weariness of ageing masculinity; down through the established householders with their roars of laughter, past the young fathers bouncing sticky toddlers on their laps, through the self-conscious new and prospective grooms, to the awkward youths who cram together and snicker and mutter and jostle each other.

Everyone wears down jackets.

In such a line as this, a gambler would have good odds that any man, picked at random, has stood atop of Everest; chances better still that he has been partway up the mountain…

View original post 2,915 more words

Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.

Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.


I finally got the nerve to watch the latest PETA undercover investigation video about Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Steven Asmussen’s less-than-humane training practices. PETA has a history of launching anti-Thoroughbred horseracing campaigns in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, when the world’s eye trains on Churchill Downs in what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

Whether or not the timing of this video was meant to color people’s perceptions of this “decadent and depraved” cultural phenomenon come the first Saturday in May is not my claim to stake.  But I will stake another kind of claim in response to PETA’s video, one based on my own anthropological research on Thoroughbred horse racing, and it comes in the form of two words.

Redemptive capital.

If we focus on only the dark side of Thoroughbred racing (some, like PETA, would say that is all there is) we only see syringes and shockers as the number one “tools of the trade” (PETA video minute, 9:07).  I can still hear D. Wayne Lucas, who got his start in Quarter Horse racing (which happens to be a culture I grew up in) talking about how it sounded like “a full-blown orchestra” at the starting gates at Ruidoso in New Mexico, so many trainers and jockeys were using electric shock to jolt their horses out of the starting gates (starting at 7:00).  Then to hear Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens joking over dinner and candlelight about how he shocked himself after using one of these devices on a horse (6:47), it could have been read as appropriate karma if it weren’t so utterly disappointing.  I promptly “unfollowed” him on Twitter, but not before I saw his page’s feed: silent on his appearance the PETA video.

If there is only a dark side to racing, then we only see serums and powders of questionable legitimacy (like tyroxine and Lasix) shooting into equine veins (3:45) or up their nostrils (1:07).  If there is only darkness, we only see what literally emerges from such illegitimate practices: fluid shooting out of horses’ joints to the point of drawing exclamation from veterinarians (1:44), and hooves degraded to “nubs” (2:12) that even super glue cannot fix (2:57).  During my anthropological research in the heart of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred country in 2011 – the same year that Nehro, a horse profiled in the PETA video (starting at 2:06), came in second in the Kentucky Derby – I often heard “no hoof, no horse” (a similar refrain can be heard at 2:25 in the PETA video).  This ultimately proved true for Nehro, as he succumbed to colic (3:05) in what assistant trainer Scott Blasi (who is not lacking in any choice words throughout the video) called the “most violent fucking death I have ever seen” (3:13).

Given the horse’s struggle with staying afoot, colic (the twisting and blockage of a horse’s intestines) was perhaps a result from his debilitated condition, and most certainly a blessing in disguise: it put him out of his misery.  “They should have retired him from racing last year,” one of Nehro’s exercise riders comments on PETA’s hidden camera (3:20).  And when he says “they” it is not just Asmussen and his training retinue who is implicated, but owner Ahmed Zayat as well.

Which brings me to the claim I wish to stake here, and in doing so, I wish to shine a light into the dark side of Thoroughbred horseracing of which PETA has made many so thoroughly aware.  For others, such as myself, this video is only another reminder of how unfortunate too many horses (and humans [8:02]; also see Dr. Heidi Castenada’s work) are within the vaunted world of Thoroughbred horseracing.  As racing elite Bill Casner, co-founder of WinStar Farms and KEEP (Kentucky Equine Education Project), opined in the Thoroughbred Daily News in regards to the PETA video: “Until our value system changes and horses are treated like the living, breathing, majestic animals that they are, we will continue to diminish as an industry until we no longer exist.”

During the year I spent in Kentucky’s Bluegrass, the hub of Thoroughbred breeding and racing for North America, if not the world, I studied an off-shoot culture of Thoroughbred racing: the rescue, retirement, and/or rehabilitation of former racehorses.  But instead of finding organizations like PETA who were dead-set against racing and wanted to send it the way of greyhound racing, I found an unexpected, at times productive/at times counterproductive relationship between “rescue” efforts and racing.  There wasn’t just a dark side, nor was there just the limelight, but something more complex and less polemical than the battling images PETA and racing proffered.

Some horses I encountered in my study had been pulled directly out of “kill pens” where they were held at auctions in US until their shipment to slaughter plants in either Canada or Mexico (despite efforts to bring the business back into full swing to the US starting in 2011 nothing has been established yet save for the Bravo plant in New Jersey which slaughters horses for zoo meat).  Some had been conscientiously retired by their trainers, even before taking a step out of the starting gate in an official race. Some had been passed down the line, from graded stakes races to becoming a so-called “rat” (8:03) in claiming races before they were retired with organizations like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (which had its own share of controversy during my research stint with them). Some had retired as “warhorses” (horses that earn $500,000 or more in their lifetime), enabled by fans, former owners or breeders who had followed their career not only out of joy for the sport, but also to make sure these horses did not disappear into what anti-horse slaughter activists call “the slaughter pipeline.”

Every horse had a story they carried with them.  Some spoke with a paper trail of vet records or bloodlines that could be looked up on Equineline.com; most only had their bodies and behavior to communicate where they had been.  And for some, the faint, but still-legible traces of their Jockey Club racing registration tattoo on their upper lip was the only thing that meant the difference between being shipped to slaughter or finding sanctuary and eventual adoption.

Within all these stories, be they discursive, embodied, or both, came one unifying element: these horses were saved for a reason – they were not just “disposable commodities” (3:37).  Sometimes the reason was because they stood out as Thoroughbreds in a herd of auction horses predominantly consisting of Quarter Horses and Paint Horses (the two most likely breeds to go to slaughter), and given how romanticized horses of the Thoroughbred persuasion are (just watch the films “Seabiscuit” or “Secretariat” for evidence), their breed identity thus saved them.  Other horses stand out because they are still sound, that is, they still “have a hoof” so there is still a horse left to ride.  Others are salvageable because of a kind disposition or a look in their eye that says they would be a perfect “kid horse.”  And others are deemed worth saving because they gave so much to their human owners that it was the least these Homo sapiens sapiens could do for Equus feras caballus.

In processing my research, I gave a name to all these reasons, and their associated attributes, for why certain horses are saved – and I am not just talking about from slaughter, but from other relationships that draw these horses into abusive or neglected situations with humans.  Relationships such as those cultivated at Asmussen’s training stables.  What ultimately can save a horse is his or her “redemptive capital” – anything a human reads into a horse that says, “this should not be taken for granted, this should not be depleted” and, most importantly, “this is worth my investment, not just in money, but in humane-ity.”

Perhaps the greatest horror we witness when we watch PETA’s undercover video is not the footage I’ve already mentioned, or the additional footage of a terrible pin-firing job (5:14), the voyeuristic scene where we overhear New York state’s “top horseracing veterinarian” admit that Lasix is a “performance enhancer” (4:59), or the discussion of shock wave therapy that is speculated to be so painful to the horses that Blasi “can’t believe them f—king sons of bitches can take it” (5:36), but the ongoing, systematic disregard and depletion of these horses’ redemptive capital.  By disgracing these horses, not only is Thoroughbred racing disgraced, but our human ability – no, responsibility – to be humane is.  Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.  And it begins with an investment we cannot measure in cash and profits alone, but where our conscience can finally match our culture’s fixation on capital.  And it begins, so to speak, where it is darkest before the dawn.

As historian of science and philosopher of human-animal relations, Donna J. Haraway, advises us: “Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect” (2008:19).  Where there was once only decadence and depravity, as Hunter S. Thompson chided us and PETA has now reminded us – is it now possible for some response, respect, and redemption for racing?  Perhaps we will see, come the first Saturday in May.

It is the year of the horse, after all.


(Author’s Note: I wrote this short story back in early 2007 as a way to come to terms with the death of my childhood horse.  I am republishing it here, seven years later, in commemoration of 2014 being the Year of the Horse.)



The horse that gave me wings during my childhood is dying.  He is going to be buried in the pasture of friends who took him in after he turned up lame.  A pasture perched on the edge of the great big sea of the Colorado Great Plains.  I imagine his spirit galloping with the force of the wind, and someday I will climb upon his back and ride with him once again.


I was housesitting out at my parents’ ranch the morning Christmas 2006 bloomed, the first “white” Christmas we had since I was a little girl.  My parents were out in north-central California, visiting my brother and his family.  My grandmother, who I would be celebrating the day with later over brunch and dinner, was at her house in downtown Boulder.  With my human family dispersed, I had my animal family instead.  Brio and Willa, two black labs from a long lineage of labs bred at my parents’ ranch, sneezed and shook their ears expectantly the second they saw my eyes were open.  Wishbone, a Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix I was watching for a married couple that consisted of two of my best friends, simply gazed steadily at me, a slight, non-threatening curl in his lip that spoke of expectations as well.  When I arose from bed, Wish let out his characteristic speak-squeal, Willa bounced on her front feet, and Brio’s slapping tail sent her backend sideways, knocking into the other dogs.

The bedroom door opened, and the race began – first to the front door of the house.  Waiting for me to unlock and open it was almost unbearable with Brio now joining Wish in a much less cute rendition of squealing, and Willa bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  Now on the opposite side of the glass front door, I was watched with the intensity of first year medical students in their first anatomy class: “now she’s putting on the shoes: we’re waiting for the left one to go on – oh, it’s on!  Now for the gloves – why does she have to wait and put every single finger in?!”  Once prepped for venturing outside into an environment with at least two feet of snow on the ground, I opened the front door.  More squealing and jumping.  I was followed like a rock star down the front walk, across the driveway to the garage, fans squealing and jumping on me the entire way.  I entered the garage through the “human” door, and a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly, the garage door roared open, and the fans bum-rushed into the garage like it was Wembley Stadium.  Willa grabbed one of the sticks she kept handy in a bucket full of sticks.  Brio was now screaming.  Wishbone, ever the gentlemen in his natural, all-body tuxedo coat, observed my actions silently with a more pronounced lip curl, as though he was about to start singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” as I dished up their breakfasts.

For the labs, breakfast was over in two gulps – one for the green beans they ate to keep the weight off their hips, and one for the dry food that was, well, just more food.  Wishbone ate his dry food without complaint, but keep eyeing me to see if I was getting ready to serve up dessert: dried pigs’ ears.  Once Wish was finished, it was time to “sit, SIT!”  Only until all three dogs were sitting before me, did I grab the red bag that contained dessert.  At the sound of the plastic crunching in my hands, all three dogs leap up with excitement: Willa bouncing, Brio tilted sideways, and Wishbone with his Elvis sneer.  “Sit, SIT!” I commanded, and they obeyed.  First Willa – she grabbed the pig’s ear delicately with her mouth and bolted out of the garage.  Brio snapped up the ear like she was auditioning for the Discovery Channel.  Wishbone allowed the ear to hover in front of his mouth, his sneer simultaneously registered disbelief and delight, and then he took it, wondering what good fortune he had acquired to be dog-sat by Aunt Tamar.  “Merry Christmas!” I cried after the departing dogs, each seeking a space in the snow to savor the crispy, greasy remnants of a pig’s external hearing devices.

As I picked up the dogs’ dishes, I heard a sound inaudible to most human beings.  A second later, my cat, Hootie, shimmered into the eating area and took her place on the shelf where she was fed.  A little dry food and a full can of “Savory Salmon Mix” in her dish (it was Christmas), she vocalized her cat-specific appreciation and dug in.  I returned the compliment in a dialect incomprehensible to both her and me (it just felt intuitive) and left the garage to feed the horses.

Ladore, a black Quarter Hourse mare who was the last in my mother’s lineage of race horses, pawed the green gate to her corral in anticipation.  Her daughter, Rosie, a spunky paint horse with brown and white body markings and a shock of black mane and eyes, gave me her “What’s up, T-mar?” neigh, which I followed with a song, again intelligible only to the intuition, that carried the melody of an old Duran Duran song.  George, another paint horse (this time with the shock of one blue eye and terrible trail riding abilities) straddled the snowy ground and peed once he saw me coming.  Egypt, a solid bay gelding as fast a lightning, put on his Scrooge face, tucking his ears back, his eyes clouding with ill humor.  When my dad’s new horse, a towering Fox Trotter by the name of “Chilly,” emerged from the barn and entered Egypt’s radius, Egypt shot his neck out like a Saharan cobra and nipped at Chilly.  Chilly, who I call “Chilly-horse-asuarus” because of his dinosaur like stature, side-jumped from Egypt, good humor and hunger still flashing in his eyes.

“Merry Christmas!”  I cried, and all I got back was “I’m hungry!” neighs, foot-stomping, post-elimination groans, and ears that would not face forward until breakfast was served.  Each horse got two flakes of grass hay, rounded out by a Christmas treat – a short pour of grain.  I threw the hay first, yelling at Egypt as he chased George and Chilly around after each round of hay was thrown enough for the three of them.  When I emerged from the barn with the bucket of grain, each horse must have known exactly what I was doing, because they had forgotten about the hay and were at the fence, watching my every move.  Commando training would not have prepared me for what it took to distribute the grain – I was dodging horse teeth and rear ends like a ninja.  Good thing I can pack a verbal punch, because for as long as I have known these horses – even Chilly caught on immediately – they knew I meant business through voice power alone.  And they knew that I had nothing but love and respect for them too – enough carrots in the middle of the night after coming home from enough beers formed us a bond that was unbreakable.

Horses fed, I began walking back to the house, preceded by dogs who found no greater joy in life than living in the moment where they could simultaneously dive through snow like a porpoise and strain the snow through their mouths like a baleen whale.  Once at the house, I began strapping on my cross-country ski boots, again watched like an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”  When I emerged with skis and poles in hand, you would have thought I was one big walking pig’s ears at the response I got from my fan club: squealing, screaming, bouncing – I felt like Bono at Madison Square Garden.  Strapped in, we headed west, across the bridge over the creek that cut through my parents’ backyard, and to a trail on “open space” – land set aside by the city of Boulder to never be developed – except for grazing, cross-country skiing, and a wickedly enforced dog control program.  Sometimes I was so nervous about what constituted bad behavior about my dogs that when I saw them pee on “open space” I wondered if I should be collecting it lest it should be considered polluting substance.

Once we crossed the creek and the western-most pasture on my parents’ ranch, I ducked through the wires of the fence separating their property from “open space,” and suddenly I was exactly that, on open space.  The front range of the Rocky Mountains rose before me as it characteristically does in Boulder – jabs of red sandstone in the shape of the flat face of a pressing iron, myriad frosted trees, bluebird sky, and the contours of a mountain range that I had witnessed so many times at so many different times of day at so many different points in life that I have come to regard this eight mile track of mountains and foothills from Eldorado Canyon to Flagstaff Mountain as an altar upon which I have laid countless prayers and dreams.  As I paused to wish the mountains and open space a merry Christmas, dogs were porpoising past me, seeking a beginning to our trek on Christmas morning.

A fresh snow had fallen, about six inches, on Christmas Eve, covering up the trail that had been there just yesterday.  I had been on this trail so many times, though, that I could eye ball a path in the generic canvas of the fresh snow.  Nothing gives you a greater workout, however, than breaking trail.  Luckily, Brio is the type of dog who likes to trail blaze, and so I followed in the wake of her footsteps except when I snagged a rock or thought she was going off course.  We climbed steadily, the mountains’ presence becoming closer and more palpable with our approach.    I thought of all the different ways I had seen this trail.  What it is like when you first heard the Meadowlark in the spring, sitting on a dried head of a yucca blossom, singing greenness into the spikes of the plant.  When the bluebirds flit down the wire on the fence as you approach, then realize that you are going their way, so they take off and fly at length in a way only birds can do.  Or when you are heading home on a glorious run, the sun having just sent, sending rays of light onto the bellies of clouds that make you think of the aura borealis; the type of sunset that you are so enthralled by that you don’t watch where you are going as closely as you normally do, and you clip your foot on a rock; and when you finally get around to picking yourself up from the ensuing fall, you realize you have torn your hamstring so badly you think you have broken your leg from the pain you feel.  It was exactly this kind of fall I took on this very trail about four months prior that had kept me from coming out here in the ritualistic way I once had.  But today, instead of breaking my leg, I was breaking trail, my breath as laborious as it would be if I were on a good run.

I wanted to make it to a spot I usually turned around on a short run, but as I watched the dogs dive and disappear, dive and disappear in the snow, I knew that the trail only got deeper and that I was ready to turn around.  “We earned our turns!”  I exclaimed as I turned around and glided out on the trail I had just cut for us.  A moment later the dogs were passing me like dolphins next to a sailboat.  I sailed down the trail, the dense crunch I repeatedly heard on the way up was replaced by the shimmer of skis across sugary snow.  As we went through a family of Pondersosa Pine, I suddenly smelled their vanilla perfume on the wings of an incredibly pleasant, soft, warm breeze.  Growing up in Boulder, one of the strongest memories I have of the natural world at wintertime is the unlikely combination of fresh snowfall being kissed by a “Chinook” a warm breeze.  I figured I had not noticed the Chinook on my way up the trail because I was not traveling in the direction of the wind – but had I not been traveling west, toward the mountains, and slightly south where most Chinnok winds come from?  I paused to consider the unexpected warmth of the wind and found myself at the top of a ski-able little hill.  The dogs did not know what to do with me as I careened down the hill – Brio dodged my path on the way down just in time.  But by the second try, they got the picture, and while I glided alongside the streams of the wind, they dove and tumbled down hill with joy only a dog can communicate in their own particular body language.  After a few more times up and down that small hill below the pine tree family, we set out for home, the Chinook guiding us the entire way.

A few days later, when my family had reconstituted itself through grandmother, parents, daughter, and the barnyard menagerie, my dad informed me that Burrlito had died on Christmas Day.  Burrlito had been the horse I grew up with, and we had both been the same age.  He was 28 when he died – a good, long life for a horse.  We’d been out riding one day when I was in high school when he tore his hamstring and turned up lame.  We sent him out to pasture with some friends who had property on the prairie, close to the Colorado-Kansas border.  “Burr” had first been a Racing Quarter Horse, and then been brought into our family as a roping horse for my dad.  Then somehow we got the notion I could train him in Dressage, so at the age of twelve I was saved some of the horrors of adolescence by training a racehorse/rodeo horse/Quarter Horse to stick it to those warm blooded, predigreed horses and their riders.  Being first and foremost a racehorse, Burr had come to master his left-sided gait like a champ, so our only real issue in training had been his picking up his right gait.  He passed the higher levels of Dressage tests beautifully, but it was always when I asked for this fundamental, right-sided gait without any complexity that his racehorse instinct kicked in too greatly.  I remember getting so mad, so frustrated at him when we would ride on our own in our neighbors’ arena that he would just stop and not move an inch, no matter how much I urged him to go on – and this time I have to ashamedly say I had not yet mastered the firm-compassion of my voice-only power of persuasion.  It was as if he was saying: “I’ll do anything for you except to have you get your way through anger.”

Our best times, however, were when we would flaunt our training and just go ride.  I grew up in a neighborhood full of “bridle paths” and we had a particular route that took us to the top of a plateau that not only overlooked our entire neighborhood, but the entire Boulder Valley, including the contours of the mountain range that would later become so familiar and sacred to me.  We would take in the view, and then turn it loose.  Burrlito was first and foremost a racehorse, and on these occasions I would let him be that once again.  Not flying lead changes, no gathering trot from A to B, then a posting trot from X to Z.  Across that plateau, Burrlito would shift gears until he would “breeze” a term especially given to the gait racehorses achieve when they are going their ultimate fastest.  Tears would stream down my cheeks, and often I would let go of the reins and just hold on to his mane.  Back then, before the development of “open space” with trailheads, trail markers, and bags provided to pick up your dog’s doing, Burr and I ran until he just couldn’t go anymore.  Then we would turn around, and a slower run, we would come home.

When I heard Burr died on Christmas day, I thought back to the Christmas when I got my first Dressage riding bridle, complete with this bizarre bit called a “snaffle.”  I could not get my britches and boots on fast enough to go out with Burr and try it out.  Photos show us riding in the round-pen at our old house, me with embarrassingly styled bangs, and Burr with his head up high, wondering what the hell was in his mouth and what I wanted him to do with it.  Like I said, somehow we got good enough to place in our first show, but that was all we ever did.  I think preoccupations of being a teenager set in, and I suddenly became painfully aware that not only would I ever join “Pony Club” with a Quarter Horse with too small of hooves, but that I did not want to join “Pony Club” if it meant giving up Burr.  So instead, we stuck with trail riding.  When my parents’ moved to the ranch they live at now, I was a sophomore in high school.  I used to go over there after school and ride the horses.  One day, when I was riding Burr and a girlfriend of mine was riding Ladore, a thunderstorm came upon us – I won’t say “suddenly” because I am sure there were all the signs but we were just too young and ignorant to read them.  We were out pretty far on open space when the bolt of lightning hit next to us.  Ladore reared, but my friend hung on.  Burr “spooked” big time – it was like an entire lifetime of fear and emotion welled up in his legs and then exploded underneath us like a Christmas popper.  It was particularly concentrated in his back left leg, and when I finally got him to stop running, he could barely walk because of the hamstring he had pulled in that leg.  We trudged home in the pouring rain and constant lightning, I kept crying out and pleading to Burr as he kicked out his pained back leg each time he tried to step on it.  I cannot remember how I told my parents, I do not remember when I decision was made to send him to pasture.  I do know that I never saw him again.

When I found out all these years later that he was dying, I wanted to go with my dad to be with him when he put Burr down.  My dad cautioned me against doing so, asking me to remember Burr as the awesome athlete, teacher, explorer, and friend he had once been.  I did not have to decide, the weather decided for me, sending in a blizzard of the kind I had not seen since I was a young girl.  This was the day of the winter solstice.  We were marooned at the foot of the mountains for more than a week.  During a telephone conversation with my brother who is a horse veterinarian, I suggested that this blizzard, especially intense on the eastern prairie, might do dad’s job for him.  And it did, on Christmas Day.  So when I felt that Chinook, so uncanny and unexpected at first, it was perhaps Burrilto’s spirit finding his way home.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013



Man O'War Statue and Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

Man O’War statue and memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park


Secretariat statue at the Kentucky Horse Park










Today was the day to return to my old stompin’ grounds at the Kentucky Horse Park – namely the International Museum of the Horse and Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center.  I began the day by going to the museum.  As I made my way there from the main parking lot to the Visitor Center, I walked past the familiar landmarks of Man O’War’s memorial and gravesite to my left, and the statue of Secretariat depicted with his groom, Eddie Sweat, and jockey, Ron Turcotte.

IMG_0344When Man O’War passed in 1947 he was mourned by the nation, and the grief was even more acutely felt in the Bluegrass where he had stood stud at Faraway Farm.  His body was embalmed and laid in state for people to visit, and when it came time to bury him he was interred whole (considered the highest form of honor for a revered horse, for others are buried with only head and hoofs per the Celtic tradition, and then forms of corpse disposal vary from there – such things I have come to know by studying the implicit mortuary practices for horses considering the topic of slaughter).  As the decades went by, Man O’War’s resting place at Faraway Farm became a de facto memorial where people could pay homage to “the Mostest Horse” but it also started falling into disrepair.

First plans for the Man O'War Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

First plans for the Man O’War Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

With the advent of the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s, the idea then started percolating to move the horse’s body and memorial site there.  Then in 1977 his body was reinterred at the Park, but not without some controversy for it was discovered that a handle from his Thoroughbred-size casket and a bone from his tail were stolen in the process.  Both were eventually returned.  Man O’War does not rest in peace alone, however, at the Park as he is also surrounded by the graves of his offspring (like War Admiral, his great rivalry with Seabiscuit made popular by Laura Hillebrand’s book and the ensuing film by Gary Ross) and the African-American jockey that rode him to such fame, Issac Murphy.


I learned all this information, and gathered the supporting archival information that accompanies this recounting of Man O’War’s life and memorial, with all the time I spent at the International Museum of the Horse – particularly upstairs in the Mary Jane Gallaher Library and Research Archives.  This library was my ultimate destination today, as I had also spent about nine months working there as an archivist of the papers and photos bequeathed to the museum by Mary Aiken Littauer.  “Mary” as the museum director, Bill Cooke, and I referred fondly to her, was a famed hippologist (scholar of horses) back when Antiquity studies had yet been subsumed in anthropology/archaeology/Classical studies or rendered outmoded in a post-colonial world.  The months I spent with Mary proved to be the best education I could ask for in terms of the historical study of the horse.  I often remark that she mentored me from the grave.  Returning to the library and gazing upon the myriad light gray archival boxes into which safely transferred and databased letters, articles, journals, scrapbooks and photos (and still so much more work to be done!) was like a return to Mary’s tutelage.

Cover of The Blood-Horse exposing Ferdinand's death-by-slaughter in Japan

Cover of The Blood-Horse exposing Ferdinand’s death-by-slaughter in Japan

But on this day, I was on a search for different archival materials, this time from the extensive Blood-Horse collection the library houses.  In particular, I was looking for the full articles detailing the life and death of another red stallion: Ferdinand (whose son, Ferdy, I visited the day before at Blackburn).  While I had found a synopsis of Barbara Bayer’s earth-shattering article about Ferdinand’s eventual slaughter in Japan titled “Roses to Ruin” on the Internet, I wanted to find and photocopy a print version for my own research archives.  I also sought out her follow-up article six months later, detailing the fall-out and reactions she had experienced through the first article.  I found what I was looking for, and in addition to photocopying the articles I took photos of them, as I found the graphic design presentation of the “Roses to Ruin” article particularly aesthetically telling.  As I argue in the first chapter of my thesis, Ferdinand’s death in 2002 (along with another horse, Exceller, who was slaughtered in Sweden – but I don’t cover his story in an effort to keep my analysis local and specific to what I encountered in the field) was an origin story of sorts for the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse practices we see today.  While both private and non-profit efforts had been in place for decades prior to Ferdinand’s shocking death (even Man O’War’s owner toyed with the idea of turning the horse into a “hunter” if he didn’t prove a “racer”; and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation started taking in horses in 1983), I see his death as a crucial moment where both the racing industry AND animal rights activists / horse welfare concerns merged through shared outrage and bewilderment.  That is not to say that this merging is complete and wholly amicable, but the point being is that two sides that did (and still do) often times see themselves at polar opposites were united – however tentatively and through different cultural meaning systems – by Ferdinand.



After a successful visit to the IMH, I headed to the hinterlands of the Park, passing the children’s playground where people could also take pony rides, the Dressage grounds and cross-country course where the Rolex Three Day Event would take place in little over a month, and the AllTech arena where just the week before the “Road to the Horse” – a natural horsemanship competition – had taken place.  Then, the black stitch of fences of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (MMSC) began, and I noticed they got a much larger, more visible sign announcing the facility grounds as I turned up the main drive that would take me first to the administrative offices.


As I pulled into a parking space, I noticed that the schooling ring now featured a variety of desensitization stations – like a ground bridge and a doorway with “spooky” streamers dangling from it that a horse would have to walk through and tolerate – in addition to the usual configuration of jumps and ground poles.  Entering the administrative offices through the front door, I asked for the director of MMSC, Susanna Thomas, and was informed that she was out in the barn with a prospective adopter.  I then made the familiar-to-my-bones walk from the offices outside to the barn, where I found Susanna with an intern and the prospective adopter in the stall of the horse of interest.  The horse was a giant of a chestnut filly (sometimes I forget how HUGE some Thoroughbreds can get as this girl was 17.2 [!!!] and all legs), but as Susanna and the intern put her through the paces in the schooling ring as yet another snowstorm hit, dinnertime was imminent, and her buddies were in the adjacent, paddock I was very impressed by how she kept her cool and kept working and responding (though not without a raised head and hollow back at first).  For her part, the prospective adopter was still board even though she did not get to ride, and mentioned she was eager to return tomorrow and do some “joining up” work with the filly.


The Buchephalus Training Library at the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center

The Buchephalus Training Library at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center

In between facilitating this adoption try out, I got some one-on-one time with Susanna where I caught her up with my research and she filled me in on the developments since I left in November 2011.  The biggest change, other than almost all the MMSC staff I knew during my fieldwork departing for other equestrian and work pursuits, was that MMSC had gained full, non-profit operational status from the TRF and thus had the whole administrative offices as their domain (save for one office set aside for the Brooke Foundation).  Consequently, MMSC now had the space to set up the Buchephalus Training Library, a project I helped out with a little bit during the final months of my fieldwork in the Bluegrass.  Susanna conceived of this library as a resource center for interns, staff, and visitors alike on the subject of horse training and care.  The Library had also been gifted a healthy archive of Blood-Horse magazines, and I noticed that MMSC too had copies of the editions that featured Ferdinand’s demise.


It was a whirlwind trip to MMSC as my next appointment-of-sorts was at a barn out past Hamburg Place and Man O’War Boulevard.  But before I left I got to see two familiar, unexpected faces.  The first came in the form of a toy Aussie Shepard named Tank.  He came coasting into the barn, foretelling the arrival of his owner/guardian (oh, the bobble of what word to use in this case) and on-call farm manager for MMSC, Tony.  As I called out to Tank using the nickname I’d given him, he curled into my arms for a brief second as I bent down to greet him, recognizing me, I believe, through the haze of time.  He then bounded away, ever and always independent, but would circle back from time to time.  As I also learned in the Bluegrass: horse people are also dog people.  And as science is slowly catching up and proving what we “animal people” have always intuited: horses and dogs don’t forget a person who has shown them love (and shared molasses horse treats).



Fly Lite watching Melissa as she makes feeding rounds on the farm

Fly Lite watching Melissa as she makes feeding rounds on the farm


My last research reconnaissance of the day took me out to Morris Farm, reminding me of the thrill of discovering new, beautiful and fascinating places in the Bluegrass.  Here I was meeting the horse around which chapter two of my thesis is based, Fly Lite – or Fly, or “Fly Fly” as I often heard myself coo to her on my ad hoc interview audio recordings – and her significant other (again, I bobble with the terminology to describe the human-animal relationship in something other than owner/property terms), Melissa.  Melissa had been the adoptions and volunteer coordinator at MMSC during my fieldwork there, but had left to first serve as a working student at the farm where she now boarded Fly, and then to the Department of Music of the University of Kentucky based on her extraordinary career and gift with the flute and music education.


Due to the inclimate weather riding was out of the question, so Melissa and I simply chatted in the barn as she took Fly out to groom her.  Fly had once been boarded at MMSC while Melissa was employed there, and as such Fly became a mascot alongside Ferdy.  From what I gathered, Fly, however, represented horses that had been labeled for slaughter (as she herself had been pulled from a slaughter-bound pen at New Holland auction) but then had been rescued and consequently flourished under the “right” kind of relationship (ownership?).  But while I had known Melissa and Fly at MMSC, they both were still struggling with their relationship, particularly in the ring and at competitions.  Then when Melissa and Fly moved to a new farm and trainer, an incredible transformation took place.  No longer juggling work duties and bringing the stress of her job to her riding and training moments with Fly, both horse and rider had gained spatial and thus cognitive and emotional autonomy from the outside factors that seemed to hinder their relationship and competitive development.  As Melissa told me, her first few months as simply a working student on the farm brought a lot of harmony to her life and thus her relationship with Fly.  For the first time, they could just focus on each other and their goal of getting better at shows.  By this time, I had left the field but could follow their progress via Facebook.  Particularly last summer during the height of the show season, I watched two completely different creatures emerge and dominate competitions at the beginner novice level.  Their newly found synchronicity and success was so profound that they were awarded the Thoroughbred Incentive Program High Point Dressage Award by the American Jockey Club, among many other accolades.


Peppermints for Fly Fly

Peppermints for Fly Fly

My time with Melissa and Fly drew to a close as the weather began to turn and as dinner plans that involved take-out from Windy Corner Market were impending.  After an ample helping of peppermints as thanks for helping me craft chapter two in my thesis, I bade Fly Fly goodbye.  Melissa walked me out to the schooling ring where the trainer of the farm (and breakthrough trainer for Melissa and Fly), Whitney Morris, was giving a lesson.  During a break in her instructions, Melissa shouted an introduction between us.  I am always fascinated by private trainers who have come to appreciate and specialize in off-track-Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), for I will never get it out of my head what Melissa told me during one of our interviews about how OTTBs are also perceived as by some in the show world: “track trash.”  If such an attitude had taken hold with the likes of Fly, none of us would have gathered together, reunited, on a day like today.


Monday, 24 March 2013


Waking up to a wintery morning with about an inch of snow on the ground and more swirling through the air, I drove to Sam’s Restaurant – a mainstay diner on the currently under-construction Georgetown Road in Scott County – to meet with Linda Dyer, current farm manager for the TRF farm at Blackburn Correctional Complex and former research participant.  “Ms. Linda,” as the men call her back at Blackburn, is one of those people who remain friendly, warm, and relatable despite the passage of time.  And Sam’s is the kind of restaurant, it seems, that too remains the same despite the passage of time.  As I entered, I glanced at the same décor of jockey silks and racing stable insignias exhibited on the walls, and threaded my way past the smoking section (3/4 of the restaurant) and curious stares from the locals to the back, portioned-off section where I found Linda siting in a booth with a cup of cocoa.

TRF sign at Blackburn Correctional ComplexBLACKBURN CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX

After a meal of biscuits and gravy for me, and soup and more cups of cocoa for Linda (this hot food, along with her five layers of clothing, a testament to the cold I was about to experience back out at the Blackburn farm), we departed for Blackburn.  Our arrival at the barn coincided with the men clearing count, and soon after they made their way down the hill from the main correctional grounds, they clustered in the warm classroom in the kind of desks I remembered sitting in during junior high.  Bundled in full body, Carthart jumpsuits, thick work boots and wool caps, they sat politely facing me as I took a seat behind the teacher’s desk and began telling them about my research.  I shared with them the idea I had come up with called “redemptive capital” and how I saw it applied to both the men in the TRF program – called “Second Chances” – and the horses that went through the reschooling program at Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center.  The bulk of my presentation – and our ensuing discussion – however, was about horse slaughter.  One man asked me why there wasn’t more federal government intervention, to which I responded that there were efforts underway to create laws against horse slaughter and to better ensure equine welfare, but given the current political (and cultural) climate I sensed that animal-based issues such as horse slaughter were often secondary to human concerns.  I ended, perhaps with too much reiteration, but I always do that when I really want to get a point across, that the next time they handled their horses they might think about all the issues and history they carry.

With that, our time in the classroom concluded and we all stepped out into the chilly, windswept barn corridor.  The men immediately went about their chores: bringing the more cold-vulnerable horses in for the night.  One of those horses was Ferdinand’s Star – or Ferdy – a horse I write extensively about in the first chapter of my thesis.  Ferdy’s dad was the famed Thoroughbred racehorse Ferdinand who, after an unsuccessful career at stud (breeding) in Japan eventually was “disposed of” via slaughter.  Ferdy, who was most likely out of Ferdinand’s last North American foal crop before he was sent to Japan in 1995, was taken in by the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center as an anti-horse slaughter mascot and schooling horse before he was retired at Blackburn in the fall of 2011 (but not first without a stint at Old Friends Farm – that’s in the conclusion of my thesis).  Through Ferdy, I am able to present a history and analysis of Thoroughbred racing (via his daddy’s once-illustrious career), equine humane mascots (including Beautiful Jim Key, Black Beauty, Joey from War Horse, and Snowman), and hippophagy (horse meat-eating) and equine slaughter in Japan, Europe, and North America (yes, all that in the first chapter!).  In thanks, I fed Ferdy all the peppermints he wanted, and many of the men commented on how “smart” he was.

Then the day ended as the men said goodbye – “Goodbye Ms. Anthropologist!” – and started trekking up the hill.  Linda and I lingered a little longer in the barn, but even with the doors closed it was mighty cold.  When I couldn’t take the chill any longer, I bade her goodbye and wished her well, reassuring her (and myself) that I would always have reason to come back to Kentucky.  With that, I stepped out into the falling snow, swirling three different ways according to the wind patterns that frequent the grounds at Blackburn, and rumbled away in my truck.

Statue of Distorted Humor outside Winstar Stallion Complex

My next destination was Winstar Farm.  During my fieldwork, I enlisted the help of a research assistant, Amanda, who at the time had served as an intern at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center and was an Equine Sciences major at the University of Kentucky.  She has since graduated from both and now works in the yearling division at Winstar.  I gravitated towards Amanda as a research assistant because she was young, curious, intelligent, and involved in both the racing and OTTB world of the Bluegrass, for not only did / had she work at various racing / breeding farms, she also was passionate about OTTBs and owned one herself.  I also saw myself in her (and it wasn’t just the mutuality of blond, curly hair) – a Self that would have become had I pursued horses exclusively and not eventually through the lens of anthropology.  Amanda reminded me of what pure enthusiasm and commitment to horse-craziness was, and her thoughtful, if not at times mercurial, engagement with the Bluegrass horse world offered me insight not yet tainted by industry politics and adult pretense.  It also helped that she rescued the cutest pitbull I’ve ever loved on, a lithe, partial-brindle coated girl with a smile bigger than her body (really, I am not exaggerating much when I say that).

When I got to Amanda’s house on the farm, we were soon joined by the assistant stallion manager who then took us to tour the new $6 million dollar stallion complex.  Having been to the old, impressive complex more than a few times before – a weird, reoccurring serendipity in my research has been all my chances to visit Winstar’s stallion operations, which only increases my crush on Tiznow –  I was curious to see how this new facility would compare.  After a short drive in more swirling snow, we pulled up to a building that resembled more a glossy mansion and that was three times the size of the old complex.  Stepping inside, we were met by an interior just freshly completed and gleaming with glossy wood and marble finishes.  Winstar’s insignia was etched on glass doors leading into offices and conference rooms, and trophy cases sparkled and beckoned.


Distorted Humor awaiting his turn in the breeding shed.

After taking in this breathtaking interior, we exited into the second portion of the complex where the stallions were kept.  Soft, porous brick-like flooring caught our steps through our circumambulation first across the spacious stallion show floor and then into the hall of stalls housing the stallions that had been brought up either for breeding or respite from the weather.  My heartthrob Tiznow was there, but all eyes were on Distorted Humor as he waited in his stall, held by a stallion assistant donning a protective vest and hat.  That could only mean one thing: “DH” was about to get his swerve on (meaning, he was about to breed).  When it was time, DH was led out of his stall.  The horny fellow at first pranced in anticipation, then as he was about to cross into the breezeway into the first of two (TWO) breeding sheds he reared up, the excitement perhaps getting the best of him.  I won’t even mention the fifth leg that jangled between his hind legs the whole time (whoops, I just did).  He then entered the breeding floor, soft and fluffy with polytrack, and met his lady by first sniffing her out and signaling his approval with an outstretched neck and pointed, curled upper lip.  Then, he was all business, and so efficient with his business at that, that comments flew around like “can you believe he is 20 years old?”  Apparently the “old” man still had “it.”  Finished with his duties for the day, DH exited the breeding shed a contented horse.  We met him in the spacious stallion show floor where I fed him peppermint after peppermint, an equine version of the post-copulation cigarette.

With research so focused on the post-production of racehorses – meaning those who don’t make the successful transition into breeding careers but end up in a limbo state that threatens with the outcome of slaughter – you might wonder how I morally and ethically negotiate visits to high-scale, high-volume breeding operations such as Winstar.  One answer is that visiting these “production” based farms is a part of what is unique about this particular research project on horse rescue, for I have found that here in the Bluegrass horse rescue practices particular to Thoroughbreds – and the meaningful cultural worlds that emanate from them – are formed in relation, not strict opposition, to the racing and breeding world.  It is an uncanny partnership that both helps rescue / retirement / retraining operations, while at the same time constraining and inhibiting them.  To understand how the 3 R’s of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses are facilitated – while at the same time limited – by this relationship to what we could call the fourth R – racing – you’ll just have to read my thesis…

My writing on the remaining last Day in Kentucky to follow tomorrow.