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Where Conscience Meets Capital: An Anthropologist Responds to PETA’s “Drugs and Death” Horse Racing Video Exposé

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.


Three Perfect Days in Kentucky… So far

Flying Over Keeneland

“Bird’s Eye View” of Keeneland racecourse and shedrows as we made our final descent into Bluegrass Airport.


Tuesday, 19 March 2013

After a 3:30am wake-up call to catch a 6am flight out of Vancouver International Airport, I touched down at the Bluegrass Airport approximately twelve hours later (give or take with the time changes). As the commuter plane from Houston International Airport had coasted over Lexington during its final descent, I caught my first glimpse of some now very familiar landmarks: Rupp Arena in the heart of downtown, the brick buildings of Blackburn Correctional Complex framed between the wing and the sky, and as we sailed towards the runway, the grounds of Keeneland Racecourse raced by below.  Once my feet were back on Bluegrass ground, dinner was relished at the Grey Goose restaurant in Paris – where Varden’s used to be.  The old soda fountain had been converted into a beautiful bar, and I thoroughly enjoyed their chocolate peanut butter pie for dessert.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The first day of spring bloomed blustery and cold, but a tangerine sun still managed to emerge above the horizon that morning.  Utterly fatigued from flying, I decided to take a personal recovery day.  This began with a walk with the dogs on the farm I was staying at, clucking and greeting the pregnant mares or new mammas and their foals on Thoroughbred stilts-for-legs as I routed down the tree-lined roads.  I then embarked on some errands, driving the familiar road connecting Paris and Georgetown in a growling pickup truck that was lent to me for the week.  Amidst the muted beige-green landscape, tiny yellow daffodils sprouted and swayed in roadside irrigation ditches, and the famous stone fences of the Bluegrass poured over themselves in patches, toppled over by a long, climatically sporadic winter, yet to be repaired.  The mail clerk at my old post office recognized me, and I made the discovery that Scott County had gone from a “moist” (alcohol only served in restaurants) to a “wet” county since I left – as judged by the two aisles of alcoholic offerings at the drug store.  At the bank, two clerks lamented the UK basketball team’s bitter loss in the first round of the NIT conference (this after winning the NCAA national championships the year before).  As I conducted my business at the counter, we all lamented the never-ending winter.  “I am ready for some barbeque!” One lady exclaimed.  “Kicking it and dicing it up – I’m ready for summer t’get here!”

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Today was the first day of the “Living with Animals” conference hosted at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.  I’d been to EKU once before when Temple Grandin spoke during my fieldwork year.  After she’d given her talk and the floor was opened to questions from the audience, amidst all the other heartbreaking, telling questions about autism, mine was the only question about her research on animals, specifically her work on humane slaughter of horses.  When she said she was all for horse slaughter instead of the starvation being witnessed that summer of 2011 due to the devastating drought in the southcentral U.S., the auditorium erupted in cheers and applause – that was quite telling too.

The Living with Animals conference kicked off with a keynote address by Kari Weil, who spoke of the legacy of empathy (or lack thereof) in horse training beginning with the impact of Descartes’ theory of animals as machines, and ending with a bricolage of references from Gustav Le Bon (on the moral training of animals and children) to Donna Haraway (and her engagement with the work of the trainer Vicki Hearne) to Judith Butler’s most recent ideas on “unchosen inhabitation.”  The conference then split into two different sessions devoted to canine and equine studies – I chose the equine studies presentations, of course.

While the papers varied in topic and strength, I relished this opportunity: it was like taking an all day seminar on equine studies as approached from an arts and humanities perspective.  From Carol Baker’s paper, I learned about contemporary horsemanship traditions I’d never heard of before, such as the work of Carolyn Resnick; Darlene Chalmers shared how social work models of wellbeing can be applied to understanding mutual relationality between humans and horses; Nora Schuurman addressed the performative narratives of Finnish horse blogs; Chelsea Medlock answered audience questions about the “Goodbye Old Man” wartime propaganda poster used to foster support for equines in World War I; Letizia Bindi introduced the study of horsemanship as an “intangible cultural heritage” in places like France, Italy, and right here in the Bluegrass (which also got me thinking and percolating about my Tibetan horse festival research); and Deborah Butler demonstrated how an Irish steeplechase horse is “produced” in the training yards of Britain through Van Gennen’s theory on the rites of passage.  I also attended a plethora of afternoon sessions, ranging from mustang adoption (Karen Dalke) to applying indigenous paradigms in equine assisted psychotherapy (Arieahn Matamonasa-Bennett).

All the while I “Tweeted” my discoveries at Rimolha, trending as #livingwithanimalseku – you can follow me as I head out today, 22 March 2013, for the second day of the conference.


Please support the final stages of my dissertation

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Please support the final stages of my dissertation

When academic funding fails, where does a Ph.D. candidate go to fund her last nine months of writing her dissertation?  My answer has been to go to an unlikely, but ever-growing source of crowd-funding: Kickstarter.com.  Now with just 13 days left into a 30 day fundraising cycle, there is still $1,600 to be raised.  If you visit the link for my Kickstarter project – “Ghost Herds: Rescuing Horses and Horse People in Kentucky” – you will learn more about the project and what I am exactly raising funds for.  If you believe in supporting unprecedented research that interrogates the moral, ethical, economic, etc. divides culture can hold between the human and nonhuman animal world, then this project just might be worthy of your support…

Especially if you are a horse lover.