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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.

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THREE PERFECT (and last) DAYS IN KENTUCKY

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

 

INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE

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

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

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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.

 

MAKER’S MARK SECRETARIAT CENTER

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

FLY LITE

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

SAM’S RESTAURANT

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.

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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.

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.

Link

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.