Charlene Barry & West Point

Charlene Barry & West Point
Charlene Barry & West Point

Sunday, December 4, 2016

An Open Letter to the Unsuspecting

An Open Letter to the Unsuspecting;

An educational essay written by Charlene Barry and Kolina Crowe

     I’d like to introduce you to an amazing community of people. A community you’ve probably heard of, but probably do not know very much about.  They are some of the most resilient, hard working people you will ever meet. They are opinionated, they are honest, they are a little eccentric, and they know hundreds of ways to fix any problem you can think of.  The industry that this community exists in is not an easy one. They have to be willing to spend endless hours working for their passion and making sure everything is attended to and in place in order to create the best opportunity for success. They will stay up well after dark, and rise before the sun has broken the horizon without a second thought. It is a physically demanding, thankless career choice that goes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. These people have a passion like no other and the love and dedication to their animals is surpassed by none. They get up every day and work, all just to make sure their job is done the right way. None of them see this as a sacrifice and many of its members couldn’t imagine doing anything else. In this community, all of this is simply accepted as what needs to be done. The compassion that can be found in this motley crew of people is hard to surpass.  Together they weather episodes of despair and celebrate the moments of joy. They are fierce competitors, but will come together in an instant to help someone in need, often on a global scale.  They donate their time, money, resources, and whatever else they can afford to give.  There is no other community like it; they are the horsemen and women of the race industry.
Thoroughbred Racing at Northlands Park 

      Unfortunately, the majority of people who are not directly involved in this community often know very little about it. They only know horse racing for what they’ve seen on television, in movies, or from the falsehoods and misconceptions smeared across the internet designed to pull on the heart strings of the unsuspecting for financial gain.  Because of this the race industry often gets slammed with the stigma of being dog-eat-dog; with trainers, drivers and jockeys ruthlessly pushing their horses and battling each other at the expense of their animals. As with literally every industry out there, there are exceptions to the rule and unfortunately there are those out there who would rather cheat the game than choose to play fair, but by and large this is simply not the norm.

      Now, there wouldn’t be a race industry without race horses.  In Alberta, we have three main types of race horses; Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Standardbreds. These horses, although all different breeds with their own set of unique performance demands, truly are high performance athletes.  Not only are they designed for their jobs, they’re good at them!
Standardbred racing; photo taken at Century Downs
The horses of the race world train 5-6 days a week, and we’re not talking a nice lazy trail ride through a field. We’re talking about fairly high intensity training; their jobs require them to be at the peak of physical and mental fitness. These horses like to work, they like to do their job and to do it well. Their days are a strict schedule of training, feeding; they are fed high quality, nutrient rich diets, and important maintenance work including grooming, treatments with electromagnetic and infrared therapy, massage and chiropractic work. They are monitored daily by their caretakers, grooms and veterinary professionals who all ensure that these horses are happy, healthy and fit to preform the task at hand. These horses are bright, smart, curious, and love learning and investigating new things. These truly are living, breathing, performance athletes and are treated as such; many of them get more handling and care in a day than a pasture pet pony would see in a month. 

     In addition to being incredible athletes race horses are introduced to an amazing set of life skills from a very young age. These are skills and experiences that a number of ‘regular horses’ would spend their entire lives without ever acquiring.  Tied or in hand they know how to stand quietly for farrier work, being tacked or untacked, brushed and bathed; these horses are accustomed to the job at hand and know what is expected of them.
Wrapping legs before morning training
They are handled for numerous hours of the day and are accustomed to having their legs handled, poulticed and bandaged, as well as all routine veterinary care.  They are familiar with trailering, working in a large, busy group while in close proximity to others, or even working alone with nothing but open space ahead of them. They are exposed to a variety of environmental factors such as other horses passing by, people talking, yelling and cheering, tractors, large trucks, strollers, flapping tents, children, dogs and umbrellas. These are not horses that are forced to do a job they hate, nor are they horses that need to be ‘cured’ of their gait or training. Racehorses are amazing animals and high caliber athletes who come with a wide range of life experiences and benefits that people frequently overlook and forget to acknowledge.  They love their jobs and are loved by the people who look after them.

A groom packs the hooves
of a racehorse; a routine that keeps
these athletes fit and healthy
     The health and performance of these horses is also taken very seriously and is closely monitored by the veterinary team, who are a constant presence at the track.  The majority of trainers have a close relationship with the veterinary team, who monitor and administer all medications given to the race horses while in training and while prepping for races. Any medications in use are heavily regulated with closely followed withdrawal times and dosages. In fact, race horses are all tested by a third party, unbiased lab for all legal and illegal substances directly after they run. If any of these tests come back positive the trainers forfeit any purse money won and face heavy fines along with license suspensions or loss; which means they are unable to race or even train horses at any track across North America.  The stereotype of ‘doping horses just to win a race’, in this day and age, with so much to lose and so much on the line, is a ridiculous notion, but unfortunately heavily believed by the general public due to large organizations such as PETA spreading false and ill-researched propaganda.   

Morning training at Bedrock Training Centre
       The racing community also has a strong passion for giving back to the community they are involved in, many times not even related to the industry itself. For the past two years a horseman from south of Edmonton has organized a fundraiser for the Stollery Children’s Hospital, raising upwards of $33,000 in donations. The Powderpuff Derby at Northlands was a charity race ridden by non-professional female riders (ie do not hold a jockey licence) that ran for many years in support of Breast Cancer Research raised over $21,000.00 in just one of the years it ran. There have been numerous examples of the race community across Canada coming together to raise money for local charities and non profit groups, including but not limited to tracks in Ontario, PEI, Nova Scotia, Alberta and BC.

      People of the race industry are also prepared to give back to their own in times of desperate need; whether it be backstretch fundraisers for injured fellow horsemen or in support of tragedies that don’t even touch close to home. In January of 2016 a tragic fire struck at Classy Lane Training Center in Ontario, 40 horses were tragically lost and there was irreparable damage to the barn area. Horseman across the country came together and raised $710,000 to help rebuild the barn, replace lost equipment and ensure the staff would not be left without a means to live off of. In another case in 2015 the industry banned together to raise over $150,000 for medical treatments for the wife of a trainer who was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. After 12 rounds of chemo and a double mastectomy Amanda Harris was set to undergo proton radiation and 5 years of hormone therapy. Many of her medical bills were not covered by insurance, but in three short weeks the race industry came together to raise the money to help off set costs.

A Go Pro angle from the Starting Gate of a Harness Race
     The race industry also supports their horses after their race careers have ended, by making an effort to ensure they find new and lasting careers. Although the stigma around racing seems to be that the majority of horses go to slaughter after they are ‘no longer useful’ this is simply not the case. The vast majority of horses go on to rewarding second careers, many of which are sold on to new homes simply by word of mouth via trainers at the track and their outside equestrian connections. Many horses go on to new careers as show horses, pleasure horses, breeding stock, ranch horses and even as companion horses. As a recognition of the diverse usefulness of the off track breeds many organizations have stepped up to promote and help change the public opinion of both the breeds and the industry they come from. The Jockey Club (the Thoroughbred registry in North America) founded the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which is a non-profit organization that inspects and awards grants to aftercare organizations that retire, retrain and rehome thoroughbred race horses; they currently have 64 accredited organizations dedicated to repurposing off track Thoroughbreds. They also run both the Thoroughbred Connect; an online resource designed to aid trainers and owners in placement of thoroughbred horses after racing and breeding careers have ended, and the Thoroughbred Incentive Program; a program to encourage the retraining of thoroughbreds after their race careers have ended by sponsoring thoroughbred only classes and high point awards at horseshows and over showing season. It was recently announced that in 2017 TIP will introduce a specific category for pleasure and trail horses.   There are also many options for horses that come off the track with injuries and would otherwise been seen as “no longer useful”.
An off track Standardbred enjoying some scratches
at an EC Gold rated Dressage Show
Many organizations and non-profits offer these horses a life long placement at farms where they are sponsored by members of both the general public and the racing community. New Stride is a charity based in BC founded in 2002 by a group of owners, breeders and backstretch workers that is dedicated to finding adoptive homes and alternative careers for racehorses no longer able to compete in racing. Another group based in Ontario called Long Run works under the same principals, as does Final Furlong in Manitoba, Greener Pastures in BC and the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society, providing retired racehorses countless opportunities to find fulfilling, forever homes.

     As a whole the horse racing industry, and the community of people that work, live and breathe it, are a diverse and complex group of people. They can not be summed up in a simple letter, paper or paragraph. In fact, words can hardly begin to describe the lives of these horses and the people behind them. It truly is a career of passion and it cannot be properly represented by a video, news article, or social media post made by an uneducated organization, individual or group of people; these same people who didn’t bother to have any other interest in the industry aside from creating a way to condemn it. It is our dearest hope that people will take the time to recognize this amazing industry and the people involved in it. If you have questions, ask them, better yet come down to the track and experience it for yourself, take a moment out of your day and share in this lifestyle, who knows, you might learn a thing or two. 

An off track Thoroughbred representative enjoying
a visit from some school children at Farm Fair International

Friday, November 25, 2016

No Room for Ignorance

    There are a number of stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the race horse industry.  These range from race horses being crazy, to them being untrainable, through to them all going for dog food once their careers are over.  For as long as these stigmas have existed there have been people fighting to change them. No one has fought as strongly as those directly involved in the race industry, or those who have come to love these horses as their partners after their racing careers have ended.

     However, this does not appear to be the case (as it seriously should be) with all members of the community. Many of you may have seen the article written by Glen Schaffer in regards to a lady named Felicia Allen and her efforts to ‘rescue’ and care for retired harness horses, many of which have come from Fraser Downs.

     The article begins by covering the feel good plugs about how Allen runs equestrian programs for autistic children and adults with PTSD, both of which have many academic studies proving their value and worth. An effort which is both honorable and would take great effort to pull off successfully.

     Unfortunately, that’s where majority of value in this article ends. It then goes on to state that harness horses would otherwise not be able to find homes due largely to injuries sustained while racing and because of the type of training they get for ‘cart-racing’.  Injuries that are not specific to the racing industry and exist in literally every other equestrian sport there is. The training that introduces them at a young age (2-3 years old) to many experiences and useful life skills such as trailering, shoeing, bathing, medical work, driving, and becoming familiar with things like tractors, loud speakers, working in crowds, strollers, balloons, and an inexplicable number of things that horses outside of the race industry would be blessed to see by age six, if ever.  Taking a horse off the track is one of the few instances where you can get a horse that’s already had a career, and has an entire set of life skills while their counter parts from outside of harness racing and the race industry are still sitting in a field smelling dandelions.

     Next, Allen herself has been quoted as saying, “Those horses are not rideable when they come off the track and they are usually quite badly injured.” And adds that their ‘pacing’ gait generally leaves them unable to canter or gallop like normal horses.

     How dare you, Ms. Allen. As someone who claims to be working in the best interest of these horses, and asking people to donate money to her via her GoFundMe page, how dare you speak about these horses from such an uneducated point of view that would only serve to perpetuate the stereotypes and falsehoods that are the reason they are ‘hard to find homes for’ in the first place.

     Firstly, Pacing is an additional gait. Not a replacement gait. All Standardbreds who are bred for pacing, are born knowing how to walk, trot, canter, gallop, and pace and are fully capable of doing all those gaits. Yes, they have another gear. And yes they’ve been taught that it’s the preferred gait. Just because their education has taught them that does not mean they are incapable of doing other gaits. They can learn that you’re asking for canter, or gallop, just like they can learn how to stand quietly to have their legs wrapped, or that a cluck means they should move forward. (Both of which are things they would have learned from their race careers)

     Secondly these horses are not ‘untrainable’ or ‘unsuitable’ for other sports or careers. Clearly, not much of an effort has been made to actually work with these horses by Allen.  Perhaps if she had taken a look at her own website, , where many of the Standardbreds who have gone on successfully to second careers after racing are in fact listed publically, she would have a drastically different opinion.

     Finally, many of the horses that are retired from the race track are retired for reasons that have nothing to do with injuries. They were either too slow, or simply weren’t interested in racing. Not unlike a warmblood who’s not very good at jumping, or a quarter horse that wants nothing to do with cows.  To label them all as ‘broken down untrainable cripples’ is na├»ve and disrespectful to the daily effort and care that those who work in the industry put into these horses to ensure they have the best chance possible at finding a new job outside of racing.

   I challenge you Felicia Allen to spend a week working with these horses and their trainers and caretakers. I can guarantee you without doubt, that by the end of that week you will be ashamed to have referred to these horses as suffering abusive practices, and will certainly rethink referring to them as being ‘saved’ or ‘rescued’ on your GoFundMe page. And how dare you pull on people’s heart strings, for your own financial gain, by misrepresenting the industry and this incredible breed of horses.

     I am shocked and disappointed that this not only how the race industry has been portrayed – as something that teaches horses useless skills and runs them into the ground beyond repair and without reprieve – but that this is how ‘fans’ of the breed and the horses themselves are being represented. It is incredibly disheartening that this is what the horses are left to compete against;, a lack of education and a complete misunderstanding of their capabilities and worth.

     While I acknowledge it is unfortunate that Ms. Allen has found herself in these circumstances, and that her efforts to this point, although misinformed, have persevered many other challenges – I sincerely hope that if these horses end up being rehomed, that they will find themselves under the care of someone who is willing to put in the effort to educate themselves, believe in these horses, and not simply pigeon hole an entire breed without giving them a chance, all the while perpetuating the stereotypes for their own personal gain. I strongly encourage everyone to read Glen Schaefer’s article, visit Felicia Allen’s GoFundMe page, and at that point, to really seriously consider who and what you’re supporting before donating to her ‘cause’. 

P.S. I've included some pictures of my Standardbred, Leo, a retired Harness Racing horse - running, cantering, jumping, competing, meeting and educating people about how amazing race horses are and most importantly, being the best team mate a girl could ask for.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

This Year so Far - July 2016

We’re already over half way through 2016, and Leo’s season is off to a steady start. Being 14 this year, Leo is starting to become an old veteran at horse shows.  He maintains his composure regardless of screaming children, barking dogs, or flapping umbrellas. It’s a treat to have a horse so chill about so many distractions!  Despite his age, and having a firm understanding of what his job is, Leo continues to improve and constantly makes an effort to be better.  He also seems to have made the shift from being a reactive horse to being a responsive horses. Anyone who’s experienced both sides of the coin knows exactly how much of a blessing this is! I always admire his ability to keep pushing through difficult exercises, whether it’s for my sake or his.

In April, I attended the Mane Event Expo, where I met a number of new and old faces from the Standardbred community. Leo didn’t tag along this year, but his influence was felt through the helmet cam footage from his previous events, as well as his photos and ribbons that helped decorate the booth. Thank you to everyone who stopped by even just to say hello!

June saw Leo and I both at an incredible Stollery Children’s Hospital Fundraiser hosted by Bedrock Training Centre and Nitza’s Pizza just outside of Beaumont, Alberta. Leo hung out in a stall in one of the main alleyways of the barn and spent the day meeting guests and happily taking carrots, cookies, and pats from all the visitors both young and old.  The fundraiser raised over $21,000 and was a super fun day for everyone who attended. Thank you to Kelly, Amy and their team at Bedrock for always including me in these opportunities!

Shortly after the Stollery Fundraiser, Leo and I headed south to Cochrane, Alberta for the Crowfoot Dodge Cochrane Horse Trials.  This was Leo’s third time competing at the Pre-training level. We finished on our dressage score for 8th place in a field of 23 horse/rider pairs with very few stadium or cross country penalties to be found.  Leo was a start through slick footing, busy warm up rings, and random bursts downpour that haunted the entire weekend. He continues to bring his absolute best into the ring each time. The event at Cochrane saw Leo with his best adjustability and rideability to date. Thank you to my coach Noel Clark for his continued guidance and mentorship!

Early in July, to show their support for off the track Standardbreds in new careers, I was given a blanket by ASHA with "Team Standardbred" embroidered on it for me to use with Leo. I can't express how much the support of the harness industry means to me, both at home and at large, and will proudly take this cooler with me on any adventures the future holds for me and Leo. Thank you so much to the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association - ASHA for this gift, and especially to Colleen Haining for pulling it all together!

Frustrated with the lack of Standardbred related merchandise available in the market, fellow Go and PlayStable ambassador, Alexandria Tiffinger, and I design and launched some ‘Team Standardbred’ merchandise. To date we have two different caps to choose from, a polo – perfect for schooling or showing – and a long sleeve sport shirt. I’m happy we were able to come up with something simple and straight forward to show our love for Standardbreds!  

Most recently, Georgia Barry and I made the trip down to Montana to take in the Event at Rebecca Farm and cheer on our fellow Canadians! As always there was lots to learn, see and do. (I’ll be posting a separate blog about it!) My mom has always been such a huge supporter of whatever Leo and I have decided to do, and I was wonderful to get to share the experience with her without having to worry about competing. Thank you to Lindsay Stevenson for allowing me to help you throughout your first Training 3 Day, and to the rest of the Two Jack Farm team for having mom and I tag along, ask questions, and cheer you on!

The remainder of this year is set up to be a great one. With three events left for Leo, and few other opportunities for myself, and an incredible team of support behind me, I’m excited to see what we can accomplish before hitting the ground running into 2017!


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

When a bad day isn't just a bad day.

Horses, like people, sometimes have bad days.  Sometimes they just don’t feel like giving that 110% we so often celebrate as a marker of a true athlete or teammate. And that’s okay. People are allowed to have off days, and so are horses. And sometimes the best thing for both horse and rider is to write it off as a bad day and try again tomorrow.

But, when is a bad day not just a bad day?

Generally speaking, horses aren’t badly behaved for no reason. They tend to like to do what they’re asked. When they don’t, it’s often not just a bad day, something’s up, something’s off and they’re trying to tell you. Sometimes something hurts or pinches. Sometimes there’s a twist in a strap and it’s poking them. Sometimes they didn’t appreciate having their lunch interrupted. And sometimes they just don’t like your attitude and you really shouldn’t have skipped out on coffee that morning. Sometimes the only way they know how to get your attention is by throwing a total tantrum.

The point being, I think it’s important not to just write off misbehavior as a bad day, or a horse simply choosing to be a pain. For instance there was a harness horse, who trained here in Alberta, and boy oh boy he was a handful! He would lay down when they’d try to leave the barn to go train in the morning.  He’d buck and bend the shafts on the jog cart or race bike when he had decided he didn’t want to train anymore that day. And at one point, ditched his driver during post parade and ran back through the barns at the race track with his bike still attached and caused thousands of dollars worth of damage to the facility.  Just rotten and miserable right?

That was my horse. The same horse who has packed me on trail rides through creeks, has a high point gymkhana trophy, met hundreds of children, and charming old ladies, at Farm Fair last year, and currently tears it up on the cross country course at events across the province with me every summer. I honestly believe he just didn’t like harness racing, and that was the only way he knew how to say it.

This idea, listening to your horse, becomes really important when riding on your own, or even under the guidance of a coach. At the end of the day, you know your horse the best. Does you horse usually jump his heart out and take you to every fence? Or did you just move up a class and have an incredible last show? Then a few days later they’re suddenly stopping at fences, throwing their head at transitions and unwilling to take contact? Maybe it’s not just a bad day. Maybe they’ve been jumping too high, too often and they’re sore. But it’s up to you to recognize this and figure out if it’s their legs, their back, too heavy of a workload, outside the horse's capabilities, or maybe you changed your riding style or asked them to do something new without properly explaining it. 

There’s endless possibilities, including simply a bad day, but it’s up to the rider/trainer to figure that out.  Sometimes even under the guidance of a coach or trainer or other industry professionals, you may need trust your gut and know when to look further into why your horse is behaving the way he is, and when to call it a day and think about what you can do to help.

So when your horse has a bad day, or you have a tough ride, is it really just a bad day? 

Or is he trying to tell you something?