My name is Nicole Tassone and I run a life after racing program called ‘Raising the Standards’.
Across the past five years I have gained a comprehensive overview of horsemanship, inclusive of both the racing industry and equestrian sport. I am someone who has been given a rare opportunity to see not only what goes on behind closed doors in some of the largest (and more modest) racing operations, but I also travel around the state teaching riding lessons at both private and commercial equestrian facilities.
I speak as someone whose entire life is consumed by equine welfare – this is my only concern. I am not a racing professional in any capacity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I can’t even tack up a harness racehorse, nor have I ever even been in contact with a Thoroughbred racehorse beyond a pat in the stalls before or after a race, or a ride on a longtime retiree. However I work shoulder-to-shoulder with racing industry professionals and do so proudly. These are good people; just like the riders and general horsepeople I have also met along this journey.
I pen this article spurred on by the concerns voiced by thousands of people who have been blogging, commenting on social media and voicing their opinions about the racing industry. What I have read has pointed to an apparent lack of accurate information being disseminated about the way the racing industry works, the level of care being provided to racehorses and the personalities and integrity of the individuals who choose to work within the racing sector.
I have run a small commentary on equine welfare in racing via my personal social media pages across the past few months. People’s reactions, mostly positive, to my opinions have created an honest and collaborative dialogue on this topic. However regardless of the perspectives people have, I will say what is concerning to me is the private messages I’ve received. Some people have told me that they think what I am saying is great and that they admire me advocating for the racing industry, even though “we all know how it really is”; as though I’m only telling half-truths or concealing the facts. These comments have really irked me, as someone who writes passionately and without agenda.
So here it is: my insight…
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE RACING INDUSTRY FROM A FLY-ON-THE-WALL.
Within the racing sector I have visited some of the largest and most prestigious racing stables in Victoria, as well as going out to tiny little properties with just one or two racehorses in the backyard. So I feel I have a sound overview of all facets of the industry on the whole.
Some of the larger stables I have visited house anywhere up to 90 racehorses at any one time. From foals, right though to 30 year old horses who have been gifted a ‘forever’ place in a grassy back paddock and everything in between.
Walking into the bigger stables used to intimidate me. Everything runs like clockwork; not a piece of straw out of place, horses lined up in uniform rows awaiting pedicures from the farrier and a flurry of grooms, property managers, trainers and equine health care workers all ensuring that every little detail is tended to. There are rumps so shiny you can see your face reflected in them, horse walkers and hydrobaths for physiotherapy and whiteboards littered with horse names and incredibly detailed plans about where each horse is stabled, meal plans, checklists to ensure 2-3 feeds are ticked off each day, any medications listed and upcoming health care appointment dates noted; every tiny aspect of each horse’s life is monitored and every need is met.
As I am handed the lead rope of the next horse on my list to commence a career change from racetrack to riding hack, I receive a comprehensive overview of what to expect when handling this new horse. “Don’t be worried if he backs up and runs his bum into you in the paddock; he’s not trying to kick you, he’ll just be wanting you to scratch under his tail – he loves that!” Or “this guy was named Stormy as he was born on a stormy December night back in 2004. He was three weeks overdue and his mother went through 6 hours of labour. I sat with her the whole time.”
The sheer amount of detail and unique bond trainers forge with each horse really is indescribable. This is not just a job – it goes so far beyond the call of duty. Even the burly blokes with tough exteriors and a matter-of-factness about them turn to putty when talking about their horses. And it doesn’t seem to matter how many horses are in work or being handled each day, every single one has a story.
On the flipside, I have personally visited properties where hobby trainers juggle one or two racehorses and ‘normal’ working life. I have witnessed people living in desolation, whilst their horses want for nothing. Tiny little derelict weatherboard houses and baked beans for the humans, new $250 rugs and $40-per-bag hard feed for the rotund horses greeting us at the gate with ‘smiling’ ears. The people go without so that their horses do not.
I have had trainers leave my property with empty horse trucks and tears flowing steadily down their cheeks, knowing that their racehorse deserves a life of purpose that they cannot provide once the horse is retired from racing. The mental health of the animal, being one which is accustomed to routine, daily exercise and lots of human interaction, is something most racing professionals will acknowledge as a fundamental component of the animal’s wellbeing. Standing wasted and unappreciated in a back paddock somewhere is a life half-lived. So they bring these horses to my life after racing re-training centre to give their beloved equine a chance to secure a future full of joy, love and purpose. I’ve had trainers drive as far as 900km round-trips to provide this.
I am sure, as many who read this will argue, that there are trainers who don’t care to this high level. Yes, this may be true… but it’s also not unique to racing – there are many general horse people who treat the average paddock pony with apathy too.
I can only speak of what I have witnessed firsthand and what I have seen has only inspired and strengthened my connection to the racehorse. I see how good a life these horses have during their racing careers and can only hope that my work as the ‘middleman’ will ensure that these horses go on and continue to live equally purposeful and appreciated existences beyond the track.
Be assured that if I saw abuse, neglect or things that questioned my morality in dealing with racing professionals, I would have walked away years ago. I have other formal qualifications and options, but I choose this lifestyle and to engage with the racing industry.
Through my work as a riding coach and equestrian horse trainer I have been invited onto many riding properties to visit non-racehorses of varied breeds and vocations. From this, I will say that the level of worry I have for the horses in racing industry is far less than the concern I have for some horses living in private entities. I won’t be going further into discussion about this, but it’s safe to say I have been appalled on many occasions.
I would like people concerned with the welfare of race horses to stop for a minute and think about the equestrian industry as a ‘whole’ entity inclusive of racing, riding, breeding and general horsemanship.
In just 5 minutes I could find literally 100 photographs of abused and neglected non-racehorses to accompany this article. Horses whose owners don’t have the knowledge or funds to provide them with the care they require, horses who are not checked for days and days and then found dead in the middle of a paddock somewhere by the weekend rider – these things happen every single day, but never make front page news.
Any animal welfare issue outrages me as much as the next person. I have 30 horses in my direct care and spend every single waking hour trying to better the lives of my animals and support others who share my passion. But I feel we need to take a minute to breathe here, re-gather our thoughts and not be swept away in hysteria.
Footage of a horse being euthaniased on the racetrack would have the same devastating impact as the image of a horse being tarped and put to sleep on a show jumping course. However equestrianism on the whole is not being attacked; only one small sector is being vilified. The reason why this is occurring is what concerns me the most. To read anti-racing activists celebrating on Facebook when a horse dies as “a reason to give these racing bastards more hell” really makes me question motives. Is this even about the horses anymore?
People say that the racing industry exploits horses for money and greed. Let’s not be ignorant here: horse breeding operations, stables that produce trained performance horses for sale and riding schools are also profiting off horses in the same fashion. Surely not all equestrian professionals who derive an income from a passion for horses are evil?
During a time when many Australian jobs are being outsourced and families are battling unemployment woes, the racing industry produces tens of thousands of jobs. Being the third highest employer in Victoria, racing provides jobs to those working both directly with horses (the trainer, groom, vet, farrier, stewards and so forth) and those indirectly (the kid working in the local saddlery, the farmer growing oat crops, the guy at the sports bar pulling beers on Cup Eve and the milliner who creates head art for the Carnival). Racing also injects hundreds of millions on dollars into our economy each year.
From experience dealing with racing educational institutions, job agencies and from visiting stables, I can also tell you that the racing industry provides an equal opportunity for people with mental health and other disabilities to secure employment. It also provides jobs to people who did not complete school and to people of non-Australian backgrounds. It’s an industry with no ego that is welcoming of all.
I have read articles citing ‘facts and statistics’ about how many racehorses are killed each year and I can tell you these figures just don’t match up with the reality of what I have seen with my own two eyes. I don’t need to weigh into this side of the debate as there is official data being collected, as part of long-term study, which will provide irrefutable clarity on this matter. Stay tuned!
Life after racing exists too. There are hundreds of individuals working within countless organisations across Australia dedicated to creating meaningful avenues for retired turf, harness and greyhound racers. We often are just so busy up to our eyeballs in manure, vet bills and the daily grind of caring for so many lovely animals that we don’t have a chance to become overly vocal about what we are doing. Those of us on the actual frontline making a difference don’t have the money nor the time to invest in activities outside of animal husbandry. This does not mean we don’t exist – it just means we are directing precious resources into horse care instead of promotion.
I would also like to say that, as the operator of the largest in-house managed life after racing program in the country (as most programs are administrated from an office and horses are place into various re-training stables – we house all our program horses here at one property), I have never, ever been approached by any animal activism group, for any reason (not to obtain accurate data, nor to extend an offer of help or even just to open a dialogue). I find this to be strange, as most of us in the life after racing sector share the same end-goal and so are very proactive about maintaining strong professional relationships.
Anyway, I just wanted to take some time away from the paddocks to provide some insight into what happens behind the scenes in racing, not from the ‘biased’ perspective of a racing professional, but rather from the eyes of someone who shares in a collective desire to see every horse treated with the utmost dignity and respect.
Duty calls: dirty troughs and hungry retired harness racehorses are demanding my attention (there will be holes kicked into my gates if I’m running off schedule), but I thank you for taking the time to read this article.
Please feel free to…