Kleintjie’s story, part 1: Born to run
A horse who hugged me
When Julia went to the SPCA 5 years ago looking for a dog, “I was greeted at the fence, by a horse who hugged me,” she says. The horse was Kleintjie, an ex-racehorse, whose name means ‘little one’ in Afrikaans (pronounced ‘clain–kee’).
For Julia, the pull was there from day 1, and she began to do some digging. She found out that Kleintjie was 4 years old and that he was from a racing stable in Cape Town. He also had a lot of ‘red in his passport’, meaning there were issues with certain behaviours from his racing days. This mainly revolved around him being unable to willingly or easily enter the starting blocks at races. It was such a problem, that he only went to five races and raced in two. Julia found out from the vet who treated him that trainers had tried to work with him to get him into the starting block, but that eventually a distressing incident occurred. He had flipped over in the starting block and landed up on his back, which was utterly traumatic for him and saw the end to his career as a racehorse.
Talking to the staff at the SPCA, she found out that they had let him ‘come down’ from all the hype of the races over several months. She met him after he had been there for 3 months – went away on a business trip to have a good think and received a phone call upon her return. Kleintjie was to be moved to another facility – he kept being passed over for rescue because he was so small (as his name suggests). If he couldn’t be found a home after that, he would have to be euthanised. After going back to visit and looking at all the horses at the SPCA, she realised that there really was no-one else for her, and that was that.
A troubled past
There were several problems Julia experienced with Kleintjie when she first got him: psychological, behavioural and physical. We go into a little more detail about the effect of the racing industry on horses later in this blog, research we did as part of our quest to understand this little horse and the world he comes from.
She says that physically, because he was a racehorse, all he knew was fast – this is common with racehorses and something anyone should know when adopting an ex racehorse. Not only are they a warm-blooded and sensitive breed, often described as ‘flighty’ – a desirable quality in a horse one wants to run. Once trained to race, they develop “racehorse mentality” – they are hard workers who want to move, single-mindedly focused on performance and achieving the goal they are trained for – to run as fast as possible, until they are asked to stop.
In addition, racehorses are unfamiliar with regular riding gear – they are used to the light builds of the jockeys, light saddles and the high stirrups with which they are trained. They associate riding out with others with their racing days and will often want to just GO – they’re unfamiliar with riding out alone and are generally not used to trailer transport either. This article explains well what to expect from an ex-racehorse.
Because of his background and training, he had become very one-sided, as many racehorses do, because in racing they work them mostly on the left. He also hated being on his own. As such he always had to be ridden out with someone else.
Mentally, Julia describes him as “explosive”, citing an incident where the first time she took him to a horse show, and he heard the starting bell. “He kind of “combusted,” she says. He went spinning around in circles and she went flying. She realised that he was a bit dangerous to ride. He was jittery and it would take someone experienced to be able to sit him when he spooked – he was never malicious, just fearful.
What she had at first taken for him being ‘fresh’, she soon realised was terrible anxiety. Julia said when she first met Kleintjie, that he was afraid of men – he would recoil and go quiet around them and her hunch is that he was forced into the starting block by men, because she knew that this was his problem area and eventual downfall. He had overall apprehension and a mistrust of humans in general, and her feeling is that his treatment as a racehorse was at the root of his problem. It took him two or three years to warm to men in general and it took about the same amount of time before he was comfortable with a male farrier working on his feet.
“He’s a very gifted horse and jumps beautifully,” she says fondly. But she did feel that she wasn’t able to reliably have a safe or predictable ride on him and knew there was work to be done.
It was when she fell pregnant, that Kleintjie first met Tamsin.
Julia had arranged for a good friend to ride Kleintjie while she was unable to, and this friend took Kleintjie to meet Tamsin and they started to do some work with him. When Julia came through to see the progress they had made, she was very impressed. After a couple of months, once she was back in the saddle and having had time to consider, she got in touch with Tamsin herself and they began to do some more work. After a few weeks of working with Tamsin, she decided to move Kleintjie to Tamsin’s stables permanently.
“He is a lovely horse,” Julia says, “he’s sociable and other horses seem to just love him.” She’s not wrong – his best friend in the paddock is also the biggest horse there, another thoroughbred ex-racehorse by the name of Romy. They have a very special friendship – the big girl and the small boy and are seldom seen without each other. At last had had found a place to call home.
The following part of the story was what we came across as we were trying to understand the lasting physical and mental effects on the horse that the racing industry might leave….
Horse-racing – some background to the world he came from
Racehorses, amongst other high-stress sport horses, could be compared to the uber-fit professional athletes in the human world, who’s life’s purpose is geared toward peak physical perfection and winning at all costs. The main difference being that the horse does not decide how to train himself or have any say in his training and exercise regime, what drugs he is given or what aids are used to improve his performance.
This news clip gives us some insight as to where Kleintjie came from and features an interview with Julia.
Any human athlete will tell you that while their greatest joy is glorying in the thrill of athletic competition, with the pleasure, comes the pain, the need to slow down, the need to rest – horses unfortunately, cannot articulate when they need help and as such are often pushed beyond their limits.
This is not in any way meant to be a blanket statement or opinion that all racehorse trainers and stables are unethical and immoral in their practices. But there is a wealth of evidence that cruel and unhealthy practices abound on the darker side of the racing industry, and it is from this industry that young Kleintjie comes, as we have described above. We don’t know too much about what he went through in terms of what we describe below, this introduction is just meant to provide a little eye-opener into the kinds of stresses that horses in the racing industry endure, and what you may be letting yourself in for (or the kind of rehabilitation that may be needed) if you purchase an ex-racehorse.
On a racetrack you have a 500-kilogram horse galloping at 50 km per hour, at some point during each stride all the weight and forces are carried by only one front leg. It almost seems like an accident waiting to happen. At those speeds, a poor substrate or one small mistake could mean serious injury, and severe muscular-skeletal injuries, such as torn ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints and even fractured bones are not uncommon in racing. Incidences have declined in number over time as regulations, better techniques and substrates have improved, but when they do happen, horses are still sometimes expected to perform no matter what. Which moves us on to point two…
No-one can deny that doping exists in the racing industry – there have been countless public exposés and controversies. Whether this ever happened to our boy, we don’t know.
Racehorses are sometimes pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs and painkillers, which allow them to run faster and power through the pain. These dangerous cocktails are sometimes referred to as therapeutic medications, and while doping regulations exist, the dopers are just as good at getting around them as they are in the sphere of human performance sports.
It’s a scientific fact that physical pain causes a shock or trauma response in the body and that lasting pain, means a lasting trauma response, which affects both horses and humans for life, unless they receive treatment for it.
In the racing industry, aids such as whips, spurs, tongue ties are all officially endorsed by the authorities. We all know what whips and spurs are for, but for those unfamiliar with the terms, the tongue tie is used to keep the tongue in place during a race – it is a piece of nylon or elastic that is wrapped tightly around the tongue and tied to the lower jaw, which is not only painful, but can cause lasting injury. They are used to prevent the horse getting their tongue over the bit during the race or to prevent choking or airway obstruction.
The last device, which is not endorsed, but is still used by some trainers and jockeys, is known as a jigger. According to the RSPCA, ‘A jigger is a battery-powered device which delivers an electric shock when applied to the horse’s skin, causing significant pain and long-term distress when associated with other cues.’
Isolation and poor socialisation
While they are in training, racehorses don’t get the ‘herd’ experience that many other horses do, which we know is so fundamental to a horse’s happiness and contentment. For convenience, they are often stabled alone for most of every day, aside from the times when they are training on the track.
Without the stimulation of other horses and a herd dynamic, many of the horses become very anxious and develop behaviours such as crib-biting (biting on fixed objects and then pulling back), wind-sucking or even self-harm – all good indicators of pervasive presence of psychological distress.
This information was what came from our research into the physical and mental effects on the horse that the racing industry might leave. It was research into the background of the industry from which Kleintjie comes. It isn’t intended to be an indictment of the racing industry as a whole, although it is hard to see a good side when there is such a wealth of evidence as to the shady practices that go on in the pursuit of wealth and prestige at the expense of the health, wellbeing and lives of these magnificent animals.
Whether or not the horses are shown compassion and care by their trainers and jockeys doesn’t detract from the immense physical strain they are placed under and the almost consistent minor injuries they live with. Major injuries, such as shattered or broken legs, are most often a death sentence to these animals. The psychological effects of living in pain and / or isolation for the few good years they have on the track, make for some very sad tales indeed. And for those who don’t rise through the ranks to make it on the track? The news is not good and in this case, Kleintjie can be considered one of the lucky ones who survived long enough to find a kind and loving owner and a brilliant and compassionate trainer.
- ‘Every Day, I Almost Quit’: Confessions of a Racetrack Veterinarian
- Why horse racing is so dangerous
- Why racehorses are cracking up
- RSPCA – issues with thoroughbred horseracing
- Wikipedia – racehorse injuries
- Psychological factors affecting equine performance
- Horse racing – animals Australia