Spotlight on Rich Strike

The amazing conditions under which Rich Strike became the Kentucky Derby winner seems to have been eclipsed by the incident that followed the race. I have been amazed at how divisive the incident has become among horse people. I have also been cheered by how outraged much of the public has been, as it signals more awareness of animals as individuals and the sometime egregious way they are treated. From my perspective, both sides of this argument are getting a bit overwrought and missing out on a learning opportunity for all parties.

A screen shot of the incident after the race. The reaction seen in the pony horse in this moment is from the rider’s actions, not from being bit.

First, in full disclosure, I do not support the racing industry. It has not always been so. I used to work on rehabilitating horses injured at the track. I’ve had friends who were vets for the industry, owners, farriers, exercise riders, and even trainers. I followed the big races, attended local races, went to sales, worked with young horses headed to racing, and horses whose racing days were done. When I was young, former race horses made up the bulk of horses in Dressage, Hunter/Jumper, and Eventing. But racing has changed since those days. Sure, I probably missed some of the issues back then I would not accept now. However, I watched the attitudes of those involved change. Lip chains used to be an exception, but now have become a standard. The horses have changed, being bred for shorter distances and becoming therefore lighter in build and more fragile. Drugs have become more ubiquitous, masking conditions that once led to a horse being (probably rightly) retired.

It is not just my word that things have changed. My veterinarian grew up around the racing industry. It was with her that I worked on injured racers and helped breed new racers. She has been out of the Thoroughbred racing scene for over twenty years, having worked with Harness racers in recent years. Last year she was called upon to work at a Thoroughbred track for a season and was shocked at how things have changed. Trainers willing to take short cuts, ignore veterinary advice on injuries, and complaining about measures taken to protect the horses. Horses who are built in such a way as to more easily break down and who are manhandled far more because the same level of attention is no longer put into their training. It is no longer an industry she recognizes, nor one she wants to be part of.

All of this is to say that my perspective brings a level of knowledge and understanding, but that I have already realized the industry is in desperate need of reform. In principle I am not against racing. I have known horses who do love to run – but I also had to try to piece back Nash who never fully recovered from a racing career that was clearly a torment for him.

Back to what happened with Rich Strike. When I first heard about it, some otherwise level headed horse people were defending the outrider’s actions. All I had seen at that point was a photo of Rich Strike grabbing the rider’s leg. While I understood the defense of this rider – that is a dangerous thing to happen – something in my head questioned what led up to that moment. Perhaps it was nothing that rider did; but in my experience such behavior from a “trained” horse usually has a root cause in human behavior.

The first confirmation of my suspicions came from Janet Jones, author of Horse Brain, Human Brain, who wrote a column for Psychology Today. In her piece she addresses the habits humans develop in dealing with horses, and how this often eclipses a thoughtful process for a specific situation. She also offers alternatives for how the situation could have been handled better. Hers was a more level approach to the incident than I’d heard to that point.

Not long after, the video of the incident popped up on my newsfeed, accompanied by another reasonable assessment by Ty Murray. Ty is “fourth generation race tracker”. Like me, he was once an avid follower but now sees the degradation of the sport.

“The top trainers in the industry are masters at how to get a horse in the best shape possible, to build their muscles and to get amazing endurance and speeds from the horse but there is very little good horsemanship involved in the training of these horses. The horses are led everywhere with a tight hold under their chin and aren’t broke beyond barely somewhat accepting a rider.”

Ty Murray, Facebook, May 8, 2022

Actually viewing the video was illuminating. (If you have not seen the video of the incident, you can find it here.) Based upon what I’d seen of the still and the descriptions I’d heard, I was willing to give the outrider the benefit of the doubt. If you’ve spent much time with young stallions you likely encounter at least one who will get very mouthy. After all, it is how they play and how they fight. There may be times when an immediate action is required to address a moment of bad behavior. But if you have any experience with young stallions, you also know that punching them is not the answer.

“Punching and gouging his face and jerking the bit repeatedly doesn’t teach the horse to behave it just makes him hate people more and trust them less.”

Ty Murray, Facebook, May 8, 2022

What I see in the video is a human who keeps repeating a reaction to the colt’s bad behavior, getting the same result. Every time he punches and yanks, he provokes the colt to react in a negative way. Punching a biting stallion will nearly always result in another attempt to bite. They will not back down, as geldings and mares generally will, and escalating attacking behavior by the human will escalate the stallion’s response.

The first thing I learned about handling stallions who attempted to be mouthy was to hold the side of the halter or bridle and keep them at arm’s length. Instead of throwing his hands around, as the rider does, he could have taken a firm hold with a rigid arm to keep the colt pointed away from him and his horse. This would also have helped him to solidify his seat on his own horse. Instead, his actions frequently put him at risk of being unseated, and actually lead to his own horse rearing (note that this does not happen after his horse is bit, it is in reaction to the rider’s actions making his own horse unsettled). In a ponying situation, your own mount has to be your first consideration as your own life could easily depend upon them.

This is just one take on what the rider might have done differently. As I said, Janet Jones has a list of things that could have been done differently, if the humans involved had taken even a moment to think rather than reacting out of habit. I will not repeat her options here, as I think her piece is worth reading. I stand by my conviction that the rider did not act in the best way for the situation. I have seen many outriders handle similar situations in a much more composed and successful manner, so I know it can be done better. That said, I see no reason to vilify a rider who made some mistakes in an overwrought situation. After all, he was caught up in getting the Derby winner to the Winner’s Circle, so probably was too excited to think through the situation. My concern is more inline with Ty’s post – there is a breakdown in the handling and training of these young horses that led to that situation. Humans let these horses down daily.

Another piece of evidence for this case comes in the form of a portrait that is floating around social media. The photo, which I will not include here due to copyright concerns, is of Rich Strike and his groom. It is meant to be sentimental, showing how much he and the groom have affection for each other. Again, many otherwise sensible horse people are falling for the sentimentality of the young man hugging the head of the chestnut colt. Sadly, the first thing that jumps out at me is the lip chain on Rich Strike, and the pressure the groom has on it with one hand. The colt’s gums are showing through a grimace, with his tongue hanging slightly out. His eyes are closed, his nostrils in slits, and his ears back in a non-neutral position. I see a horse being subjected to control and unwanted affection in a way that has been so normalized that most people miss all of the signs of pain.

And here we get back to Ty’s sentiment. Most handlers and trainers at the track do not take the time to really train these horses, even in basic handling on the ground. These are also highly fit high-energy horses who spend 23 hours in a day locked in a 10×10 box, with little to no social contact. There is no outlet for their play drive – something all young horses have. Even our boys, Chase and Coffee, play and run just for fun well into adulthood. Imagine the energy that gets pent up during all those isolated hours in a stall. Then, when they are taken out, it’s often for an activity with maximum output of energy. Is it any wonder that most of them act out each time they are handled?

As I said at the beginning, this should be a learning opportunity for everyone. If someone who has not worked with horses takes a too strong position against what happened, we should not insult or dismiss them (as sadly too many have). Instead, we should be considering that if this looks bad to the common person perhaps there is a problem. We do not help ourselves by dismissing public impressions. People are getting more aware of treatment of animals, and if you blame them for that you are setting up a situation you may very well lose. Think about how many circuses are left after public opinion turned against their handling of animals.

Instead, consider how things can be done in a way that is easier for the public to accept. Perhaps there are problems we’ve become used to and should reexamine. At the same time, view it as an opportunity to help educate the public as appropriate. It is certainly true that some things the public may not like have a reason – but that in my view is actually the exception, not the rule.

Too often horse people defend the industry out of reflex. Yet many of us who have been around more than thirty years can honestly say that the horse industry has degraded over that time. There has, of course, always been abuse and likely always will be. However, today I see defense of behaviors of riders and handlers that would have gotten you kicked out of the barn back when I was a kid . Trainers who once put the horse first, willing to take on owners and riders in the interest of the horse, now cater to impatient owners and trainers by taking shortcuts to get a quick result. Even top trainers who once knew better defend blood in the mouth because “so much time and money has been invested” to get the horse to that competition, so disqualification is too strong a punishment. Their younger selves would be horrified!

If our semi-sedentary boys, who spend their days outside, still have this kind of energy, imagine how a highly fit baby Thoroughbred would spend their time if they could.

If the racing industry takes this viral moment as a learning opportunity, and begins to make changes to their sport, they may be able to redeem it. Sadly, I do not see signs that is likely to happen. Legislation was passed last year to make racing regulations more systemic, not leave them up to each state as they were before. All signs are the industry is rebelling against even this simple change to their industry.

I will be the first to admit that the race Rich Strike ran was impressive – both his effort and the skill of his jockey to maneuver through the packed field. It is certainly the sort of “fairy tale” that makes racing appealing. But what happened after the race is emblematic of an industry that is on a well-earned downward trajectory. If, as equestrians, we do not embrace this as a learning opportunity, and frankly a wake-up call, we will also deserve the declination of our sport.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s