Without us, horses might well be on their way to extinction, a novelty creature in a zoo, a safari animal in a wild horse sanctuary out west, or a mass-produced tenderloin on the daily menu. While horses are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves in open spaces, and have been for centuries, the modern world so limited their utility and natural habitats that someone had to step in.
Women have taken on the role as the primary caregivers, protectors, supporters, proponents, sponsors and zealots for the horse.
The numbers tell the story. Most American horse sports have shifted over time and now enjoy tremendous levels of female involvement from top to bottom. In the English disciplines (such as jumping, eventing, and dressage) more than 85 percent of participating owners, handlers, riders, grooms and managers are female. In the Western disciplines (team penning, reining, cutting, western pleasure, trail classes), more than 60 percent of the players are girls and women. Youth-oriented horse organizations are more than 90 percent female. The barns, judging stands and show arenas have been given over to, or taken over by, women who lead the way and make the decisions about where these animals are heading in this world.
Which brings us, on this weekend of the Belmont Stakes, to horse racing. In this very unusual year, as the sport has enjoyed its annual trip to the national spotlight, it also has had to wrestle with its greatest demons in a very public way. While celebrating a run at the Triple Crown by Big Brown, the racing world has agonized over the tragic death of Eight Belles after its greatest race, the Kentucky Derby.
One observation seems very timely: The boardrooms, executive suites and grandstands of the sport remain persistently and conspicuously lacking in women. Racing would do well to embrace and promote women's influence throughout its structure, as virtually all other equestrian sports have in recent years.
Standout female heroes such as Secretariat's owner, Helen "Penny" Chenery, and jockeys like Julie Krone and Diane Crump have provided ample guiding light for other women to follow. Select college and university equine business and management programs are now training and graduating women looking for careers in racing and the horse industry.
And there are still moments of plain good fortune. Kentucky's new first lady, Jane Beshear, is an avid horsewoman and very attentive to horse sports and racing, as is her husband, Gov. Steve Beshear. But for every Jane Beshear who can't be denied by force of office and dedication, there are thousands of women whose involvement the sport could dearly use if it would proactively choose to empower them.
There are some reasons for the current disconnect. Horse racing, in this case Thoroughbred horse racing, by definition means that millions of dollars are on the line. It is the richest of all horse sports, where every dollar counts - often at the potential expense of the animal. It is here that men and women tend to part company, because most women do not consider horses to be gambling machinery, and certainly do not consider them to be expendable. The owner's accountant says the racehorse has to be held at an emotional arm's length for the spreadsheet to make sense; generally speaking, women can't buy into that kind of relationship.
In the hearts of women, the horse deserves family status. From the time we are girls in love with ponies on to womanhood featuring horses as either a recreational or professional focus, the core connection never compromises itself. Men often - and a few women sometimes - seem able to take a few steps back from that connection and live with horses more as commodities than companions. The urgency of earning a living can do that. But for the most part, women are uncomfortable with the idea that economic pressures should dominate all difficult decisions surrounding the horse, especially when it involves a breed of horse that, in recent times, is clearly not being bred and built to take a lot of pressure.
That compassionate counterbalance is crucial to the future of horse racing. It weaves itself easily through the sport's most pressing challenges - whether 2-year-old horses should be allowed to race, how much medication is too much, how much investment in safer racing surfaces is too little. As any CEO knows, allowing your finance department to make all the qualitative and quantitative choices for your business can lead you into a business debacle, not to mention a moral mess.
What matters to women is that horses have a future, and that their future is built on a bedrock commitment to safety, comfort and the joy of existence. This goes far beyond getting a daily bath, regular feeding, bedding in the stall and night-watch security. We also want to know that the horses are being bred for physical and mental soundness, fully compatible with the jobs they are asked to perform, and given time to mature into those physical pursuits. Is this incompatible with modern-day horse racing? Hardly, but if the voice of balance is never heard, the objective may never be sought or realized.
The relationship between humans and horses is wonderfully two-way. Throughout history they have given us strength and stamina when we needed it to cross prairies, climb mountains and cultivate fields, and a partner with whom we could enjoy a unique set of sporting challenges. What we bring to the mix is something horses cannot - perspective and forward thinking. They don't plan, and they don't concern themselves with the future of the breed. That's why we have to. As their primary caretakers in this world, it's hard to believe that women can't and don't contribute more to ensure the future of these horses. Racing needs us now more than ever.
The judgment that the sport has outlived its time and overstretched the physical capabilities of the animal is too simplistic, even in the wake of the death of Eight Belles, and Barbaro before her, after shattering his leg in the Preakness Stakes in 2006. It doesn't realistically accommodate the interests of millions of people worldwide who look to the sport for their livelihoods and entertainment. And it may simply close off one of the few remaining ways that the public can fully appreciate the special athleticism of horses. There is a gap to be closed here, not a chasm to be widened.
Looking at the demographics of the situation, you can understand why. Though the barn area affectionately and tellingly known as the "backside" presents itself as a reasonably democratic place for female involvement, when it comes to major roles - training, riding in races, breeding, owning, being a track official, serving as a track or racing association director, or holding a position of power in the industry - the scales are heavily weighted by, and toward, men.
While such a huge imbalance between men and women almost always signals big trouble wherever it is found, racing's gender gap - so powerfully counter to the trend in other horse sports - is an alarm bell that can no longer be ignored.
We can debate the rights and wrongs of horse racing, but here's my personal approach: Fix this sport with an infusion of what women do best for horses - caring, understanding, perspective and sensible management.
Midkiff Horse Training, PO box 24395, Lexington KY 40524
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