Someone called what happened to Barbaro on Saturday “the dark side of racing,” but it’s more than that — it’s the dark side of keeping horses. For all their strength and speed and beauty, horses are surprisingly delicate animals, prey to a whole host of physical complications that can cut them down justlikethat, most of which are the result of our insistence that they live the way we do.
In the wild (and understand, horses are not really wild animals, not after centuries of domestic breeding) a horse would graze around 20 hours a day, moving idly across grasslands, drinking when it’s thirsty and running only when pursued by predators. It would lie down only briefly, sleep standing up. Movement and grazing, though — that’s its nature. So what do we do? Lock them in barns, turn them out briefly, feed them concentrated grains to make up for 20 hours of grazing and try to channel all that strength into our own idea of competitive pursuits, even if they do seem to work in concert with a horse’s own instincts. Disaster is a byproduct.
Whenever a horse like Barbaro “breaks down,” the horseman’s euphemism for the frequently grisly fractures that end racing careers and, nearly as frequently, a horse’s life, people are puzzled and ask: Why can’t you just put the leg in a cast?
For lots of reasons. This Slate Explainer does a fine job laying them out in layman’s terms. Poor Barbaro. Fingers crossed.