Gambling on the Future

With racehorse welfare making national headlines, the horse industry is being scrutinized for putting money before the well-being of young animals. Racetrack injuries and deaths may have sparked mainstream interest in the issue, but high-stakes stock horse futurities beg the same question: ARE YOUNG HORSES PUSHED TOO HARD, TOO SOON?

 


 

With racehorse welfare making national headlines, the horse industry is being scrutinized for putting money before the well-being of young animals. Racetrack injuries and deaths may have sparked mainstream interest in the issue, but high-stakes stock horse futurities beg the same question: ARE YOUNG HORSES PUSHED TOO HARD, TOO SOON?

The idea, like many in the industry, began with a good-natured challenge. With pride and a few bucks at stake, horsemen gambled on the genes of their unproven foals, betting that their youngsters could outperform other colts.

In 1959, the competition became official with the All American Futurity, now considered the forefather of futurities, as almost all find their roots in the 440-yard dash held at New Mexico’s Ruidoso Downs. Even in its first year, the 2-year-old race was recognized as the dawn of a new era in the horse industry.

“No longer, as by tradition, will every Quarter Horse be expected to be able to race one day, perform in a rodeo that night and be setting sturdy haunches to hold a roped steer on the owner’s range the next morning,” wrote Ed Ellinger, a Sports Illustrated writer who reported on the 1959 All American. “Not even in the land of legendary millionaires is an owner likely to take such risks with an animal that might win some renewal of the Ruidoso All American.”

Fifty years later, his words ring hauntingly prophetic. Not only has the industry become defined by disciplines, but futurities have moved past the flat stretch of a racetrack to cutting, reining and barrel-racing arenas. Attracting everyone from ranch cowboys to international entrepreneurs, futurities have paid out more than $165 million since 1962.

“It’s the ‘I can’t wait until Christmas’ scenario, and Christmas comes when the futurities are held,” says Frank Merrill, CEO of the breeding operation Windward Stud and past president of the American Quarter Horse Association. “It’s a stake on the future performance of a horse, whether these horses are going to be raced or shown. That’s just the nature of the game. When you’re in the horse business, you’re gambling.”

But after the euthanasia of 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse Eight Belles at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the tradition of pitting youngsters against one another came into question. The U.S. Congress scolded the Thoroughbred industry for putting avarice before the welfare of the horse. In a hearing last June, U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) stated he believed “greed has trumped the health of the horse, health of the jockey, strength of the breed and integrity of the sport.”

Thoroughbred racing might seem a separate entity from the Western world, but the question posed is the same: Has the balance between a young horse’s welfare and money tipped too far toward the latter?

“When money takes over, giving the horses time goes by the wayside,” says horseman Benny Guitron, a multiple world champion who trains horses and students in the art of traditional vaquero horsemanship. “I’m sure there are a lot of good trainers that evaluate their livestock well, and there are a lot of horses that come out of it fine. But there is a big gap there, where I think a lot of young horses end up being thrown away.”

Several studies on the safety and welfare of Thoroughbred racehorses have been conducted since the death of Eight Belles, including one by Kentucky veterinarian Larry Bramlage, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the Thoroughbred safety committee.

His study showed that racehorses trained at two years of age are “much more successful, have much longer careers, and show less predisposition to injury than horses that did not begin racing until their 3-year-old year.”

He qualifies his results, however, saying that horses can handle the stress of training, but not necessarily the stress of competition.

“The difficulty with futurities and with 2-year-olds in training is that you force the horse to train against the calendar and not along with his own progression,” Bramlage says. “I am very much in favor of de-emphasizing performance at 2 years of age, but emphasizing the fact that horses should start training at 2 years of age, while progressing according to how they are handling it.”

Jim Neubert, son of clinician Bryan Neubert, is also an advocate of tailoring training to the individual horse.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a cutting futurity, reining futurity or snaffle-bit futurity, it’s a lot to put on a 3-year-old,” says Neubert, who starts colts with his brother, Luke. “Some horses are mature enough that they’re ready to show in July of their 3-year-old year, but there are a lot of them that aren’t. As a whole, it would be better if their futurity year was in their 4-year-old year.”

More than 16,000 youngsters have danced in the dirt of the National Cutting Horse Association’s annual 3-year-old futurity in the past 46 years, competing for a total of $109 million. From less than $25,000 in prize money at its first event to more than $4 million in 2008, the NCHA Futurity is the event others tend to model. It is also the one that has become the target of the most recent criticism. But advocates of the event point to the racing industry’s research, saying that working young horses builds better adult athletes.

“Studies have shown that a 2-year-old has to have work to be athletic, it has to use bone,” says Lindy Burch, chair of NCHA’s health and welfare committee. “The successful trainers, as well as the successful owners, are becoming more aware of that fact, that a cutting horse is an athlete and must be conditioned and trained as a human athlete.”

Guitron, though, is skeptical of applying racing research to Western performance futurities, saying the stress of maneuvers such as turning, spinning and handling cattle aren’t taken into consideration in racing-oriented research. He also argues that today’s horses aren’t as capable of withstanding the training pressure of horses bred 20 or 30 years ago.

“You can look at a horse’s pedigree today and only have one on that paper that is not related,” he says. “We have stallions that are breeding half-sisters and they’re winning, but we’ve somewhat thrown conformation and all this out the window just because this horse ‘cows’ real quick.”

More than 3,000 horses have competed in 3-year-old reined-cow-horse events since 1992, for almost $16 million in prize money, according to equine statistical service Equi-Stat. In the same time, less than 2,000 horses have competed in 4-year-old events. Similar numbers exist for reining horses. Futurities for older horses tend to be less popular across the board, including in barrel racing, says Charles Brock, president of Barrel Futurities of America.

{mosimage}Generally speaking, barrel futurities in the East run horses 4-and-under, while those in the West run 5-and-under, he says. Several years ago, he adds, BFA started offering 5-and-under events in the East, but the movement was short-lived as Western contenders showed little interest.

Weather has traditionally determined the split between the prevalence of 4- and 5-year-old futurities, as trainers in northern and Midwestern states have fewer months to work than those in warmer southern states, he says. Brock adds that aged barrel events directly correlate to the racing industry, as many futurity prospects come off the track.

“If it was financially feasible for racehorse owners to run their colts until they were 3- or 4-year-olds,” he says, “then we would have to wait because we wouldn’t have the quantity or quality of 2-year-olds to choose from.”

Such a shift is unlikely, says Merrill, one of a few contemporary horsemen with experience who has crossed from racetrack to arena. He campaigned Miss Jim 45 to a high-point halter mare title in 1970, and his filly, Holme Maid, placed third in the 1978 All American.

In older aged events, he says, trainers “know how they stack up with their competition, and therefore, many are leery of paying large entry fees when they know they haven’t got as good a chance as a few others.”

Joanne Carollo, a two-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Non-Pro Snaffle Bit Futurity champion, says that even if futurities were designed for older horses, not much would change.

“It wouldn’t matter if they waited until they’re 5 years old to compete,” she says. “Owners would just have a larger amount of money invested. People get caught up in wanting success, sometimes with a disregard for the horse.”

Shannon Hall, a cutting-horse trainer and Oklahoma rancher, has competed in cutting futurities for more than 20 years.

“It’s really hard, especially when you’re young and starting out,” Hall says. “You want to be successful, and you want to be on the road showing people you can do this. That’s when you make the mistake of putting yourself in the equation. You’re not in the equation. Your service is to make good decisions for the animal and the owner, in that order. Sometimes your owner will say, ‘Show him anyway.’ But if you’re really a professional, you say, ‘He’s not ready.’”

Neubert echoed the sentiment.

“It’s on the trainer,” he says. “If you’ve got a good horseman, he ought to be able to know if the colt can hold up and take that much, or if he can’t.”
Recently, Hall sold his daughter’s futurity slot after her horse suffered an injury last summer. The horse had recovered by the fall, but Hall decided it would be too much stress on the animal to push him to a winter futurity. It’s those types of decisions, he says, that separate horsemen from profiteers, and keep animals safe.

“It was heartbreaking to make that decision,” he says. “I wanted [my daughter] to go, she wanted to go, and the horse was a cow horse. But, if I had pushed him for December, he’d have become injured again, or I would have made him uncomfortable. That’s a call I had to make for myself, and one I hope I’d always make for an owner.”

The well-being of young futurity horses, it seems, depends on the wisdom of the horsemen responsible for the animals.

“There are always people who want a winner right now and don’t care about tomorrow,” Brock says. “But most of the people in barrel futurities want to see their horses go on. That’s why you see French Flash Hawk or The Key Grip running at the National Finals. They were futurity horses, but [their owners] cared enough to bring them on slow, so they could go on.”


Julie Bryant is a Texas-based writer. Melissa Cassutt is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.