Standing peacefully around the paddock, basking in the sun and the admiring stares of visitors, you don’t see the dynamic energy of a Thoroughbred. But when they get a little frisky you can sense their enormous power as muscles bunch, necks arch and manes fly. You can imagine them charging out of the gate — racing.
Horse racing is exciting. But what happens when the races are over? Often there are horses no one wants — Thoroughbreds that are past their “use by” date.
Horses are a disposable commodity in the horse racing industry. They get used up, worn out or broke down. When Thoroughbreds have served their purpose most are sold for slaughter. A few are saved or donated to rescue/retirement farms like United Pegasus Foundation in the golden hills near Tehachapi, Calif.
Helen Meredith created United Pegasus Foundation in 1994 after seeing a television story about the feedlots in Southern California. Feedlots are the end of the line for many horses. From there they can be legally or illegally shipped to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico (depending on the state of origin) and butchered for human consumption.
At UPF though, horses can retire gracefully without the worry of ending up like Ferdinand, a gentle stallion that won the Kentucky Derby in 1986. It is most likely he met his doom in a Japanese slaughterhouse after an unsuccessful career as a stud.
Hard Work Leads Hopefully to Success
Meredith is the hardest-working woman I have ever met. Heck, she may be the hardest-working person I have ever met. With 63 horses to take care of every day at United Pegasus, it is no wonder she works so very hard.
Mucking out stalls, raking hay, wielding a wheelbarrow, feeding and watering are all part of her daily duties. It is a dirty job, but Meredith’s mission statement says it all, “To identify abused and/or neglected equines, help to rehabilitate them, facilitate adoptions and educate the public regarding the need to help these horses.”
Doing the dirty work is what makes the success of the mission statement possible.
Five days a week there is a full-time employee, Kaitlin Bressler, who helps with the routine and is also retraining a couple of horses that are up for adoption but the other two days, the 5’2” Meredith is sometimes on her own.
The stars of the show at UPF are undoubtedly former champion sprinter Cardmania who earned more than $1.5 million in his career and his stable mate/former competitor Music Merci who also won more than $1.5 million. Cardmania had a big win in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Sprint race and was the winner of the prestigious 1993 Eclipse sprinter award.
Cardmania, a dark bay, is also Meredith’s favorite. “My husband Derek trained him and I was riding him all those years. He is a nice horse to be around. He doesn’t bite or kick or any of the stupid stuff. He isn’t aggressive like some race horses.” Helen also rode Cardmania in a Rose Bowl parade.
Twenty-five-year-old Music Merci’s career ended as a 7-year-old and he has been at the ranch since then. A leg injury kept him from being adoptable. He has never been supported by his owners.
When Racing Is Over
Most of the horses at the farm are not for adoption but like Cardmania and Music Merci are Thoroughbred retirees living out their horse lives surrounded by horse friends — donated by their owners or trainers when their racing careers were over. They are well fed, well looked after and more importantly well loved. Their feet get trimmed, their teeth taken care of and if they need a new set of shoes, well, they get those too.
“It is so difficult to find homes for injured racehorses and 99% coming off track have injuries,” said Meredith, founder and president of UPF. “The uninjured horses may find homes but who wants to take care of the rest? Not an awful lot of people out there are looking for a Thoroughbred to rehabilitate. If people want a horse they are looking for a quarter horse, or a pony, one that is well broke to be a family horse.
“Thoroughbreds are probably one of the most versatile horses; they can do trail riding, they can jump, they can do dressage, polo, eventing. But it takes time and money to do the rehab and retrain, that’s why they are hard to place,” she said.
“About 34,000 registered Thoroughbred foals are born each year. That means there has to be 34,000 horses going out the door — very few going to good homes. We can’t even place 2000 in California,” she said. “We used to be able to place a lot of horses and now we are not even able to find homes for the two that we have for adoption. The only calls coming in are from people who need to get rid of horses.”
There are other retirement/rescue facilities for Thoroughbreds in the United States, but certainly not enough for 34,000 horses a year.
Helen said, “The world has changed, the numbers of foals born have to go down. There is just not the interest in horses like there used to be. All breeders, no matter what the breed, should start reducing their numbers.”
Race horses may seem to lead a glamourous even romantic existence, but the reality is much different. They spend most of their days in a stall, taken out briefly to train and then they are returned to the stalls. Race days they work making money for their owners. Winning horses get a brief moment of glory in the winners circle, a pat on the neck and then it’s back to the barn.
Helen said, “There is no place on most tracks where the horses can run and kick. There is no way to walk them around just to relax them.”
Originally from Scotland, Meredith worked many years at France’s largest training facility in Chantilly. “European horses are trained over different types of terrain, like forest or over vast areas of land. They are ridden for a lot longer each day than American horses — usually more than an hour. The horses build up stamina as well as speed. Tracks go both directions and horses race where they run naturally better, not only in one-way circles like in the U.S.,” she said. ”Trainers have their own training facilities and horses are not just stabled at the track.”
Down on the Farm
On the farm these horses do a lot of relaxing, peacefully switching their tails at flies, head to rump, keeping the pesky bugs off each other. They often bond with another horse or two and do everything together. When one moves down the paddock, the other does too.
Helen calls a trio of horses that have formed a special friendship the Three Musketeers. They amble about in the penned area, usually as a group. If one heads into the stall to snack on hay, the others decide it must be snack time for them also. “Of the three Fibonacci is the most dominant and Completely Country is the most attached,” she said. “He cries when he can’t find the other guys, he calls to them to see where they are.”
”Time to Pass and Kingdom Found are longtime buddies. “When one of those passes away, the other will be lost, there is a real bond going on,” Meredith said.
Horses are herd animals so naturally they stay pretty close together. The horses at UPF are not people shy. They are so sociable they often get in the way of folks cleaning out the stalls and raking hay. Carrots will bring them to the fence for a nibble and a quick pat. And they love carrots. Munchable veggies held through the fence are guaranteed to attract a crowd.
At first I fed them one by one but it seemed some of the pushier horses were getting all the treats and the others were hanging back. So I threw handfuls of carrots out to the others. I brought 25 pounds so there was enough to go around.
TeAtua didn’t like sharing, so he laid his ears back, gave a quick nip to let the others know who was boss and whose carrots those were. The only way to get carrots to the other horses was to make sure the gelding had plenty of his own and then I could throw bunches out for the rest.
The same thing happens when Helen is feeding grain. TeAtua gets enough to keep him busy away from the main group of horses so they get a chance to eat their own grain. Otherwise, he would chase the less assertive animals away from the sweet-tasting food. “Horses have a pecking order, the dominant one at the top and then down to the wimpier horses,” she said.
Those poor wimpy horses get no respect.
Meredith whistles as she works. I thought it was because the whistling calmed the horses. “No,” she said with a smile, “Doesn’t everyone whistle while they work? I have always whistled.” She also keeps up a running banter, talking to the horses as she feeds, “Why are you over there? You’re supposed to be over here,” she questions one gelding.
You Can Help
Money is always an issue at United Pegasus Foundation and it takes about $500,000 a year to take care of the horses. “It’s been a nickel and dime operation since day one,” Meredith said. Most previous owners do not pay for their horses’ upkeep and UPF relies on volunteers, grants, donations and sponsors to support its mission. “Right now it is supported by air,” she said. “If anyone would like to donate money and sponsor a specific horse we have, we would send them photos and updates on that particular horse,” Helen said.
It’s rather like owning a horse without the daily responsibility for taking care of it. And you can visit. Horses that need sponsoring can be found on the foundation’s sponsor page at www.unitedpegasus.com/United_Pegasus_Foundation/SPONSOR.html
“Even You is a good-natured 5-year-old gelding who is currently available for adoption from United Pegasus Foundation. He would make a great trail, dressage or hunter/jumper,” said Meredith.
“He can he be ridden, and we are going to start retraining him, she said. “His time-off is over, he needs to get a new job! Besides, he getting to be a bugger with the older horses and has started to boss them around, nipping and kicking at them. In the herd there is always a boss. He is the young one on the block and I don’t want him to hurt the older horses.”
UPF is running in the red and no donation is too small. And like the Web site states, “BALE-OUT NEEDED: EVERY $10 DONATED = ONE BALE OF HAY” — and the price of hay is going to go up again.
When I asked Helen what would happen if the ranch went under, the conversation turned serious. “It will get very scary,” she said. “If we don’t get any money because the racing industry doesn’t support the horses, I’ll have to start euthanizing them and that would be devastating. No one would want them — they have leg problems and nobody really wants retirees.”
Meredith feels horses who have given so much to their owners; earning hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars; deserve something better than being packed into a double-decker trailer headed to Mexican slaughterhouses.
The United Pegasus Foundation newsletter headline says it all: “The Fast, The Famous, The Forgotten.”
For more information:
UNITED PEGASUS FOUNDATION
Mon to Sun: 7 A.M. to 4 P.M. (PST)
7 days a week, 9 A.M. to 2 P.M. (PST)
Visitors are encouraged to call in advance if they are planning a visit.
If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, drop Helen an E-mail.
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Saving Wild Horses – The Freedom Fund
The safety of horse meat for consumption