HRU Feedback (2020-10-24)

Rescuing standardbreds harder without freeze brands

Dear fellow standardbred horsemen/horsewomen,

There is something happening that is very much going to put the lives of many standardbreds in jeopardy when they are done racing and no one seems to care. I think the standardbred community needs to pay attention to this, as this is going to be no less than truly horrifying.

Getting rid of freeze brands, is going to make it extremely hard for rescuers to identify the many unfortunate standardbreds who sadly find themselves in kill pens at grade horse sales and with dealers. The mandating of microchips is fine. However, these horses really need a mandated freeze brand also. While all horses in a kill pen surely need help, there are people that specifically try to locate and help the wonderful standardbreds that gave so much to us. Things are much better than they were several decades ago and many people seek out standardbreds for their many positive traits.

Some say that the rescuers can get a reader and scan their neck. Seriously, how realistic is it to think that someone can get into and crawl around a kill pen lot to go scanning the necks on all the horses in there?! First, the owner of the kill pen may not allow it. Most do not allow people to take photos or video and throw you out if you are caught doing so.

Then, truly it is just not realistic, besides being incredibly dangerous, for someone to be in scanning the necks on a bunch of loose horses in a pen that they do not know. Should that very labor intensive and dangerous feat be accomplished, the standardbreds then need to be marked to differentiate them from all the other similar looking, often bay, horses in there – OR – they could have an easily visible freeze brand on their neck. Otherwise they are just another brown horse.

But, the USTA by saying that freeze brands are now optional, doesn’t care. I have written to the USTA twice – no response. They are truly dropping the ball on this. Surely they care about the horses that have given us so much. Or do they? How about the thousands of horses in Full Circle. Their freeze brand is a lifeline for them at a time when they are hanging by a thread. The people that enroll a horse in Full Circle are sometimes desperate to find them. The lack of a freeze brand removes their only chance.

You know that wonderful baby that you bred, raised, and raced but somehow eventually lost track of – he’s much more likely to die a miserable death, get a bolt put through his head, due to no one finding him in a kill pen now. Same for many past wonderful champions, solid raceway performers, or those wonderful, once loved Standardbreds that didn’t race for one reason or another. At one time they were all loved, yet no one cares enough about their lives to mandate a stamp on their neck that may very well help them get out of dire straits. Really? This is just not o.k.

As we all know, racing has a pretty bad name in the press nowadays, with many tracks closing and very poor attendance. Better aftercare of the horses, surely would help the public hold the sport in a better light. Yet, not freeze branding is most likely going to have lots more of our beloved race horses ending up slaughtered. You would think our organization would want to help prevent this even if to even preserve their own future. Note what happened to Greyhound dog racing due to all the bad press about it.

Microchips may be a step forward and I do not doubt their positive aspects but failing to mandate a freeze brand ALSO makes the USTA’s own Full Circle program useless going forward and removes the only chance these horses may have when their lives hang in the balance. Why do you have Full Circle if you’re going to remove their primary means of identification in critical situations?

— Leena Terrill / Holmdel, NJ

USTA’s Mike Tanner responds

Dear Leena,

Thank you for sharing your feelings regarding microchipping, which we do take seriously. Microchips were approved at the 2018 annual meeting of the USTA board of directors, and first implemented with the foal crop of 2019. While recognizing the concerns that you raise, the board concluded that using microchips as the means of standardbred identification is less invasive and painful to the horse, allows for internal temperature monitoring by caretakers, aligns with the standards employed by other American breeds (most notably the thoroughbreds) and around the racing world, and provides the best, most accurate way to identify standardbreds. Every week, our Member Services team fields calls from folks trying to identify freeze brand tattoo numbers that are either obscured or have been deliberately obfuscated. In almost every case, these requests involve horses that are older and have long left the racetrack.

I recognize that no system of identification, microchips included, is perfect. Moreover, as someone who has visited the auctions to see what goes on there and, along with my wife, owns and cares for a retired standardbred racehorse, I share your feelings about the need to prioritize aftercare for our equine athletes when their days of competition have ended. The Association remains committed to working with accredited rescue groups and concerned individuals to assist in the identification of standardbreds in need, and to help get chip readers into the hands of those who will use them in these efforts.

One last thing. I asked my team to search for any emails that you previously had sent us, and came up only with request for a sample copy of Hoof Beats in June 2014. Is that part of the unanswered correspondence to which you refer in your document, and would you be able to send to my attention the other letter(s)? My apologies for any that may have gone unanswered.

— Michael J. Tanner / executive vice president/chief executive officer USTA

Leena Terrill responds to Tanner

Hi Mr. Tanner,

Thank you for the response. Perhaps I was not clear. I have no objection to microchips. What I think is a big mistake by the USTA is the elimination of freeze brands. I understand you get phone calls for help figuring them out, but I bet that’s a low single digit percentage of the hundreds of thousands of freeze brands applied. I have seen with my own eyes, hundreds and maybe thousands, of standardbreds whose freeze brands are clear and easily readable and because they have a freeze brand, can be picked out of crowded pens full of horses, selling by the pound or “as is.”

There are many groups and individuals who regularly seek out standardbreds in those settings, at a time when all they have to keep them from certain death is their freeze brand. Otherwise they are just another bay horse.

The USTA developed the Full Circle program and thousands of your members have enrolled horses in it because they want to know if that horse ever needs help. Full Circle depends on identification of the horse in order to work. Yet, you are deliberately removing the only visible identification of that horse. That brand, five letters/numbers on the neck, 100 per cent means they are a standardbred – no other breed uses that. You can use microchips AND use a freeze brand. It doesn’t have to be one or another. Why not do that? It provides a second means of identification when people start trying to dig out chips, just like they cut out tattoos. Why would you stop doing something — freeze branding – that is recognized and used to get horses out of the slaughter pipeline and into new jobs? Why would you take away the only chance these horses have when they are in the worst possible situation? It keeps good people who want to help them from being able to do that.

Again, this is not about microchips. This is about making your very own program for members and their horses – Full Circle – useless for horses without freeze brands. Please reconsider and use both means of identification.

— Leena Terrill / Holmdel, NJ