“The Horse Racing Crisis” Podcast

This week, I had the opportunity to speak in episode 65 of the Animal Advocates of South Central Pennsylvania Be Kind podcast about cruelty in the horse racing industry, and what we can all do to end it. I also shared the stories of my three PETA rescue horses, how I got started advocating for animals generally and race horses specifically, how the Gregory J. Reiter Memorial Fund came into being, and more.

YouTube video version here; also in audio version on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, and Stitcher. Transcript below.

Narration: Welcome to the Be Kind podcast with your host Joe Kirkener, presented by the Animal Advocates of South Central Pennsylvania.

Joe: Welcome everybody to the Be Kind podcast — part of the animal advocacy mission to create a more compassionate world for all living creatures. Whether they advocate for animals with PETA, PETA2, Humane Society, Compassion Over Killing, Mercy For Animals, or Animal Advocates — every animal, every person deserves to be loved — and we’re here to make that the truth.

Today I am joined by once again John.

John: Hello.

Joe: And we are joined by one of our great volunteers and a very powerful activist in the movement, Alysoun. Hi Alysoun!

Alysoun: Hello.

Joe: Also in case our listeners haven’t met you or don’t know about your story, could you just start out telling us a little bit about yourself and your vegan journey.

Alysoun: Sure, yeah. So i’ve been vegan and a pretty active animal advocate since 2009 — but I went vegetarian back in the year 2000, and I’ve rescued cats and dogs for as long as I can remember. And my paid career was primarily in international and foreign language education. I worked for the US Department of State at their Foreign Service Institute, and I worked for universities and corporations and non-profits doing intercultural communication and education kind of stuff. And to me, kind of the foundation of all of that is that you’re working to break down notions that one human group is superior to another human group; that one human group can say, you know, it’s legitimate for me to say my way of life can impede yours. And so all my paid work was about that, I felt — and it was a logical next step for me to start working on the relationship between humans and non-humans, and to work to persuade my fellow humans that it’s not okay for us to stomp all over the lives of non-human animals. So I retired a few years ago, and I decided at that point that I would dedicate myself full time to promoting veganism and working to end animal abuse, and working to promote wildlife conservation as well. So that’s kind of my story in a nutshell.

Joe: Wow that’s quite an extensive career. Was there a specific moment that led you to make the switch from vegetarianism to veganism?

Alysoun: That’s an interesting question. So I remember distinct moments when I actually … even before I became vegetarian, I stopped eating mammal meat. We call it red meat, basically mammal meat, right? And that was driving past this steakhouse. I used to live in California way back when, and um there was a steakhouse on a main highway between LA and San Francisco, and tourists used to love to stop there — but it was right next to the place where they were concentrating the cattle, obviously pre-slaughter, and it was just the most horrifying sight. I could not imagine how anyone could enjoy eating a steak after seeing those cows concentrated in that field, and smelling them, you know. So that was the moment when I stopped eating mammal meat. And then I went some years later to a my first farmed animal sanctuary — Animal Place in northern California — that was what prompted me to become vegetarian. And then from that point just getting to know more and more vegans, and becoming aware of the all the cruelties in the dairy and egg industries that many people are not aware of — just at some point I realized I had to go all the way.

Joe: Interesting, because usually a lot of times people say well the cows are raised right there –you can see how they’re raised — and that makes them almost feel better sometimes about it. I know there’s a dairy farm by us — it’s called, I don’t know if I want to say a name, but there’s a dairy farm by us that has all the cows right there on campus — and people take tours and all that and “oh look how happy these cows are!” Whenever I bring up how bad dairy is, people always inevitably cite this one dairy farm — those cows are living great lives, what’s wrong with it? And in your case actually was the opposite effect, where you saw how they were raised right there and turned you against it rather than towards it. So that is really interesting.

Something else that I see a lot on your social media and just through conversations with you is the Gregory J Reiter Memorial Fund. Can you tell us a little bit about the history behind that and just how it came to be a big part of your life?

Alysoun: Thank you, Joe. I’d be honored to talk about that. So this is a fund that I established in 2016 — on Earth Day 2016 as a matter of fact — in memory of my late husband who had died in an accident the previous year. It’s a small donor advised fund, and its focus is ending animal abuse, promoting veganism and promoting wildlife conservation. And all of these are areas that my husband and I had worked on together during the majority of our personal time. Even though we were in completely different professional careers, this was our bond. I saw this as a way to go on promoting these causes that meant so much to him and me, and I have continued to develop this fund over the years. I mostly finance it with resources that my husband left behind, but I do also welcome outside donations, and I use those to partner with a cluster of 501c3 non-profit organizations on specific programs in these interest areas.

I think it’s important to note that although these days there are so many thousands of causes that we can contribute to — they’re all very very worthy — but in the US charitable sector, only 3% of donations go to animals and the environment combined. So personally I feel a special calling to dedicate the resources that I can dedicate to these areas that are so underfunded. I have a website for my fund — it’s gregoryreiterfund.org — so your audience can go and see more about the work that i do on that website.

Joe: Wow, that sounds amazing. As someone who works in fundraising and actively fundraises for the Animal Advocates and other causes, I very much appreciate what you’re doing for the sector, and really helping some of those more underfunded causes get the support they need to continue doing their equally important work. That’s just one piece of activism you do. What other kinds of activism are you doing now or have you done in the past that you think are really interesting and important to share with others?

Alysoun: so what I’d like to share for your audience today is an area that may not be quite so familiar to many vegans, and that is advocacy for race horses, to end the worst forms of cruelty towards race horses. And I’d like to back up a little bit — I got into this somewhat by accident, just to tell a little bit about how this all started for me personally, if I may.

Joe: By all means.

Alysoun: One of the organizations that I’ve been involved with the longest will probably not come as a surprise — that’s PETA. I’ve been a member for 20 years — I just got my 20-year plaque earlier this year, I have it proudly at my front entrance to my house. And my late husband Greg and I got really active with PETA around 2010, and we got to know their founder and president Ingrid Newkirk through some events we attended. Back in 2013 we adopted our first PETA rescue dog. Then by 2014 we had moved from the suburbs just outside DC to a little farm in Middleburg, Virginia. Ingrid knew about this, and one day out of the blue she sent us an email and she said “I know this is kind of a stretch, but my team just rescued these two starving horses from this really poor area in North Carolina, and you know how hard it is to find homes for horses, so would you by any chance consider taking in these two horses?” And my first reaction was “oh my god, we have land, we have a barn, but we had been thinking we would use the barn for small animals. We really don’t have any horse experience, you know, how are we going to do this? And I talked about it with Greg, and he’s like, “come on, we’re smart. Ten years ago we rescued two big street dogs. It was a learning curve, but we had the resources and we figured it out. You know we want to do what we can to help Ingrid and PETA. Let’s say yes. We’ll figure it out. I’m like, “okay Greg, if you’re in, I guess I’m in.” And so we emailed Ingrid back — I emailed her back — and said, “yes, we think we can do this.”

Joe: “That’s amazing.”

Alysoun: So that started this whirlwind. It took us about two months to get ready. We needed to — uh, the barn that we had hadn’t been used for a while; we needed to get it set up. My husband loved vehicles; he bought a tractor, he bought a horse trailer, he figured out how to handle all this equipment. And we took classes, and we had a former horse farm manager come in and give us advice. And two months later we brought home Henry and Caroline. And we learned that Henry had actually been a racehorse before. All racehorses get a lip tattoo with a code number, and we were able to use that code number to go online and look up his history in a database. You can find out with this code their ancestry going back centuries, and you can find out every race they ran, how much money they made — he made about $100,000 — and so this was pretty cool. He had initially been adopted out, apparently to a reputable family, but he had presumably changed hands a few times, and so by the end he and this other horse Caroline were left in a field to starve. And so we we brought them in and brought them back to health.

The next year, my husband died — and it was in an accident, so totally unexpected — but by then, I had worked with them long enough that I was comfortable caring for them on my own. And in fact, it was probably one of the greatest things that sustained me — having them and my dogs and cats to focus on.

So in the following year, PETA was working on a their race horse campaign, and there was one horse that they had been following — he had been the subject of an investigation into horse drugging, and I’ll get into that in a little more detail if I may in a bit. They’d revealed that this particular horse had been drugged to race beyond his capacity, and that original investigation was in New York — he had changed hands a few times — and by now he was at the Presque Isle Downs Casino and Racetrack in Erie, here in Pennsylvania. They saw that by now this once winning horse — he had earned like $200,000 — by now he was losing every race, and so why was that? They checked it out, and all four of his fetlocks — his ankles — were inflamed. And they found a way to pull him off the track, and they contacted me and asked if I would take him in — and by this time it was me saying absolutely, yes! — no questions asked. So Charlie came to me, actually five years ago this week. I was in Middleburg, Virginia at the time, so Charlie joined Henry and Caroline down there; then the next year I moved up to Frederick County, Maryland; and then at the beginning of this year, I moved with all three of them and my dogs and cats to Dillsburg, Pennsylvania — and that’s where I am today.

So that’s my personal story with horses — and if I may, I’d like to go into a little bit about the larger picture, how these particular horses fit into the larger picture of horses in the racing industry.

Joe: Please do. It’s all such amazing information, I feel like it’s really important for people to hear. Absolutely.

Alysoun: Yeah, I feel so too. People generally just don’t think about horses very much anymore. There was a time 100 years ago when people encountered horses practically every hour of their lives, in everything they did. That’s certainly not the case anymore, and unfortunately people don’t have occasion to think about horses much. But even though today we don’t use horses the way we used to, there are still many cruel ways that we do use horses. They’re still used in farm labor in certain places, worldwide and in the US. They’re used in the production of medicine, and that’s really grotesque. They’re used for food, and i’ll get into that in a second. And of course what most of us think of is the various forms of competition and “entertainment.”

In my personal view, horse racing is one of the the cruelest ways that we use horses, certainly one of the cruelest ways among the various forms of entertainment. And I think this has started to come to general public attention in the last two years.

It’s a really deadly industry — and even the Jockey Club, which is fairly conservative in compiling its statistics, tells us that an average of 750 horses die on US race tracks every year. And it was in 2019 that the general population started to become aware of this, because the race track in Santa Anita, California started getting a lot of attention, and in that year 37 horses died on that one racetrack. But the interesting and horrible thing is that that wasn’t actually the worst fatality statistic on a US racetrack that year. It was actually Parx which is just outside of Philadelphia here — and in that year Parx had 59 fatalities. The fatalities were a little lower last year simply because there weren’t as many races — but they’re starting to inch back up again this year.

Another thing people don’t understand — people will often say, well, horses love to run. And people think well, they’re big animals, they run fast, they bump into each other, it’s inevitable that accidents are going to occur. But you know, I’ve observed my own horses and talked to enough people by now to see that horses have this amazing ability to avoid danger if you let them run when and where and as fast as they feel capable of running. It’s only when we humans force them to do things that they wouldn’t naturally do, that these horrific injuries occur. There are lots of things wrong with racing. We race them too young. We race them on unsafe surfaces. But the very worst thing we do is we pump all kinds of drugs into them — not we, but their owners and their trainers and veterinarians. And they do that because a horse that is injured will not run as fast, unless you give them drugs, and then they can’t feel the pain, they’re not aware of the injury, and then they will keep running and running — especially when they’re being whipped — until often they will break down. And at that point usually what happens is they’ll snap a fetlock — an ankle — and at that point, the way horses are built, you can’t save them — and so they’re usually euthanized. That’s the second horrific bit of info.

Then the third — it just gets worse and worse. The third is horse slaughter, and USA Today did a great article about this a couple years ago. You know I mentioned the 750 horses dying on tracks — well it’s something like 7,500 horses that end up getting sent to slaughter for meat after their racing careers are done. Horses will finish a racing career when they’re between 5 and 10 years old — I say career in quotes, right? — and horses can live to between 30 and 40. I’m someone who has enough land and enough resources to give a good retirement home for a few horses, but there just aren’t enough people with this kind of of setup, where they can take enough horses to live out their lives. So the people in the racing industry will sell horses off to what are called kill buyers, and we don’t slaughter them here in the US — but in a way what we do is even worse. We ship them to Mexico or to Canada or to South Korea and some other countries around the world. So they go through this terrible transport experience, and then they’re slaughtered for meat the end of that. So there are more, but these are some of the most horrifying examples of why we need to be working to end cruelty toward race horses.

At bare minimum, we need to not be subsidizing this industry with our tax dollars. I think many people don’t know that we do in many states. And Pennsylvania is the second most generous to the horse racing industry with tax dollars, after New York. We give about $250 million a year of tax money to various players in the horse racing industry. And if you’d like, I can tell you a little bit about how we can end all of these horrible practices, but maybe I should stop here and ask if you have any questions before we get into that.

Joe: That’s just so much information. It’s very saddening to hear, especially the fact that there’s an international trade industry built around this, because you hear about horse racing — oh it’s just a few races here and there, it’s not that big a deal — but then the fact there’s international trade and these systems of scale and everything going on to keep it going — it’s just very daunting. But it sounds like you have some suggestions, and plans to help us address this issue. So i think that’s a good transition into you giving us a little bit of hope.

Alysoun: Thank you, yes. So I’ve blogged about this a fair amount on my website — I mentioned gregoryreiterfund.org. In addition to rescuing these particular PETA rescue horses, I’ve also supported PETA’s campaign, which has had a lot of successes. You can go to their website peta.org, and enter the keyword ‘horse’, and you can find out a lot about their campaign to end race horse cruelty. And they have a number of other campaigns for horses around the world as well. So that’s one really important way to get started.

Also there’s a lot of legislation at both the state and the federal level for horses, and I’m cautiously optimistic that this legislation is beginning to make a difference.

I’ll talk about Pennsylvania first. There’s a wonderful group called Education Voters of Pennsylvania — they started a campaign last year, and they’re re-launching it this year — to basically convert the $200 plus million that currently subsidizes the horseracing industry into scholarships for public university students. And to me this is a no-brainer — it’s fairly controversial at this stage, but I think just not enough people know about it yet. So you can go to the Education Voters of Pennsylvania website and find out more about that.

And then at the federal level, I think the biggest sign that our campaign is gaining traction if you will — no pun intended — is that last year, President Trump signed into law the Horse Racing Integrity Act. This was initially introduced, I think, back in 2013. It was introduced in each two-year Congress over and over, and it never made it through until last year — and finally Mitch McConnell, the Senate then-majority leader, personally supported it, and that’s what resulted in it being passed. And what it does, is it ends this horrible patchwork system we have where each state has its own rules and regulations about horse drugging — and now there’s going to be one national agency that’s going to oversee all drugs used in the racing industry. It’s not banning all drugs, it’s not going to solve all problems overnight, but I think having one uniform set of regulations is going to go a long way towards reducing the drugging and therefore reducing the injuries and the deaths. That will take effect in July of 2022, and we’ll see how it goes.

Meanwhile, there’s another bill that’s pending in the US Congress that hasn’t gotten this far yet, but I think with the momentum of the Horse Racing Integrity Act, this second bill has better prospects — and this is called the SAFE Act, which stands for Save America’s Forgotten Equines. It is precisely designed to end the transport of horses for slaughter. This too has been introduced multiple times, it has about 100 congressional co-sponsors so far, so pretty substantial co-sponsorship including about 10 Pennsylvania congresspeople. So let your congressperson know that you are glad they already sponsored it if they have, or ask them to sponsor it if they haven’t yet.

So those are just some of the things that we can do.

Joe: That speaks to something that we’ve been trying to have more conversations about here — is the impact that advocacy and legislation can have on the well-being and welfare of animals. And it’s not quite as glamorous as doing some of the other forms of activism — they don’t quite feel like you’re doing as much at the time — though I believe that to create truly systemic change that lasts in perpetuity, you need to do things like this, really get the systems in place and totally throw out the antiquated ways and legislations of the past to really embrace this new ideology of compassion.

Alysoun: Absolutely, absolutely, and sometimes it takes a few years, sometimes it takes decades — but change does happen if you’re persistent and if you’re willing. As one PETA attorney told me, you have to be willing to lose and lose and lose until you win. So thank you. I hope some of your viewers will go out there and and be inspired to advocate for horses like my Henry, Caroline and Charlie in the photo behind me there.

Joe: i’ve been thinking about this ever since I found out your horse’s name is Charlie. Is “Charlie horse” — I’m trying to get a way to incorporate that joke about that …?

Alysoun: So Charlie — I named him just because his racing name was Charlie’s Quest, so I just kept the Charlie part of it. But actually, Henry and Caroline — just a little digression here, I did name them, and I named them after Henry Bergh and Caroline Earle White, who were some of the first US animal advocates. Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA in New York in the 1860s, and Caroline Earle White founded the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that same decade. And of course back then the majority of their work was on behalf of horses — so I just thought these were two amazing people that I had read about in history, and so I named my horses after them.

Joe: Something that I’m curious to hear about is, what is it like caring for a horse with a vegan lifestyle or not for the object purpose of labor or racing?

Alysoun: I know people who do what is called pleasure riding, and you know I’ve just described some of the really horrible cruelties towards horses, and I don’t want to diss people who occasionally do pleasure riding. But I do not ride my horses, and that’s both for ethical and safety reasons. I really feel that it’s just a total joy to be around them, to care for them, to watch them playing together in the field. You know, people do walk their dogs, but they don’t necessarily feel like they have to have an activity always — say, with their cats or their guinea pigs or their rabbits. They just, you know, be. And I think you can do that same thing with horses.

On the whole question of riding, I’ve talked to people and read about people who do ride — and even those who do ride will acknowledge that from their observations, horses probably aren’t really enjoying it that much. One observation that really stuck with me from this famous horse trainer, is that when you jump on a horse’s back … they’ve evolved as prey animals, and their first reaction if they’re not broken to get used to riding, is that you’re a predator jumping on their back to eat them like a wolf or whatever. And that really stuck with me. Someone else who’s a regular pleasure rider also acknowledged that she had spent time comparing the way her dog reacts when she goes and gets his leash, to how her horse reacts when she goes and gets the saddle. And the dog is jumping up and down and twirling and can’t wait to get out there, whereas the horse is shimmying away. So that tells you something about what their preference is, and to me it’s really important to pay attention to that.

Joe: Yeah, and I think we underestimate that animals just kind of want be left alone, like a lot of people, like my cat — see, there’s Victor.

Alysoun: He likes to sit on your lap, but not necessarily always when you want him to.

Joe: Speak of the devil, he just laid down on my lap — it’s definitely on his terms. Something else I’m curious to hear about is how do you react when you see horses in movies and shows and things like that — or even something like medieval times or something like that, where they’re being ridden expressly for our entertainment purposes or being exploited for these films? I struggle sometimes, I watch movies like Lord of the Rings that has horses all over the place, doing all sorts of things, getting hurt and stuff, and no one gives a second glance. I imagine someone like you, so intimately connected to the animals and that type of work, that must be an interesting dynamic for you to navigate as you go through mainstream society.

Alysoun: Yeah, I actually have a hard time watching those films, anything with with live horses. And you know it used to be that there would be that American Humane certification that was supposed to assure us that horses or any other animal were not harmed in the making of a film. But it came out in the last couple decades that that was really not to be relied upon — that in fact, many animals were injured and killed in films even with that American Humane stamp. More recently, PETA set up an office in LA about a decade ago, and PETA has been very active in holding the film industry’s feet to the fire with respect to treatment of all animals. And there have been numerous instances where they have publicized cruelty towards animals and stopped production of films. And I think the very best thing that PETA has done is they’ve gotten a lot of films … I think filmmakers were starting to move in this direction anyway … but PETA really pushed them to move faster to use modern technology, to use CGI technology, so that horses and other animals in films today are not real horses at all, so you can be assured that animals are not harmed in the making of films.

Joe: That’s awesome. Well, those were all the questions we had. Do you have any? Well, actually we have one more final question, but I’ll save that for the very end. But do you have anything else you’d like to say for our listeners back home, or any questions we may have forgotten to ask?

Alysoun: I’d just love it if your audience would go to my website gregoryreiterfund.org and look at some of the things I’m doing for horses, as well as some of the things I’ve done to promote veganism and some other initiatives on behalf of animals also.

Joe: And we’ll put all those links in the show notes, and make sure that we get those as best we can. And our final question is: guac or hummus?

Alysoun: Yeah, you’re funny. I love both for taste, but particularly in the last couple years — for no particular reason, right? — I’ve gotten more focused on being a healthy vegan. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is another of the organizations that I actively support. Among many other resources, they have some great recipes on their website. One of my very favorites is a recipe for sweet potato hummus, and so for the last year I’ve made a point to always have a batch of the sweet potato hummus in my fridge, ready for dipping my nice fresh veggies. that would be my first go-to if you ask me guac or hummus.

Joe: I’ve never been a fan of the dessert hummuses, because I think the sweetness is kind of weird — but that sounds like it could work. I might have to look that up.

Alysoun: Yeah, it’s just slightly sweet. Sweet potatoes are not overwhelmingly sweet.

Joe: So I think the score is evening up, John. Guac was front runner lead in the beginning, but hummus is starting to catch up. One of these days we have to go through every episode and count how many votes. That sounds really good though, sweet potato hummus. Yeah, i’m gonna have to try that out too.

Alysoun: Yeah, and it still has the chickpeas, the standard chickpeas, and then kidney beans in addition, and tahini.

Joe: You can actually make hummus — well I guess it’s technically not hummus, it’d be bean dip — but I’ve made hummus style dips with just any kind of bean. I’ve done black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas — but yeah, hummus is very versatile, very much variety. Definitely, yeah.

Well that’s all we have, and thank you so much Alysoun for taking time today, and everything you’re doing. It’s so amazing to hear about the great work happening around our community through people like you who just step up and do whatever it takes to make sure all animals are loved. We can’t express our appreciation enough, thank you so much.

Alysoun: Absolutely, thank you, guys. It’s been a pleasure.

Joe: And if anyone wants to get a hold of you, we’ll have all the links to your contact info in the show notes, with your website and all that. If anyone wants to get a hold of us, they can email us at bekindpodcast@gmail.com, if they want to learn more, be a guest, feedback, questions, whatever. So thank you everyone for listening, and thank you again Alysoun for being on the show.

Thank you for listening to the Be Kind podcast presented by the Animal Advocates of South Central Pennsylvania.

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