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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The Story of Copper's Herd Mate: Chief

The sport of horse racing has come under even more intense scrutiny recently after a string of multiple and mysterious deaths which caused Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, to announce that it would suspend racing operations for the rest of the spring after 12 horses died in a month. For the complete statement, access this link:

The story below highlights one of my therapy horses, a Thoroughbred named Chief, who came to me highly traumatized after his two year career at the track ended in injuries and his jockey being permanently suspended from horse racing due to his extremely abusive tactics. Neurobiologically, trauma affects the equine brain in the same way it affects the human brain, by “muscling up” the brain stem’s survival strategies of fight, flight or freeze and creating hyper-vigilance in the environment and mistrust of others. Traumatized humans deeply resonate with traumatized horses. Together, they can build a trusting relationship and help each other heal.


I don’t think Copper painted a very flattering picture of me in the previous story so I wanted a chance to set the record straight. It is true I was badly abused by my jockey in my previous life. In my earliest memories I was made to run in circles while being whipped on my back and sides. My jockey’s hands and eyes and voice were hard and cruel. Sometimes the grooms would inject needles into my legs and shoulders, which made the pain go away while I was galloping, only to come back even worse when the medicine wore off. I have long legs and could run fast from an early age but I didn’t enjoy it like some of my friends who were treated better by their grooms and jockeys did.

After I lost several races, and became what they called “unmanageable” at the starting gate, I was sent off to something called a kill pen: a dreadful place that smelled like death and was packed full of horses with dead eyes and broken hearts. After discovering there was no food or water anywhere to be found, I shuffled off to a corner and prepared to die. I was sure this was the end for me. To my surprise, I heard a soft, warm voice calling out to me from outside the fence. I didn’t even dare to look up for fear it was a cruel joke. But then gentle hands were buckling a halter around my head, and a woman with kind eyes was trying to coax me out of the pen. I decided to go along with her until we came to a contraption that looked very much like the starting gate at the races. I was scared to walk into it but the woman walked in first and waited very patiently until I decided to join her. This turned out to be the trailer that was taking e to my new home! It bumped and jostled a bit but I managed to doze -- after all the excitement of the morning I was very tired.

Once the ramp was lowered, I found myself looking out of the opening onto a grassy pasture. It looked inviting, but I was cautious in case this was a trap. There were other horses looking at me curiously. I could smell the grass, but I was so very thirsty and all I could think about was finding water. The woman led me off the trailer and over to a trough. It was full of cool, clear water so I drank and drank and drank. When I lifted my head to look around, I saw that the group of horses was looking at me. I was too tired to make friends that day so I found a spot far away from both the humans and the horses in the corner of the pasture and tried to rest. My goal was to stay away from anybody who could hurt me.

Every day the woman came to see me. At first, when she tried to approach me, I ran away, especially if she was wearing a cap or sunglasses like my jockey did. Even after she stopped wearing those I still was very cautious and careful to keep my distance. But I was lonely and her voice was soothing and her energy calm and inviting. Eventually, I started following her around a bit as she moved through the pasture, always staying far enough away that she couldn’t touch me. The other horses seemed to trust her; they did not move away when she approached and even sought her out. I was starting to make friends in the herd and thought if they trusted her, maybe I could too . . .

There are many who love and participate in the sport of horse racing in an ethical manner that cares for the welfare of the horses as well as the humans (jockeys, trainers, grooms etc.) involved. To address those who do not operate this way, Congress stepped in last year in response to the high-profile doping and abuse allegations plaguing horse racing.

Lawmakers approved the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) of 2021, establishing a self-regulatory organization called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.

The Safety Authority is tasked with regulating both racing safety and anti-doping control. It's currently establishing one, uniform set of standards. The safety rules have been approved by the Federal Trade Commission and are set to become effective July 1. They are also working on anti-doping rules to become effective January 2023.

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