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Showing posts with label horses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horses. Show all posts

Monday, 1 November 2021

National scandal of the Bahamas Hobby Horse Hall Racetrack

The tragedy of the starving horses.

In 1975 I found myself starting a new job as Chief Inspector of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau. I had no idea that soon after my arrival I would be sitting alone in a derelict Hobby Horse Hall Racetrack stable cradling the grotesquely grimacing head of a skeletal dying horse named Last Hope in my lap.

Before arriving in the Bahamas I had been informed that I was expected to regularly inspect the racetrack stables and I had foolishly envisaged that in a millionaires playground it would be a professional operation. Perhaps on par with the likes of Newmarket in the U.K or Churchill Downs in the U.S., but I could not have been more wrong, because I had I arrived during the demise of the once famous and iconic Hobby Horse Hall when hundreds of horses suffered, and many died horrible deaths. The Government, Racing Commission and Horse Owners Association were all aware of the situation but chose not to do anything.

animalrightsandwrongs.com
Hobby Horse Hall in its heyday.

Brief History

The racetrack was constructed in the 1930’s opposite Cable Beach where the Baha Mar resort now stands and for nearly 40 years proved very popular. It had many ups and downs like a major fire in February 1958 which destroyed most of the facilities, but by 1960 a new grandstand and parade ring were built and state of the art starting gates and photo finish cameras were installed. It became the haunt of the rich colonial elite who mingled with the famous such as the likes of Errol Flynn and they enjoyed charcoal grilled lobster, turtle pie and steaks on the dining terrace while watching top jockeys and horses some from Miami. It had such a colourful social scene that the press eagerly wrote society columns about the meetings, publishing photographs of the celebrities, the fashion and the hats worn by the ladies.

The rich colonial elite mingled with the famous such as the likes of Errol Flynn at Hobby Horse Hall.

So when I first visited the track in early October 1975 I was expecting great things and was fascinated to be following in the footsteps of Errol Flynn and his ilk, but nothing could have prepared me for the sights I witnessed over the next two years.

Leaving horses to starve was accepted practice.

The racing season stretched from February to the end of May when there could be could be upward of 300 horses on the site and officially they all had to be removed by the 1st. June when electricity and water supplies were turned off. The reality, I soon discovered, was that only the thoroughbreds and breeding mares were taken and the luckier ones of those left behind were let loose to wander the island fending for themselves while the unlucky risked starvation at the track locked in a stable to die an awful death. Owners had been hit by soaring feed prices which had tripled over the previous two years and couldn’t afford to look after them when racing stopped. It was accepted practice and no one seemed to care.

It is exceedingly difficult to describe adequately what happened behind the scenes in the track’s last few years without it appearing totally exaggerated. The yard consisted of fifteen or so long wooden stable blocks and a couple of more sturdy brick ones in various states of dilapidation. Some buildings were covered in graffiti and painted murals. Nearly every stable door was damaged either by chewing or rot and most walls had planks missing or ragged holes in them. There was a thick haze and smell of marijuana permeating the whole place with a handful of stable lads sitting around, many obviously under the influence. Piles of dung littered the place along with beer cans and bottles, debris and abandoned vehicles. Pathetic looking half-starved horses wandered loose through the debris with protruding ribs and sunken backs. I could not believe what I was seeing.

'Last Hope', one of the countless horses that were starved, many to death at Hobby Horse Hall racetrack in the 1970’s. [Photo John Brookland 1975]

The few lucky horses that were still being looked after had to fight hordes of huge brazen rats when feed buckets were placed in front of them. They appeared from everywhere with little fear of humans and when the horses tried to force their heads into the buckets they were bitten and had to back off to wait until the rats had finished. Mares would often die giving birth and I would find them dumped in the undergrowth rotting and covered in flies. The situation was so bad that it became necessary for me to visit at least every other day to satisfy myself there were no horses starving to death so that I could sleep at night. I would find them wandering all over the island and was constantly called out to attend to those that had been involved in road accidents, collapsed by the roadside through weakness or had fallen down abandoned wells.

It should have been a national scandal.

The whole Nassau race operation should have been a national scandal but surprisingly few people seemed to care about the situation. The suspect “goings on” appeared to be common knowledge with one regular racegoer writing a letter to the editor of the main Nassau newspaper which included:

“I followed the 1975 season from beginning to end and sad to say it was very disappointing to the public and many patrons of the track expressed such sadness. If Mr Bastian [new racetrack director] is to do an honest job with the public in mind then he must make certain that the races are competitive and not given races i.e. races that are so made up for particular horse to win or the stable to win. Neither should a programme be made up to show nine horses in the race when in fact there only six honest entries. The proper thing to do is to run six horses and the public not be cheated out of three.” [John Leon Rolle, Letter to Editor, Nassau Guardian 1975]

My only other inspector, Kirk Glinton helping me check the stables for suffering or dying horses in 1976. [Photo: John Brookland 1976]

There was much talk of races being allegedly “fixed” or contrived with “Ringers” appearing under false names and old nags put in as “fillers” to make up the numbers alongside the thoroughbred preordained winners. There were stories that each owner or trainer of a stable allegedly took turns to win races to spread the prize money out fairly. Stable lads openly admitted that horses were drugged and made weak by not feeding or exercising them. During the season I found horses with weeping abscesses on their necks probably from caused by dirty needles and I sometimes found discarded drug vials which seemed to collaborate the stories.

Often when eight or nine horses were listed to run a race several never made it to the starting gate as there weren’t enough fit horses to be found that could complete the circuit without dropping dead halfway round. It was not unknown for the thoroughbreds to do exactly that as in the case of Sir Mark in the “Horse of the Year race” which dropped dead two yards after passing the winning post to much publicity. Cause of death unknown. Gambling syndicates and those “in the know” no doubt made a lot of money.

This then was the famous and iconic hallowed national racetrack of the Bahamas situated only a matter of yards from luxury hotels like the Ambassador Beach directly opposite and their tourist residents.

Sir Mark, a champion racehorse drops dead a few metres past the finishing post.

I decide to try and close the track.

It was obvious that I could not stand by like everyone else and ignore all the suffering and death being caused to the horses and so I decided it was my mission to try and close the track. I was soon put on my guard by the young local racetrack veterinarian Dr Balfe who became a friend who warned me to “watch your back”, as he had been assaulted for trying to intervene. His warning was not without truth as I found out a few months later.

As the months went by I had to attend to a constant stream of emaciated, injured and uncared for horses both at the track and around the island, many of which we managed to put back to health and some I sadly had to shoot. In the first twelve months I aided 39 horses and had to shoot a further ten. Some of those we restored to health and found homes for were stolen back as it was difficult to keep their location hidden on a small island all of which was depressing, disheartening and a bit of a nightmare.

As part of my campaign to close the track I took futile but nuisance prosecutions against owners and with the help of the Nassau Guardian and the Tribune newspapers, took every opportunity to give the track bad publicity. They ran many front-page graphic stories using photographs that I supplied them.

The stables were almost derelict and riddled with rat holes.

I begin to receive threats

Eventually I began to receive both veiled and actual threats including a group of drunken lads who turned up at the Bahamas Humane Society one afternoon brandishing cutlasses and wanting a word with me, but luckily, I was out on my rounds. Soon after another group arrived late one evening outside my house banging their cutlasses on my front garden wall shouting that they were going to chop me up. I went through a period of slight concern but being young I thought I was invincible and I found it all a little surreal. My employers took it more seriously and were worried to the point of putting iron bars on my bedroom window – ornate ones I might add. From then on, I never went to the track at night or during the day without my dog Condor and a fellow inspector. In a perverse way though I believed I was having fun and doing something worthwhile by saving lives.


Continually discovering dead horses was emotionally distressing.

What happened to Last Hope

As regards Last Hope the poor horse I mentioned at the beginning, I remained alone with her for nearly an hour awaiting help and it was the closest I have come to any kind a spiritual or ethereal experience, sitting there in the stillness and gloom of the stable with just the sound of her shallow breathing. It was an event so awful that it has haunted me for most of my life and ranks amongst the worst cases of animal cruelty I ever experienced. It was the thought of the suffering and hopelessness she must have gone through and her grotesque skeletal appearance that affected me the most, particularly the sight of her tightly drawn face revealing her teeth in an agony death mask grimace. I could not believe she was still clinging onto life.

While I awaited our veterinarian, I found myself praying and encouraging her to hang on although I expected she would have to be destroyed, but after an examination our vet thought she had a very slim chance of survival if I wanted to give it a try and of course I did. He reckoned she had not eaten or drunk for at least two weeks and was lucky to have survived that long. She underwent a feeding and treatment regime and was miraculously back on her feet after a couple of days and started putting some weight on and slowly improved, helped by all the kindness of the many well-wishers among the staff and volunteers. I found out later that she had suffered losing a foal a couple of months previously to add to her woes.

Last Hope beginning to recover at the Bahamas Humane Society after being starved at Hobby Horse Hall. She was such a gentle horse. [Photo: John Brookland 1975]

I spent as much time as I could with her, but tragically she started going downhill after several weeks and died, her internal organs probably having been weakened too much. We were all gutted, particularly me. The only compensation was that she experienced much love and care in those last few weeks of life.

I was determined to find her callous owner and eventually did. He was bemused at my outrage and laughed off any mention of prosecuting him as such an event had never happened before, but after a struggle I did get him charged. He pleaded guilty and was fined the maximum $50 (£25) for the offence under a completely outdated and farcical colonial animal cruelty law. A waste of time perhaps but I wanted to make a point and it kicked started bad publicity for the track and my campaign to close it. But I passionately believed I owed Last Hope some justice for her suffering.

The end in sight

Raceco Ltd owned the track and were not investing any money into it as they were in talks to sell the land to the Government to build a hotel and casino complex which didn’t happen for another two years. Meanwhile the carnage continued with neither the Racing Commision or Government taking any action for the welfare of the horses. Mr. Franklyn Wilson, the Racing Commission chairman and an M.P for Grants Town had no answers to the problem.

 “several owners have been starving their horses in protest [at the track closing]. Others just cannot afford to look after their animals. We cannot take responsibility for these horses starving to death, there is nothing we can do”. Mr Wellington Ferguson, Head, Bahamas Horse Owners Association 1977

Postscript

After its closure some of the horses were airlifted to Miami to be found new homes, paid for by American charities. I visited the track just after it was abandoned awaiting demolition and wandered the empty overgrown stable yard now mercifully free of suffering horses and wondered if it had all been a dream. I can still remember many of the horse’s names that I helped: Spanish Dancer, Strange Girl, Troublemaker, Royal Order, Air Queen, Hang Em High, Hot love II, Last Sight and Connie.

The new hotel complex has obliterated all trace of the track except for a small nature reserve which bears its name, but there is no memorial to all the unforgivable abject cruelty caused to those poor horses. For some inexplicable reason there is much misplaced nostalgia for the place, but it was a shameful episode in Bahamas history.

Monday, 9 November 2020

In it together. The bond between the men and the war horses.

three world war one soldiers treating a war horse's injured leg.
Caring for a wounded WW1 horse.

They fought together, rested and ate together and ultimately died together.

It is that time of year when we remember the fallen in wars, particularly those in the Great War. Last year, being the 100th. anniversary of the armistice, I was prompted to try and discover more about the role one of my grandfathers played in the war. His name was Edwin Clark and I was only four years old when he died so knew little about him. I soon discovered that he had a full on war in the Canadian Field Artillery and it came as a pleasant surprise to find that he had the dangerous job of a “driver” looking after and riding the horses that pulled the guns.

I gathered so much information that I decided to write a book about his eventful personal war. But during my research I was so intrigued with the men’s obvious emotional relationship with their horses, the story became as much about the heroics and deprivations of the horses as the men.

The men spent most of their waking hours caring for them often under almost impossible conditions. They fought together, rested and ate together, often slept together and ultimately died together. There is no getting away from the fact that their lives were unforgiving and unremitting, but at the same time the men responsible for them lavished as much care as they could to alleviate their suffering and formed incredible bonds with them.

She is very stupid but I love her – a soldier wrote this on the back of the photograph. Credit: National Museum of Scotland.

The men were devoted to the horses.

The horses and mules became friends, confidants, fellow comrades and pseudo counsellors with who the men could air their grievances, discuss their suffering and help alleviate their depression and melancholy. Without their companionship the physical and mental well-being of the men would have been worse than it was. The relationship is probably one of the ultimate examples of man’s dependence on animals for solace.

Their devotion to the horses is evident by how an officer responsible for censoring their letters home to mothers, wives and girlfriends stated:

“Drivers almost wept as they wrote of their faithful friends – the horses – wishing so much that they could be given more feed and better shelter. Such care and attention they gave these dumb animals. When nothing else was available an old sock was used to rub them down or to bandage a cracked heel while breast collar and girth were eased by wrapping light articles around the harness to keep it from rubbing the sore spot”.

Legitimate targets

The horses and mules were viewed as legitimate targets by both sides. They faced being shelled, bombed, gassed, sometimes shot and suffered horrific shrapnel injuries. Many suffered shell shock and remarkably others learned to lie down and take cover when under fire.  Like most of the human recruits, the horses had never experienced such noise, chaos, smells, violence and hardships and they did not have the capacity to realise what was happening to them or likely to happen to them. So everything occurring around them was terrifying until they became accustomed to it.

There are no exact statistics on the average lifespan of a World War One horse arriving at the front, but for most of them it was very short. They died in large numbers daily and were replaced by new recruits. Very few managed to survive the whole war. The few that did manage to see it through to the end were shown no compassion and were just slaughtered for meat or sold to work on farms, being logistically too difficult and expensive to repatriate. Their suffering was immense and unlike the men, none of them returned home.

I find it rather poignant that when Edwin, my grandfather was severely wounded for the third time and invalided from the war, just four weeks before it ended, he was tending to the horses. He was giving them their nightly feed, water and grooming a mile behind the front line when an enemy plane flew over and dropped bombs in the midst of them killing and wounding many drivers and horses. Edwin did thankfully make it back, but after three years continuous action in most of the major battles on the western front he returned both physically and mentally scarred. We owe them all so much.



Thursday, 11 June 2020

U.K. Police horses need more protection

UK Police horses need to be given more protection under Finn's law. Finn's law

The scenes at the Black Lives Matter Protest in London of a police horse bolting riderless and in terror past the Whitehall Cenotaph while others came under attack from bicycles, flares, fireworks and other  missiles was quite a poignant reminder of the war horses and also raises the question of whether they get enough protection under Finn’s law. The Conservative MP Andrew Griffith thankfully asked this question of Priti Patel  in the House of Commons on Monday 8th. June:

I am proud that it was a Conservative Government who introduced Finn’s law to protect our service animals. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she will not rest until the minority of thugs involved in attacking the police horse, as well as, of course, our brave officers, are brought to justice?”

In response the Secretary of State for the Home department said:

“My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we witnessed at the weekend was utterly despicable. I look forward to visiting the mounted police section quite soon. I have had it with authority from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that the injuries to the horse were mild, but importantly, she highlighted yet again how the acts of thuggery are disproportionate to not just police officers, but the animals”.

Coincidentally Finn’s Law or as it is formally named The Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill came into force exactly a year to the day these incidents occurred. It was named after a German Shepherd Dog that was stabbed chasing an offender and is designed to protect service animals. It was heralded as the answer to protect them but cannot be effective unless it is enforced stringently and greatly publicised to make possible offenders aware of the protection these animals have and the consequences of injuring them.

 

But there is also a great need for police horses and dogs to be treated in the same way as the officers when it comes to health and safety assessments of their use in each specific operation or situation. In this instance it did not seem sensible or safe for anyone to use them in a charge of the light brigade onslaught in the wet weather conditions to frighten and push a mob from the streets. I am surprised that horse charities and the RSPCA are not more vociferous over this issue. The incident received press coverage across the world which is not a particularly good UK animal welfare image.

 

Andrew Griffith is obviously concerned about this issue and should be encouraged to do more by contacting him by email on Andrew@GriffithMP.com


READ MORE ON THE SUBJECT BY JOHN BROOKLAND



Sunday, 7 June 2020

Police Horses' Lives Matter Too



The fact that police horses must wear protective clothing is testament to the dangers they face.



It was saddening to see yet again police horses finding themselves caught in the middle and being abused, this time in Whitehall, London on Saturday during the Black Lives Matter demonstration. They cease to be horses in these situations and become authoritarian entities and many people who in normal circumstances may treat animals with compassion lose all reason in their efforts to attack or injure the figure sitting on them.

Over the past years we have seen, time and again, police horses put at risk and violently attacked when the frenzy of confrontation gets out of hand. There will always be people who see no harm in hurting animals but putting that aside there is no excuse for throwing bicycles, flares, and other objects at them. 

Many will contend that if they were not there they would not get hurt and this is absolutely right as in these modern civilised times they shouldn’t be. But if we are truly civilised we should not be taking out our anger on them, either intentionally or accidentally. In trying to injure or unseat the rider the innocent horse maybe viewed as collateral damage. The police officer could easily be killed or bystanders seriously injured by a fleeing horse. How urbane is that?

And what about the mental impact on the animal as the runaway horse seen on Saturday was clearly terrified? What also was the sense in cantering the horses through a melee on wet slippery roads during a downpour - where was the health and safety risk assessment there? The runaway horse showed extremely good sense by finding its own way home away from the chaos.

We are now well into the 21st century, with the Police possessing high-tech equipment for every eventuality and yet forces around the world still seem unable to combat crime or deal with disturbances without resorting to putting horses (or dogs) at risk on the front-line. The fact that the horses must wear protective equipment is testament to the risk of injury.
In 2018, a police horse name “Morecombe” tragically died after falling on a metal pole which punctured his stomach while patrolling a football match, having slipped while “responding to reports of disorder”. He is not the only fatality in recent years. Although many police forces in the UK have already got rid of their horse section and retired them to normal lives, most still feel a need for them.

When are we going to remove the danger to everyone – horse, rider and public by banishing them to their best and most useful role as ambassadors and ceremonial participants or better still retire them? Once again we have seen that there are no qualms about attacking or injuring a horse regardless of the new “Finn’s law”.