Last week, a trainer did something which is not always a given in horse racing. The gesture was largely lost in the shuffle of social media and a subsequent busy Saturday of stakes racing, but I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge it.
On Feb. 23, a racing fan on Twitter captured video of a horse trained by Michael Stidham in the saddling area at Turfway Park ahead of the day’s fourth race. It’s a little hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but in one video, the employee appears to jerk on the horse’s nose or lip chain and strikes the horse open-handed on the neck. In a different clip, the same person hits the horse on the top of the head with his hand.
If the person thought they were correcting the horse for some undesired behavior, that isn’t depicted, but much of the response to the video came from Twitter users who made it clear no context was going to excuse that treatment of the horse.
The next day, the Dubai World Cup-winning trainer released the following statement via his social media:
We here at the Stidham stable have been made aware of a video being shared widely on social media appearing to show one of the stable’s employees treating a horse in his care in a manner incompatible with the barn’s typically extremely high standards of horsemanship.
Michael Stidham has the following statement on the incident:
“Regarding the actions taken by one of my employees before the 4th race on Feb. 23 at Turfway Park: The Michael Stidham Racing Stable condemns any mistreatment or abuse of horses in any form. This type of behavior, for any reason, is unacceptable in my stable and inexcusable.
“The actions taken by this trusted employee of more than 20 years are entirely out of character. He has been reprimanded and reminded that any mistreatment of any horse under my care is unacceptable and abhorrent. Accountability in our sport is absolutely necessary and I take complete responsibility for this incident.
“I apologize to the racing public, Turfway Park, and all affected parties. I will speak to Turfway Park stewards and accept any action taken against my stable or my employee. We pride ourselves on providing the best care possible for our horses and will reemphasize stable standards after this regrettable incident.”
As I’ve written before, I’ve seen really excellent, patient horsemanship on the racetrack, from riders and handlers alike. I’ve also watched people lose their temper with horses in ways that probably weren’t productive for either the human or the horse. I don’t think that problem is limited to racing. Racing tends to have more activities videoed and streamed each day than other equine sports however, and in the age of social media, if someone is acting inappropriately with a horse, there is a growing chance that it’s going to be immortalized online. The original video, as of this writing, had over 250,000 views if Twitter’s analytics can be believed.
What I found notable about this situation was Stidham’s swift reaction to it. It would have been easy to wait for the whole thing to blow over, as it was sure to do because Twitter is fueled by a constant churn of outrage followed by amnesia and the algorithm doesn’t keep content high on users’ feeds for too long after publication. Instead, Stidham composed a statement unequivocally condemning the employee’s actions, while also reinforcing that this was a trusted, experienced person. He expressed a willingness to face any regulatory action that could result. He apologized to viewers of the video, recognizing that it was distressing for some people to see. And more than anything, Stidham took responsibility for the incident because the person was employed by him to care for his horses.
It’s not a given in the modern racing world (or the world at large) that someone is willing to accept responsibility for the actions of their representative.
While there will doubtlessly be people who use the video to villainize horse handlers in racing regardless of Stidham’s response, he has shown that he is listening to the public’s concern for horses. And that is a step in a positive direction. The world is already watching us, more carefully than ever before. We won’t always be perfect in that spotlight, but we can at least acknowledge that it’s there.