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January 30, 2007

The Meaning of Barbaro

Earlier this week, famed race horse Barbaro was "put down," a rather nice euphemism, after a long and widely publicized battle to help him recover from a leg injury sustained nearly a year ago. The publicity was due partly to the fact that Barbaro captured hearts even before the debilitating injury. Many people who don't consider themselves racing fans were following his ascent to glory and watching the fateful race. Many cried when the injury occurred. After all, we all know what happens to injured race horses. They go to that great paddock in the sky, quickly and unceremoniously.

Still the question remains. Why were we so involved in the story of this one horse? Is it because, as the New York Times suggests, we've never met a mean horse? Maybe, as Meghan O'Rourke states in Slate, its because we're at war and we need something uncomplicated to focus on. Or perhaps, as a Washington Post sports columnist puts it, it's because Barbaro never lied to us. (Huh?)

Then again, maybe it's just refreshing to see people fighting for life--even the life of a horse--in a culture where even human life is too often viewed as disposable and irrelevant. Indeed, part of what was so shocking and heartening about Barbaro's story was the extraordinary (at least, by comparison) lengths to which his owners went to try to make him healthy and whole again. We saw an animal essentially sentenced to die when he stumbled at the Preakness, pardoned and lavished with grace over a period of months. Grace he wouldn't have gotten at other hands, grace we didn't expect to see him receive, grace which bound our hearts up in hope that he would beat the odds.

In the end, it became clear that his injury was simply too devastating and his owners decided it was more humane to "put him down." But not before getting us all to rally around life, even the life of a horse.

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Dennis Babish

Kristine, while I'm sure some of the reason he was kept alive was because of grace there was more to it than that.
His owners were hoping that he would heal enough so they could offer him for stud service. A horse that wins a big race like Barbaro did can command high stud fees. So I would suspect that the bigger reason for keeping him alive was for profit purposes and not grace.

Kristine Steakley

Actually, Dennis, from everything I've read, Barbaro's owners were more concerned with his well-being than with his productivity, so to speak. (See NPR's coverage of Barbaro's death, for example.) And, I'm no vet, but in this day of technology, I'm not sure they needed to keep him around to get stud fees from him. There are plenty of dead champion animals still producing offspring thanks to the wonders of modern science.

anne morse


If putting the horse down was the most humane thing to do, why would anyone want to keep him alive--and in misery?

Gina Dalfonzo

If I'm reading Kristine's post correctly, people were hoping that Barbaro would not get to the point where putting him down was the most humane thing to do -- but that once it was clear that he had reached that point, they realized the necessity. Is that right, Kristine?

Kristine Steakley

Gina, I think you're absolutely right; sorry if I didn't make the point clearer.


Horses aren't humans, and "put down" is no new euphemism. That's been around for generations.

It is always sad, but for it to be front page news all over suggests a blessedly slow news day.


I'm really surprised by the negative tone found in the majority of the responses to this blog post. I, personally, am glad that Kristine chose to write about Barbaro and and the battle to save him. I completely agree with her assessment that the care he received was full of grace and I know that I was touched by the lengths that the owners went to to try and save this beautiful horse. It may seem silly to some folks, but reading a story where someone defies the odds for so long, horse or human, is uplifting. Kudos to the owners for trying to save their horse and kudos to Kristine for recognizing that grace can be found all over the place, even in the care of an animal.

Monique Black

I had to allow a few days to pass before being able to comment here. Kristine (and everyone) I want you to know that I don't mean to change how you saw things by my comments. The point you made about the public rallying around life is well taken. Were that we saw this more when it comes to the lives of the unborn and infirm in our day, but the truth that animals do suffer horribly at the hands of their keepers is harder for some of us to gloss over than others.

As someone who has been involved in the equine industry for over 25 years, I can tell you that there's a lot about it that stinks; the racing industry especially. When the stakes get that high, you have to expect our fallen nature to take over, and in horse racing the stakes are very, very high.

As a trainer, one of my worst fears has always been the spill that ends with a mount's leg dangling the way Barbaro's was the day of the Preakness. You feel this absolute sheer horror that what has happened can not be changed. For me, there was a sudden sense of, "Hurry up and do something to make it better." Because we have to know that if we, as trainers, hadn't put them in the situation in the first place they wouldn't be going through the pain they are now. It’s part of the risk we take, and most of the time, it's worth taking. Being a part of working with such amazing creatures is exhilarating and rewarding. As a Christian I can say God has revealed many things about His character to me through working with them. They inspire us the way Barbaro did to believe the world still holds promise and grace. Jesus chose to ride one into Jerusalem, (a donkey. Still of the equine persuasion) a colt that had not yet been broke to ride and it's interesting that He and His army will ride on them to defeat the enemy at the end of all things.

Having said all that, we need to remember that horses do not possess a soul the way humans do. We are their stewards, and as such we should not allow them to suffer unjustly. Knowing where the point is that we have to say, "No more" can be hard, but we must remember that God has placed it upon us to be diligent in that.

Barbaro was a magnificent animal. The racing world has a lot of magnificent animals. When he broke his leg it was not a simple break, but a shattering that left more pieces that couldn't be mended than could. After plating and screwing what they could together, it would have been a miracle if it had healed enough for him to even painfully limp around on it for the rest of his life. Any vet will tell you, what they attempted to do with Barbaro was a one in a million shot at best.

What the papers don't explain too well is that he soon foundered in the other hind hoof, meaning the layers of his hoof literally came apart, allowing the coffin bone to rotate out of the bottom of his foot. This would be an absolutely agonizing condition for even a healthy horse. To try and minimize the damage, they removed 80% of his hoof, forcing him to switch his weight to the shattered leg. The final blow was when he abscessed in the hoof on the shattered leg. Again, an abscess is a horribly painful thing for even a healthy horse.

All this to say, the line was crossed a long time ago. This beautiful animal suffered needlessly for months under the watchful eye of people who should have known better. It boggles the mind and wrenches the heart to think of what reason could possibly justify such a thing. It is a sad day for the equine world that we have come to this.

Katharine Eastvold

Thank you so much for your perspective. That was very informative. I don't have much personal experience with horses, but I think (given what you had to say about Barbaro's suffering) one lesson we can take from this is that simply preserving life is NOT our paramount concern as Christians. Certainly, we are not authorized to take human life in order to end suffering. But I think we need to remember that suffering itself (while a necessary part of life) is ultimately evil, a part of the fall. There will be no suffering in Heaven. Suffering can serve a purpose and result in Christian growth, but it is not itself good.

So we need to think long and hard about ethical dilemmas involving suffering, and not just glibly repeat the mantra of "choosing life," without regard for the suffering that decision might cause. Ultimately, choosing life is the right choice (at least where humans are concerned), but that doesn't mean it's an entirely painless one.

And when it comes to an animal, I think you're absolutely right that our duty as stewards of the earth sometimes requires us to choose to end life in order to alleviate suffering.

Joe Burns

There was an article about Barbaro in the Commentary section of my local paper Sunday that really caught my attention. In particular, I was amazed at the way the author humanized this horse. If you'd like to read it, you can find it at http://www.tbo.com/news/opinion/commentary/MGB8CNZCPXE.html . As you'll see in the following item I submitted to the Tribune (they haven't yet told me if they will publish it), I believe the behavior surrounding Barbaro's injury and death tell us much about our culture.

Why Such Tears for This 'Graceful Champion'

I must say, I was a bit dismayed by the way a certain celebrity garnered such, well, celebrity when he sustained a sports injury recently that ended his days of competition. I'm definitely not opposed to sports, mind you. I'm actually a recovering sports zealot myself. However, sports figures, it seems to me, are accorded far too much adulation in proportion to the long-term impact their craft has on what's truly important in life.

Now that this storied competitor who was "born to run" is dead, the outpouring of human anguish at his passing doesn't warm my soul at all. Rather, it rings in my ears like an alarm bell of a culture in crisis. Consider these remarks in Shelley Mickle's opinion piece in the Feb 4, 07 Tampa Tribune:

"Last October, I met [him]."

"...he was magnificent. He brought to my mind thoughts of Mozart and Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali. You know, that ability that comes along only once in a great while."

"Not many of us handle uncertainty with as much grace as this champion."

"[he] captured the imagination of the whole country."

"Children wrote him get well notes by the bucketfuls. They sent him drawings and baskets of [food]. [He] had a sense of humor. As he patiently waited in his hospital..., his main thought seemed to be - To heck with all these wrinkled brows."

"Yes, we'll all miss [him]. But the lessons he leaves us will last far longer than the length of the races he won."

If you didn't know already, these accolades are for Kentucky Derby champion, Barbaro...a horse. When a beast elicits imagery of men and draws comparisons to famous men, we are clearly seeing compelling evidence of a culture in dire need of truth. Unlike the countless human babies callously killed each day in this country, this animal lacks the image of God (Imago Dei) within that would set him apart from all other non-human creatures that die unnoticed across the globe every hour.

By denying divine creation and embracing a naturalistic origin of life, our culture draws no distinction between any two creatures. Horses and humans are accorded equal stature for those whose worldview is shaped by this belief about our origins. Or perhaps I should say that humans with talent such as Mozart, Ruth, Woods and Ali can hope someday to rise to be respected like the champion Barbaro.

Still, even those humans who believe every creature originated from a single cell must know deep inside that there are qualities that set humans apart. No other life forms have universally respected standards of basic behavior like prohibitions against murder or stealing. What reptiles, amphibians or other mammals have formed multi-branch governments for the general welfare, improved their lot in life via brilliant inventions or extended their waking hours through the application of carefully researched medical knowledge?

Or, to consider the case at hand, what equine companions of Barbaro mourned his passing with such zeal and sadness as those humans who saw him as one of their own?

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