When most people hear about the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, they think of dogs and cats — especially those sad-faced puppies and kittens that have appeared in ASPCA public-service advertisements for decades.
But the nation's oldest animal-protection organization is and always has been focused on horses, too. That is why the ASPCA is celebrating its 145th anniversary this week during the Alltech National Horse Show, which runs through Sunday at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The ASPCA will have a booth Friday through Sunday to promote its equine welfare initiatives. There will be educational presentations about improving horse treatment and events featuring three top riders who are ASPCA Equine Welfare Ambassadors: Brianne Goutal, Paige Johnson and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Sunday will be ASPCA Day at the horse show, with a 1 p.m. parade of rescued mustangs and adoptable Thoroughbreds in the Alltech Arena. "They are ambassadors for all the horses that need adoption," said Valerie Angeli, the ASPCA's senior director of equine and special projects.
The ASPCA has a long association with the 128-year-old National Horse Show. It began sponsoring the ASPCA Maclay Championship trophy for young riders in 1933.
But the organization has been involved in horse welfare since its founding in 1866.
"Our roots were in protecting the carriage horses and work horses on the streets of New York City before anyone else was," Angeli said.
Animals in America — work animals, pets and wild animals — had almost no legal protection against cruelty, neglect or abuse until Henry Bergh organized the ASPCA in New York after the Civil War.
Bergh, a wealthy New Yorker, first became interested in animal rights while serving in a diplomatic post in czarist Russia. On a trip back home, he stopped in London and took some lessons from Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which began in 1840.
Bergh organized the ASPCA to fight all kinds of animal abuse — overworked horses, cock- and dog- fighting, the conduct of slaughterhouses and the then-routine practice in New York of rounding up stray dogs, putting them in cages and drowning them in the East River. One ASPCA initiative was installing public fountains in New York so work horses could more easily find water to drink.
Over the years, the organization has lobbied for anti-cruelty laws across the country and started shelters for stray and mistreated animals. "This is a matter purely of conscience," Bergh once said. "It is a moral question in all aspects."
Issues involving horse abuse have changed during the past century and a half, but there are still plenty of them.
"There are many, many horses that need our help today," Angeli said. "Obviously, we've come a long way from horses pulling overloaded trolley cars on city streets. Cruelty and abuse takes different forms."
The ASPCA's Equine Fund provides grants for horse-rescue groups, and this year it has provided hay for horses in Texas, Oklahoma and other states where droughts have caused hay prices to skyrocket.
One of the biggest problems the ASPCA sees is horses bred for a specific purpose, then cast off if they are not good at it — or become too old or sick to serve their purpose as well as they once did.
"A hundred thousand horses go to slaughter every year because people don't think to adopt them and repurpose them as pleasure horses," Angeli said. Those include some Thoroughbreds and quarter horses that are bred for racing but are not fast enough to win.
"We are absolutely advocating second chances for horses," she said. "We need to make sure we care about what happens to them at every stage of their lives."
For the ASPCA, the nation's most prestigious horse show offers an ideal platform to enlist advocates and teach them what abuse and neglect look like so they can try to stop it when they see it.
"We always say that we are the literal voice for animals," Angeli said. "We are here to teach people how to be the voice of animals in their community."
Reach Tom Eblen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.