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Ghost herds : rescuing horses and horse people in Bluegrass Kentucky

By Tamar V.S. McKee

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This dissertation examines the cultural and historical dimensions of why certain communities in the United States are compelled to rescue animals from abuse, neglect, or death. In particular, it engages with the debate over sending “unwanted” horses to slaughter, touching upon not just the history of cultural taboo over the consumption of horsemeat and concerns about the cruelty and food safety of industrialized animal slaughter, but also what happens to such horses when they are rescued from slaughter. As such, this dissertation fundamentally asks: what makes a horse save-able and re-wanted again? What kind of lives do they go on to live and why? And how are the decisions to “rescue” certain horses and provide them with “second chances” distinctly cultural and worthy of anthropological analysis? Based on the emerging field of multispecies ethnography, this dissertation thus examines how and why a certain population of the so-called unwanted horses, Thoroughbred ex-racehorses, are rescued from slaughter and how this practice is made culturally meaningful by the “horse people” in the self-proclaimed “horse capital of world,” the Lexington / Bluegrass region of Kentucky, U.S.A. My analysis stems from ten months of fieldwork in the Bluegrass where I conducted ethnographic research at two specific rescue operations for Thoroughbred ex-racehorses: one an equine re-training and adoption facility based at the Kentucky Horse Park called the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, and the other a vocational horse care program for male inmates at Blackburn Correctional Complex called the Second Chances / Groom Elite program. Based on my research at these two sites as they are situated within a larger, regional culture intently focused on the production and glorification of horses, this dissertation concludes that the practice of animal rescue involves constant re-evaluation of the moral and economic worth of human and nonhuman animal lives that were previously marginalized to the point of social and/or mortal death, a concept I have termed “redemptive capital.” Redemptive capital helps measure “who” gets saved and why - and furthermore, how once a life is spared death, what implicit debt is owed one’s redeemers.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2014
Pages 461
Publisher University of British Columbia
Location of Publication Vancouver, British Columbia
Department Arts
Degree Anthropology
DOI 10.14288/1.0165956
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal abuse
  2. Animal-assisted activities
  3. Animal neglect
  4. Animal roles
  5. Animals in culture
  6. Animal welfare
  7. Death
  8. Health
  9. Horses
  10. Mammals
  11. Physical environment
  12. Prisons
  13. Rehabilitation
  14. rescue
  15. Social Environments
  16. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation