Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000


Dignity and happiness in the final stretch

Staff writer

Hokkaido, specifically the southern coastal area -- Hidaka, Niikappu, Shizunai, Urakawa -- comprises the breeding and training center of Japanese racing. Farms filled with stallions and broodmares, foals and youngsters dot the area.

Yoshimi Kikuchi, daughter Yayoi, and mare Ti Amo

This is where racing fans come year after year to catch glimpses of their heroes from the racetracks, the stallions retired to stud, or to see the young foals frolicking beside their mothers in the spring, the 2-year-olds galloping up the runs in preparation for their track debuts.

This is where the horses that fuel Japan's booming racing industry get their start. It is a place of beginnings, full of hope.

The percentage of horses who meet their end in the same pastoral settings, however, is miniscule.

Atsuma Kikuchi Farm is aiming to buck up that percentage, and provide a place for horses to live out their days, meeting their end with grace and dignity, when nature, not the slaughterhouse, decides their time is up.

Situated a 45-minute drive east of Hokkaido's Chitose airport, the small 7-hectare farm of undulating pastures is inconspicuous and humble next to the slick, manicured expanses of green of the surrounding megafarms.

Yet, at its gates, tourists often stop their cars and walk up to the fence to gaze or pat the horses. At most of the large breeding farms, horses are off limits to outsiders, and, if not hidden away in the barns, are but distant specks in the fields.

At Kikuchi Farm, amid the broodmares and their young, a handful of elderly equines live out their retirement years. Still in its early stages, the farm is currently in transition from a breeding farm to an equine retirement home, a sanctuary for horses with no place left to go. If owner Yoshimi Kikuchi's dreams become reality, the farm will also develop into a sanctuary for troubled children as well.

Kikuchi, along with wife Fumie, established the farm 10 years ago, turning the wooded land into green pastures and building stables and a house. With the horses, they live on the farm with their two young daughters, and numerous dogs and cats, many who were found abandoned nearby.

Kikuchi, 43, a Tokyo native, but a country boy at heart, began working with horses at the age of 25. He was drawn to animals, especially horses, from the beginning. "We'd go to my mother's hometown in Fukushima for the summer, and there were farm horses nearby. I was always hanging out with them." Back in Tokyo, Kikuchi frequented Ueno Zoo every week, and was again drawn to, not horses, but the zebras, the next best thing at the zoo.

Overall, however, Kikuchi had very little contact with horses. "I was the same as the tourists leaning over the pasture fences patting the horses. That's the same place I came from." On a trip to Hokkaido during his college days, Kikuchi drove from farm to farm. The nature, wide-open spaces and, of course, the horses strengthened his desire to work with them.

He landed a job at a breeding farm and began his career with horses. "I could have just as easily gotten into training racehorses, instead of breeding them. It was just a coincidence. The farm needed help. I interviewed and they hired me."

Hidden horrors

For those who truly love horses, however, breeding for racing can be akin to torture. Bringing a foal into the world, and raising it with the hopes of seeing it shine at the racetrack and retire a hero for many years of breeding is the very best scenario, an extremely rare one. Reality is nearly always crueler.

Many foals are never sold, and of the horses that do make it to the racetrack, only a small number of them retire to riding clubs or are used for breeding. Most horses have nowhere to go. "The reality in Japan," Kikuchi explains, "is almost always the slaughterhouse."

Thus, working at the breeding farm for Kikuchi was difficult. "I'd think about what happened to the horses after they were retired from the track or from riding, or what happened to the broodmares once they couldn't breed anymore or the foals that weren't sold. It always bothered me."

Even after he began his own breeding farm he would try to deny the facts. "I knew that when I asked someone to take a horse off my hands, that horse was headed for slaughter, but I couldn't do it myself. I would always have someone step in, someone who acted as a buffer."

With time, instead of turning from them, Kikuchi began to face the contradictions he felt between his profession and his principles, while remaining involved with horses. "I began to think that if I could just reduce that number by even one, that if I could change the reality for even just one horse, then it would be worth it."

At present Kikuchi's retired guests come from the show ring and the riding school, not the racetrack. Encouraged by the sky-high purses of Japanese racing, an ever-higher percentage of racehorse owners care only for profit. The term keizai dobutsu, defining the racehorse as a mere investment, is used freely, brazenly, as if it were a fact of life, the only possibility.

"It's very much 'use and dispose of,' " Kikuchi says. "When the horse doesn't turn a profit it's time to get rid of it.

"There are two types of owners: Those who look at the horses as living creatures and those who don't. I wish I could only deal with the former."

Owners who care

Admittedly, Japan's limited space and high maintenance costs for horses (much of the feed is imported) complicate the problem. Even owners who do care are often hard put, financially and logistically, to find a good home for a retired horse.

Mayumi Saito washes one of the horses at her dressage riding school.

Mayumi Saito, owner of Will Stud dressage riding school in Saitama Prefecture, boards her retired mare, Ti Amo, at Kikuchi's farm. Saito and Ti Amo, a 17-year-old Westfalen mare, came together in Germany. "I liked her immediately, bought her and brought her to Japan," Saito says.

The mare became Saito's dressage partner in the show ring for nine years before developing leg problems. "She might have been able to improve if we had given her a long time off," Saito says, "but we couldn't be sure if she'd ever be able to withstand the rigors of dressage again. So we decided to retire her."

Ti Amo is now in foal and expected to give birth at the end of next March. "We're looking forward to seeing her baby," says Saito, who makes frequent trips to Hokkaido to visit the expectant mother.

Atsuma Kikuchi Farm charges 60,000 yen a month to board a horse, which is less than half the fee demanded by many other establishments. That fee includes simple veterinary care and hoof trimming. Owners like Saito consider it a bargain.

"Not only did she give me the best competition results in the show ring of any horse I'd had so far, but she's just adorable," Saito says of Ti Amo. "She has also taught me an awful lot."

"There are other farms throughout Japan where horses can be kept, but the affordable ones are usually open only by introduction. Also, most people want their horses nearby. However, most of the farms are cramped, with no pasture, no grass at all.

"After speaking with the Kikuchis I realized what good people they were, and how much they love horses. And the horses look very happy to me. I want to support that kind of place."

Saito recently retired yet another of her horses to the farm, this time a pony, Cisco, who had served the riding school for nine years. "Most of the horses in the school are young, so we have time, but in the future, as much is financially possible, we would like to be able to retire our horses and have them cared for to the very end."

True companions

The learning Saito spoke of that transpires between horse and human is not restricted to riding skills. Animals, and horses in particular, are increasingly recognized throughout the world for their therapeutic abilities. Not only the physically handicapped, but also mentally and emotionally troubled people of all ages are being helped by horses. In the United States, programs in connection with horses deal with problems from bulimia and anorexia, to the rehabilitation of convicted criminals and their reintegration into society.

"Most people in Japan are familiar with horses only as racehorses. There is riding as well, but I'd like people to look at horses more as 'companion' animals too," Saito says.

"For people with problems, kids who refuse to go to school, kids who are bullied or bully, caring for and being around horses is very beneficial.

"Horses are different from cats and dogs in that they're even more sensitive. There is a communication without words, a being able to understand and be understood without having to speak. Horses pick up so quickly on what is going on with a person inside."

Kikuchi hopes to expand his farm into a place where the horses can help children, a place where endings and new beginnings come together.

Atsuma Kikuchi Farm can be contacted at (01452) 7-3077. Anyone with comments or knowledge about people working for the good of animals, feel free to contact Barbara Bayer at bbayer@news.email.ne.jp

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.