I see it too much: People talking in Facebook groups about getting their Thoroughbred’s lip tattoo put on their body or showing off Jockey Club number tattoos they already have.
I love my Thoroughbreds as much as the next person. My late heart horse was my best friend for 20 years, and I might get a tattoo to honor him one day. I certainly support anyone who wants to mark their skin to remember a special horse.
But, please, do not get a copy of your horse’s lip tattoo on your own arm or anywhere else on your body.
Number tattoos on people are inextricably linked to the horrors of the Holocaust, when the Nazis sent millions of victims, including Jewish, Polish, Roma and homosexual people, to labor and death camps. People who could not perform manual labor were killed in gas chambers. At Auschwitz, those forced to work were tattooed with a serial number on their arms.
When I see a number tattooed on a human, I think about how Nazi prisoners were treated—forced away from their homes and family members, forced to live in cramped conditions where disease ran rampant, forced to do heavy manual labor while starving, forced to die naked in gas chambers.
Today, Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945, is now recognized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But with the youngest Holocaust survivors now in their late 70s, the world is at great risk of forgetting its horrors. Despite promises to “Never Forget,” the world has seen genocides in places including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur since the Holocaust.
So when I see people talk about getting number tattoos—particularly on their arms—to honor their horses, I fear that as a culture, we are not doing enough to educate each other about the past. I fear that we are doomed to repeat the worst parts of our history more than we already are. It’s not just Jockey Club numbers—any number tattoo risks diminishing the memory of the Holocaust. Many Standardbreds, Appaloosas and Quarter Horses are also tattooed.
This issue goes beyond horses. For example, Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman’s zip code tattoo seems too close to a concentration camp number for comfort. The tattoos on his other arm are clearly recognizable as dates (they mark the days people were killed by violence in Braddock, Pennyslvania, while he was mayor), but given the Holocaust history, why not get the victims’ names? Surely to the families of those killed, those people are remembered by much, much more than the dates of their deaths.
There are so many other types of tattoos you can get to honor your horse. Their Jockey Club name, for one, or their barn name, or even a phrase you always say to them. I like to tell my horse “I love you, be good,” which could make a good tattoo. You could get a line drawing of your horse or their face or just their particular marking, if you want your tattoo to be tiny and mysterious. You could get an outline of their shoe, especially if they wore a special type. Thoroughbreds born today no longer receive lip tattoos, anyway, and are microchipped instead. Why not get a tattoo that is more meaningful than a number?
If you already have a tattoo of your horse’s number, or any other number, consider adding something to that tattoo to make its context clear. If you’re planning a new tattoo, skip the number entirely. The history connected to numbers tattooed on people is just too painful.
Nazis tattooed their prisoners because they viewed them as less than human. Tattoos marked prisoners as just numbers, resources to be worked until they died. Survivors carry those tattoos with them every day, remembering the family they lost, remembering their pain.
The idea of a number tattoo on someone’s arm is horrifying enough to me, and I don’t have any relatives who survived the Holocaust. Imagine someone who survived Auschwitz seeing a number tattoo on a person’s arm. Imagine their children and grandchildren.
Do not diminish and insult the history of the Holocaust by getting your horse’s number tattoo on your own arm or anywhere else on your body.
Tracy C. Gold is a writer, freelance editor and mom living in Baltimore. She rides her off-the-track Thoroughbred, The Quantico Kid, purchased in autumn 2021, at Tranquillity Manor Farm in Maryland. An alum of U.S. Pony Clubs and the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, she competes in local hunter shows and rides for pleasure now. She is the author of the picture books “Trick or Treat, Bugs to Eat” from Sourcebooks and “Everyone’s Sleepy but the Baby” from Familius. You can learn more about Tracy at tracycgold.com.