The words Horse Racing may automatically lead people to think of young horses raced until they can no longer win and whipped to go faster while a crowd of people, who are most often accompanied by several alcoholic beverages, use it as an excuse to dress up and attempt to win money at the expense of equine welfare[i]. However, this is simply not the case and over recent years a lot of work has gone in to maintaining the highest possible quality of care and welfare standards on the race track, and I have personally been fortunate enough to undertake some clinical EMS with a veterinary team at several racecourses and this really opened my eyes to the changes that have taken place in the racing world.
To all involved in racing the primary aim is not, contrary to many people’s belief, making money but is in fact maintaining the highest level of welfare and care for all of the horses involved within the sport. The British Horse Racing Association (BHA) is focussed upon the safety and welfare of the horse and works closely with several recognized welfare charities, such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare, to ensure these high standards are met and maintained and that horses are prevented from any unnecessary suffering.[ii] From arrival to the stabling area, the pre-race walk up and even on the track there are team of vets dedicated to ensuring high quality care is given. Horses are not raced if they are not deemed healthy or fit to compete and the vets are on hand if any emergencies occur so that any suffering of horses resulting from injury are kept to a minimum, with British Racing being among the world’s best regulated animal activities.[iii]
An area of horse racing which has drawn a lot of negative attention is the use of the whip. Many believe that the excessive use of the whip is causing unnecessary suffering and pain to the horse forcing it to perform beyond its own capacity, and depicts the sport as cruel. The depiction of the use of the whip, with races being broadcasted on TV has led to the assumption that the jockeys enjoy to flog their horses, however again this simply is not the case and the BHA has a legal and moral duty to minimise whip use and has taken steps to avoid pain and suffering. It has been set out that jockeys are guided to not use the whip more than eight times in a flat race and nine times over jumps, with stewards monitoring their use during the race and if they are used inappropriately then the penalties could include forfeiture of race and specific racing bans[iv]. By doing this ensuring that welfare is not compromised and the high quality of care is maintained on the race track.
Another issue in racing is the early backing of race horses compared to the conventional ridden horse. Flat racehorses, for example, are broken in at around 18 months of age[v] which is considerably earlier then horses intended for other use and many argue that the horse is not at a sufficient stage of mental or physical development. The process of being broken in for racehorses involves more time being spent focussing on fitness and speed, rather than on schooling based exercise, with a lot of the time on the gallops having the younger horse following more experienced ones, and the horses learn how to respond to a riders change of hand (if the rein is shortened the horse will take this as a sign to speed up) [vi] .
Finally, a lot of people are interested in the fate of a racehorse when it has to retire, as there is a misconception that the majority of horses are simply euthanized. A racehorse can be retired because of old age, injury or failure to make a certain grade[vii] and there are several options for the horse following retirement. It is inevitable that some horses are put down following their career on the racetrack, however, charities, such as the Race Horse Sanctuary[viii], are doing a lot of work to reduce these numbers and there is starting to be a decline in these figures. Other options for racehorses following retirement are stud farm work or entry into a retraining or rehoming programme which are becoming more popular.
In conclusion, work has been done over recent years to maximise the welfare of racing and a lot is being done to ensure the sport stays with equine welfare at the focus.
By Natasha Newman Third Year, University of Liverpool
[i] Horseman S et. Al, (2016) ‘Current Welfare Problems Facing Horses in Great Britain as Identified by Equine Stakeholders’ PLoS One 11 (8) 1-19
[ii] https://www.britishhorseracing.com/about/horse-welfare/ (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[iii] https://www.britishhorseracing.com/press_releases/equine-welfare-british-horseracing/ (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[iv] https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/horses/health/whips (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[v] https://www.ror.org.uk/care-training/life-of-a-racehorse/ (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[vi] https://www.ror.org.uk/care-training/life-of-a-racehorse/ (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[vii] http://www.raceadvisor.co.uk/happens-horse-retires/ (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
[viii] http://www.racehorsesanctuary.org (accessed on the 03/02/2018)
Educating the Veterinary Students of Tomorrow