Yesterday, this picture and attached commentary was posted on social media by Emily Jones in Australia. While I understand the sentiments, I feel it’s important that racing be allowed to respond.
I read your post all the way out in South Africa. I thought it made some interesting points and I hope you don’t mind if I comment.
Since the invention of the combustion engine, horses’ main function is as a form of recreation / entertainment. In short, if they do not have a job, then we would not have them. So, if there was no Thoroughbred racing, there would be no need for the Thoroughbred horse.
At this point it’s probably good to acknowledge that racehorses generally cost a good deal of money – firstly to buy and secondly to keep. So generally the folks that go to sales and put their hands up at auction are making an investment in a commodity that they are pretty serious about – although you might want to look at some stats for how many racehorses ever recoup their purchase price. Generally speaking, people who are prepared to pay a decent sum of money for something and are hoping to make a return by racing it, will want to look after it so that it has every chance of success.
It is a fact that there are ethical issues with using animals for sport and racing acknowledges this and tries to set and enforce certain levels of competency and fairness by structuring it as a professional sport. Therefore people working with racehorses are required to have some sort of professional license in order to do so. Racehorses are bred by registered breeders, trained by licensed trainers, treated by licensed vets and ridden by licensed jockeys and they train and compete on professionally constructed and maintained surfaces.
Racing may not be a perfect system, but it does not hand out training licenses for free and there is usually an entrance barrier or some sort of apprenticeship or competency test required before one is allowed to train horses professionally (these vary depending on the racing jurisdiction). I might point out, that this is not the case in the non racing industry, where literally any Tom, Dick or Harry can go out and buy a horse with absolutely no knowledge, experience or supervision whatsoever. But I digress. Racehorse trainers are licensed professionals. It’s not a perfect system, but most trainers out there have served an apprenticeship, been tested and considered competent enough to do the job. As in any industry, there will be good, intuitive, talented people and there will be some that are less so. It is up to the owner of each racehorse to choose wisely.
Another point that you might like to consider is that one might regard a trainer’s yard like a classroom in a very expensive private school. Each highly bred, expensive individual comes with a set of equally highly bred, expensive owners, who generally have hopes and expectations for their new acquisition and will accordingly make those the problem of their trainer. If we go with your analogy that racing people are greedy and just want to make money off their horses, then logic dictates that having paid a small fortune to purchase a horse, they will want to give it absolutely every chance of being able to race well so that it can win stakes money. As a horse cannot give of its best if it’s not sound and healthy, it is in ‘greedy’ owners’ interests to make sure that their horses receive the absolute best care and maintain a high standard of health and well being, so that they are able to deliver good racing performance and increase their chances of earning money.
I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen – and as with any sport or even level of society, the undesirable elements are always one step ahead of the law – but the authorities do take a lively interest in rooting out cheating and animal cruelty, if for no other reason than the fact that every racehorse also carries with it a live human being. If a horse goes down, a human goes down too. If you’re lucky, only two of them get injured. If you’re not, they can take down an entire field of horses – and jockeys – with them. Those are not odds that most people are prepared to take. So generally speaking, racing folk do work quite hard to make sure that horses are in good, sound health, rather than not.
Apart from the human safety factor, a lot of racing people actually quite like working with horses – it’s generally how they decided to get involved in the profession in the first place. And considering how tough, thankless and occasionally salary-less the whole business can be, if you don’t like horses enough to stick around anyway, people generally don’t last all that long.
It’s also worth saying that unlike non racing disciplines, a lot of training and racing is conducted in the public eye and licensed raceclub officials are tasked with inspecting horses on a regular basis. Horses are tested out of competition (ie in the normal course of training) and a random selection is made from the runners of every race and specimens taken and tested. Winning horses are always tested. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, cheats are bad for business. Secondly, cheats are bad for the stud book. The point of racing, which is something I should probably have pointed out at the start, is actually not the big stakes cheques that everyone gets so hung up about. The racetrack is actually the testing ground for the Thoroughbred breeding programme. In the same way as breeding a dressage horse or a show-jumper, you need to test a horse in order to see whether it is any good. The vagaries of genetics will bear out that breeding a champion to a champion does not necessarily produce another champion. If you look at a race stake as a prize for breeding a good horse, it probably puts things a little more into perspective. That is why well bred, well performed stud animals are generally exposed very sparingly and retired to stud fairly early. Yes, there are horses that have long racing careers, but this is generally the exception rather than the rule as training is expensive and it takes a special horse to a) be sound and b) financially viable to justify being kept in training for very long.
While your statistics in terms of bleeding / epistaxis / EIPH are correct, it’s worth putting into context. A lot of performance horses suffer from this condition. In fact, anything that breathes air that occasionally comes under pressure to go faster than an extended walk will experience the same thing. Essentially this is because the walls of the very tiny capillaries in the lungs are so thin – in order to allow for the all important gaseous exchange which is how we exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen – that if they are put under strain, they occasionally break. If you have ever run a bit harder than you planned and got that odd, metallic taste in your mouth – that’s the same thing. An individual’s capacity for coping with exercise stress can be increased with correct training – I prefer the term conditioning and in the hands of a good trainer, horses are brought along slowly and methodically in order to be able to handle increasing levels of exercise stress. Racing acknowledges that ‘bleeding’ is a problem and horses that bleed during training are required to be reported. Horses that bleed during racing are also noted by course vets and usually receive a mandatory suspension. The US rules allow for race day medications such as Lasix to try and treat the condition.
Stomach ulcers can occur in horses for a number of reasons and are present in lots of disciplines outside of racing as well. Again, horses with ulcers generally do not look, train or perform all that well and generally speaking, the racing industry will try and find and treat any problems to ensure that horses are able to give their best on the track.
Horses die and collapse on the racetrack. That is a fact. Horses also die and collapse in paddocks, covering mares, hunting, jumping, going cross country, playing polo and doing all manner of things, but as stats for those sorts of activities are not logged with any official body, it’s hard to make fair comparisons. That doesn’t make it OK, obviously, but there are very few people who can afford horses just for the sake of having them stand around in a paddock all day (and even then they usually manage to do themselves some sort of mischief), so the bottom line is that most horses are expected to justify their existence by doing some sort of work. As we know, any kind of work involves risk. That is just a simple fact of life and it is as applicable to racing as it is anywhere else. The only difference is that racehorses may in fact have somewhat more of a fighting chance of avoiding injury as they are generally trained by professionals, whereas “amateurs” do all sorts of silly and thoughtless things to horses and often cause injuries through inexperience or sheer ignorance.
Racehorses do spend a lot of time in a stable – that is also a fact. However, a stable is not an isolated, sterile environment. In fact, anyone who has ever had a horse will know that the second you turn your back on them, they are likely to get sick or hurt themselves, so racehorses generally have quite a lot of supervision. One might even go so far as to call it attention. Horses are social creatures, so stables generally come in blocks and there are usually other horses to look at, sniff through a grill, etc. Also, any yard that can get through its entire daily routine in 2 hours deserves a medal. There is feeding, strapping, exercising, washing, drying, bandaging, mucking out, etc to take care of, plus all the additional daily chores such as farrier work, vet visits, visits from owners, dentists, physios, etc. In fact, it’s surprising how busy some race yards are. There are always other horses around and there are generally people around as well, so race horses are not left staring at a concrete wall all day by any means.
Also, given that your study says that horses work / are worked with for 2 hours a day, but are overworked and then drugged to compensate does not make sense. Horses are designed to travel distances of up to 30km per day. If anything, we possibly underwork them for what nature designed. They are athletes and any athlete under exercise stress will sustain injuries, so yes, they do get medicated. Treatments have to be recorded and administered by registered vets within prescribed limits. Different racing jurisdictions have different rules as to what medications are and are not allowed and horses that test positive for prohibited substances get disqualified and their stakes money revoked. It’s not a fail-safe, obviously, but is one of several methods the industry employs to discourage this sort of thing. I might point out that there are far fewer rules governing the levels of medications administered to horses outside of racing.
Regarding feed with an unnaturally high energy content – again correct. But this is to balance the fact that like any athlete, training takes a great deal of energy out of them through aerobic exercise and needs to be replaced. There are obviously many different types of feed and different ways of feeding them, but that is up to the discretion of each trainer and everyone likes to do things their own way. Again there are plenty of horses outside of racing that are also fed incorrectly, but that is rarely monitored, recorded or reported / complained about.
In terms of your whip comment, yes, horses are whipped. Again, the racing industry has taken steps to manage this better and it is mandatory in most racing jurisdictions for jockeys to ride with ‘Pro Cush’ whips, which are fairly heavily padded and have a much less severe core than whips of days gone by (try one sometime – they are are a great deal kinder than your standard jumping or dressage whip). It’s also worth checking how many ‘lashes’ actually land as there are rules for how often horses may be smacked during a race and jockeys are monitored and checked and get fined if they get too ‘whip happy’. You may also want to read up some stats on whipping horses which show that horses that are whipped heavily actually run more slowly that horses that are hit less often. To be a bore, it’s worth comparing this with non racing related activities where there are very seldom such restrictions in place.
Regarding the attrition rate of horses both before, during and after racing is also a fact. The numbers vary a little between the various racing jurisdictions, but it IS a problem and one that the racing industry acknowledges publicly and is working to find better solutions for. Yes, some horses are slaughtered and some do end up as animal food, but perhaps not as many as you would think. Because of the medications that racehorses are routinely administered, their meat may in fact not be suitable for consumption.
Slaughter is not a comfortable thought for any animal, but at least it provides a final end to the horse’s life. If a horse is sold out of the racing industry, there is little way of tracking the rest of its life and the horse is probably just as at risk as any other horse of finding itself in difficulties. It has a 50/50 chance of things going wrong every time it changes hands and I’d be so bold as to say that those odds stack up against it the older it gets. The fact that many racehorse owners choose to end a horse’s life at the end of its career may be more a comment on the environment outside of racing than it is of the racing industry itself.
Lastly, if we didn’t have racing and didn’t have Melbourne Cup day – and other big flagship races like it – we would miss out on so much that is good. We would not need Thoroughbreds for a start and I think that would be quite sad. We’d lose out on a lot of jobs and we’d also lose out on a lot of research and technology. Difficult as it may be to consider, the fact that racing does have an injury aspect as well as a business aspect to it, means that there are funds for things like research that other equestrian sectors cannot finance in quite the same way. You might like to read the Seattle Slew story where a team of medics pioneered the use of a ‘Bagby Basket’ to treat his neck, an operation that has now become fairly routine and has helped a lot of other horses. Lastly, having races like the Melbourne Cup gives us wonderful stories such as Prince of Penzance, Michelle Payne and her brother. And I think it would be sad to miss out on those.
No, racing is not a perfect system – what is? – but it does have a regulatory system in place that evolves and adapts as it goes along. It is also open to the public and the press, which means that it is open to public scrutiny at practically every level so that anyone who so chooses can comment on it. It is important that people do so, so that we can keep having these conversations and that racing can keep striving to do better. So thank you and keep up the good work 🙂