How often do you think about horse welfare? We are in the midst of National Hunt season with world-renowned horseracing extravaganzas such as the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National only weeks away. Soon after, summer will arrive and thousands will look forward to Royal Ascot, which is often hailed as the height of the British social season. This half of the year is always an exciting time for racegoers, all relishing the opportunity to get glammed up and revel in the racing action. However, not everyone shares the excitement. Despite the thousands of people across the nation who love a good old fashioned day at the races, there is a faction of society who cast a frown upon such equine activities. There are those that believe horseracing gives little regard when it comes to horse welfare. In 2013, leading organisations within British racing, backed by the BHA (British Horseracing Authority), launched ‘The Horse Comes First’ campaign which highlighted the high standards and focus on horse welfare within the horseracing industry. With this in mind, let’s dissect the facts and figures to reveal the truth behind the sport of kings.
Is horse racing cruel?
Clearly this is a very subjective question and you will undoubtedly get a variety of answers on this depending on whom you ask. Rather than provide you with a mere yes or no response, why not let the horseracing statistics do the talking?
The BHA state that horseracing is one of the best regulated animal activities and have established that the welfare of horses is their number one priority. Although safety regulations have improved over the decades, seeing the number of horse fatalities year on year can initially seem quite shocking. Naturally, the thought of any horse losing their life due to a racing incident is a tragic occurrence. That being said, if we look at the picture as a whole, The Equine Welfare in British Horseracing Report available on the BHA website states that the number of horse fatalities on racecourses has actually decreased by 1/3 in the last 20 years. The fatal injury rate over the last five years sits at 0.19% of runners which is the lowest 5-year rate on record.
The treatment of racehorses
What exactly happens to a racehorse behind the scenes? When questioned on the subject of horse welfare, horseracing trainer and former jockey, Joseph O’Brien has spoken of the 5 star treatment that racehorses receive throughout their life. “Racehorses get looked after like royalty from the day they are born. From a foal to a yearling and all the way up, it’s like a five-star hotel they’re living in.” He goes on to mention equine spas, massages, rub downs – all sounds rather ideal! O’Brien also states that the horses are out on the paddock during the day, left free to graze and gallop and then at night they have a comfortable bed and a stable to rest in.
How has horse welfare improved?
The BHA frequently examines and reviews its welfare strategies to ensure that they are as effective as possible at safeguarding horses. Some examples of recently revised rules include:
The BHA have increased penalties around interference. This is where a jockey rides in an irresponsible manner which may then negatively impact another horse or rider. The aim of increasing penalties is to deter a horse from being ridden in a way which could potentially harm other horses and jockeys thus preventing participants from becoming endangered.
Perhaps the most controversial issue when it comes to horse welfare. The BHA state that with the appropriate design and controls in place, the use of the whip does not compromise horse welfare during a race. That being said, there have been a couple of amendments to the whip over the years. A whip is permitted in horseracing, provided that it is foam padded. To ensure that jockeys are using the correct whip which conforms to BHA standards, there is only one permitted whip supplier within British horseracing. Following a review in 2011, there is also a limit as to how often the whip may be used. The whip can only be used a maximum of 7 times in Flat racing or 8 times in Jump racing. With the rules constantly evolving, there is talk of the whip even potentially being banned in the future.
Zero tolerance on steroids
The BHA has applied a zero-tolerance policy on the use of anabolic steroids following the 2013 doping scandal at Newmarket. Stables now face random doping checks to ensure that all horses are on a level playing field. There is also a limit on the amount of cobalt which may be present in a horse’s system on the day of a race. Whilst cobalt is a naturally occurring substance in horses, elevated levels may have a performance-enhancing effect.
We may see a change in fence colours after research conducted by the University of Exeter. Research showed differences in the ways humans and horses view colour. Horses struggle to view orange coloured fences and are able to perceive white and yellow obstacles more clearly. Following the discovery, potential fluorescent white and yellow coloured fences may be rolled out in a bid to improve visibility thus creating less falls and injuries, improving horse welfare overall.
Despite a steady decrease in horse fatalities over the years, there was a blip in records during 2018, which led the BHA to question how effective regulations were when it came to horse welfare. That year saw a rise in the number of horse fatalities. The high figure forced the BHA to conduct a review. The review called for pre-race veterinary examinations to be increased to include all runners in all races at the festival, a maximum field size in all 2-mile chases and conditions of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle to be altered to remove all rider weight-claiming allowances. Since this implementation, fatality numbers have decreased and looks to only improve each year.
The horse comes first
Regardless of what your opinion may be on horseracing, the BHA are clearly on the lookout for how they can continuously improve when it comes to horse welfare. The figures of horseracing injuries and fatalities are declining and research is frequently conducted to gain further insight into the lives of racehorses, all with the primary concern of strengthening racing welfare as a whole. Horseracing may be a risky venture but isn’t life in general?