Horse Welfare Decisions Key to Racing’s Future

Horse racing in Australia is big business. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, but it is also an industry with more than a few challenges ahead. While the Melbourne Cup and Spring Carnival shine the spotlight on the sport for a few weeks, for the rest of the year it appears that racing may be facing a decline. A key factor in this decline is undoubtedly the view held by a growing number of Australians that the racing industry is lagging well behind public opinion on the welfare of the horses that the industry relies on for its very existence. 

The world is changing. The proportion of the public that values animal welfare is increasing, and that is sure to continue well into the future. It’s time for the industry to decide whether to accept this reality and move in the same direction as the Australian people or to do nothing and watch more and more people make decisions that take them away from racing, such as signing the Animals Australia “pledge to never bet on cruelty“.

Aussies have many gambling options available, with big competition from poker machines, casinos, sports betting and the like, can the industry afford to make decisions that will continue to drive people away?

Token gestures, along the lines of “greenwashing” (is it “carewashing” when welfare is involved?) are not enough. What is needed is real change that is widespread so that it makes a difference to every one of the thousands of horses that keep the industry going.

It should also be noted at this point that there are of course many people within racing who are already making decisions to improve the welfare of their horses. We congratulate and thank these people who aim to make decisions in the best interests of their horses, and hope that their influence will help give others the motivation to do likewise.

The point of this article is to give a brief overview of the numerous horse welfare issues that cause passionate debate when raised in certain circles. These are complex issues, so please click through to the links for more information.

Horse “Wastage”

The RSPCA Australia knowledgebase has some interesting reading on wastage in the racing industry. Here is a quote from their site defining wastage:

“Wastage refers to the number of horses that are lost from the racing industry. Wastage can occur at any stage of the horse’s life, including prior to racing.

It is estimated that out of 1000 pregnancies in Thoroughbred Australian mares only 300 foals will actually race. Similar pre-racing wastage has been found in Standardbred horses (trotters and pacers).”

The RSPCA has funded two studies into racehorse “wastage”. The studies were conducted at two of Australia’s leading universities. A 2008 study looked at horses at an abattoir, and found that 52.9% of the horses relinquished to that abattoir at the time of the study had racing brands (40% Thoroughbred, 12.9% Standardbred).

Records of the number of racing bred horses whose lives end in slaughter each year are not kept, which makes it difficult to get a clear picture of what is really going on. We can make an estimate however, using the results of the above study. The Australian Government states that between 30,000 and 40,000 horses are slaughtered in Australia each year.

This gives the following estimated ranges:

  • Thoroughbreds, between 12,000 – 16,000 horses slaughtered each year.
  • Standardbreds, between 3,870 – 5,160 horses slaughtered each year.
There are many wonderful people working hard to rehome thoroughbreds and standardbreds, but as you can see from the above estimates, it is a big job and more key figures involved in racing need to step up and get involved in rehabilitation and rehoming programs in order for more racehorses to have a future. 

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Use of the Whip in Races

The sight of whips being used on horses in races is a definite negative for many spectators. Comments such as “it’s cruel” and “if you hit any other animal like that it would be illegal” are not uncommon, and with social media these days these sorts of comments seem to be causing more people to reflect on the practice. The industry has made changes to whip rules in recent times, such as the introduction of padded whips, however this has done little to ease the concerns of those who are against their use.

Investigation into the use of whips in races has also cast considerable doubt on the arguments used to support the continuation of their use, with a recent research finding that whipping racehorses was not a significant predictor of which horse would win. Another recent finding was that there were breaches of the whip rules being missed by the stewards, with horses being hit in the wrong place and in an incorrect manner.

You can watch a 30 minute video presentation about this research on the ABC’s Big Ideas website.

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Racing Horses at a Young Age

The racing of young horses, particularly two year olds, is a subject that can cause passionate debate. Horses that are not physically mature enough to stand up to training and racing are more likely to suffer injuries, and this in turn makes a horse more likely to become another “wastage” statistic.

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Horse Health and Care

Race horses that are not fit and healthy are not going to win races, and those involved in racing sometimes, understandably, get defensive when issues relating to the care of these horses come up. Familiar comments include “racehorses are looked after better than any other horses in the country” and “we love our horses, how dare anyone say we don’t”.

Complicating this issue is the normal difference of opinion among horse people as to how horses should be cared for. For example, the issue of stabling horses for long periods is one likely to raise a few differences of opinion, from those who think it’s perfectly fine, to those who say all horses should be kept in large paddocks with other horses, as is the natural way that horses live in the wild. A wide range of opinions between those two points also exists.

Here are a few of the commonly discussed issues relating to horse care:

  • Is money coming before health and welfare in some cases? For example, are veterinary and care decisions made with regard to the horse’s health and welfare foremost, or with the aim of getting the horse back on the track to race? (Many people will be familiar with human athletes, eg. football players, who push their bodies beyond what normal people would do, because they are so passionate about their sport. The key difference here is that humans have a choice to do this to themselves, and horses do not)
  • The finding that gastric ulcers are present in a large proportion of racing thoroughbreds
  • Widespread “stable vices” also known as “stereotypies” ~ windsucking, crib biting, weaving, etc. Presence of one or more of these behaviours is an indicator of poor welfare in a particular horse.

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Jumps Racing

Jumps racing no longer takes place in most Australian states, however Victoria and South Australia continue to run a season of hurdle and steeplechase races each year. The rate of falls and deaths of horses in jumps races is considerably higher than for flat racing. Jumps racing was banned in NSW due to cruelty concerns, and the sport died out in all other states of its own accord due to the public no longer supporting it. Many organisations have publicly stated their opposition to jumps racing on horse welfare grounds, including RSPCA Australia, Animals Australia, Quest Equine Welfare, Save a Horse Australia, the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses and the Humane Society International Australia.

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The above is merely a brief overview of each of these issues. Please click through to the links, they are included as a starting point for your own research into each topic. As you will find, there is plenty of information out there once you start looking for it.

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