Welfare – Sometimes it’s cruel to be kind

Anyone who has seen the reports of the mistreatment of racehorses in Australia lately will be sickened by them.  If you have seen the ABC documentary, then you will have done so through tears as I did.

My first reaction to the documentary was that whatever happens in one jurisdiction of racing has the effect of tarring us all with the same brush.  My next was to then consider


Elegant Joan – enjoying life at the Northern Racing College after retirement

the other areas of welfare facing Australia at present including the use of electric prods or “jiggers” which has led to the banning, sadly only temporarily, of a number of high profile trainers.  I then returned to my first reaction and could almost feel the dark hand of animal welfare campaigners squeezing around the neck of racing here in the UK.

As you may know, I lived in Australia and visit there regularly.  Like in the UK, the immediate reaction to the “anti’s” is to say “just visit the races and the yards and you will see these horses are treated like royalty”.  And, like in the UK, when you do exactly that you will see horses which are indeed better cared for than any other domestic animal.  However, that is not the same as addressing what have to be genuine concerns around horses which are not in training.  Whilst the vast majority of horses are well treated, we will all know of instances where they are not, and indeed if we had a guaranteed and humane way of managing thoroughbreds outside racing, then we would not hear the desperate cries for funds from the rehoming charities.  I am lucky as we have capacity to rehome, or help to rehome, those horses we breed – many are not.

With regard to those that would mis-treat horses when in training, there are regualtory methods of dealing with these people, but, as in Australia, bans tend to be for fixed periods of time, and the perpetrators tend to be allowed back into the fold.   This is unacceptable.  Also, there may be instances where perpetrators are asked to leave their employer, rather than reporting them, for reputational reasons.  This is understandable in a competitive industry where reputation is everything, but also solves nothing in welfare terms.

The fact that a tool is used to inflict pain upon a racehorse, or any animal, is dependant upon the person wielding that tool and their attitude to animals (and by extension people).  Just because a “jigger” has not been found in racing over in the UK for a long period now does not mean that cruelty inflicted upon horses is less or more acceptable here.  If you can use a “jigger” then you can use a stick or barbed wire or anything else that comes to hand – it is in the psychological make up of a person to be cruel and if they are, then they have no place in racing EVER AGAIN!

The Australian documentary claimed that 3000 racehorses were processed through abbatoirs.  Whilst the scenes of abuse are terrible to watch and need to be punished severely, the fact that some horses end up in an abbatoir is not necessarily the cruellest end.  The Princess Royal has long advocated the normalisation of horses being placed


The ability to track a horse from birth to death is key to better welfare

into the food chain, and in some cases this should apply to the thoroughbred racehorse.  We used to hear much about the shooting of bull calves, or the use of veal crates, and were rightly alarmed.  in response, the UK farmers built a demand for “red veal” and not only improved the welfare of bull calves, but made them a valuable commodity.  Whilst I do not propose we all eat our horses, there is an argument for making more of this potential market and, by default, increasing the likelihood of better oversight and welfare standards within abbatoirs.  If the UK government is eventually able to ban live exports, then horse owners may feel more inclined to send their retired horse to a table on the continent than they are now.  Certainly the pictures of live horses travelling to Europe for slaughter is not something we can allow to continue.  A final point on this; I know of trainers in the past (and perhaps even today) who would rather take a retired racer out of the stable and stand with it as it is shot for the hunt than allow it an uncertain retirement.  On first hearing of this, I recoiled at the thought, but then I understood that perhaps that is the greatest tribute the horse could be given by a person who felt they could no longer guarantee the life it was used to.

If we want to tackle welfare, we must embrace the whole life of our horses.  We can prove how well the horses at the races or at an open day are looked after – although for some this will still not overcome their prejudice.  The issue we must face is what we do from birth to death.   We must start by increasing the value of our horses through breeding.  We cannot allow people to buy a horse for less than the cost of attending an auction, let alone producing it.  If you sell cheap then the buyer sees the horse as a commodity to be tried, and cast aside.  If we sell in desperation then we should not continue breeding – that is bad business.  Bloodstock agents and auctioneers can assist by increasing the minimum selling price and refusing to be part of a deal where the price is less than that of the published covering fee of a horse.  It sounds harsh but if a breeder’s fields are full of unsold horses then there is a reason for it, and it might stop them keep breeding!

Additionally, all horses should be traceable from birth until death.  I lie awake at night worrying about some of the horses we have bred and I have lost track of.  If certain countries cannot implement that requirement at least for horses registered in the UK and Ireland, then we cannot sell to them and neither can they benefit from our bloodstock – simple!  I can hear voices of concern, but we have a moral duty.  We cannot adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude.  If this is adopted internationally as with most racing regualtions, then any concerns of losing a market share are overcome.

Next, owners and trainers must have an end game plan.  If this means a monthly levy which pays for the retirement of the horse, then this is one method.  Alternatively, as mentioned above, a humane disposal regime may be the only way for some.  Certainly the rise of syndicates means that many owners live in urban areas and certainly do not have the means or knowledge to home a retiree.  It may be one of the reasons we see the welfare issue in Australia, where syndication is commonplace.

Welfare is not a soft and fluffy subject.  It requires hard decisions and firm application.  We hear voices from inside racing about not bowing to the protests.  I agree when these protests are based on false misconceptions or blind ignorance, but this is not the case here.  This is about a moral code of conduct for all who really love racing.    We owe it to our staff and to our sport but above everything else, we owe it to our horses!


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