Top Welfare Concerns For Thoroughbred Racehorses
The global thoroughbred horse racing industry is often accused of mistreating its horses. A range of advocacy is done around the world in the hopes of liberating or improving the lives of racehorses.
This study from Australia gathered the views of welfare experts and people generally involved in the thoroughbred racing industry. Both groups, experts and stakeholders, included a range of people: racehorse breeders, veterinarians, trainers, guardians, government officials, salespeople, farriers (someone who trims and shoes horses’ hooves), transporters, and horse re-trainers. In a focus group meeting, the experts identified fourteen key welfare issues. Stakeholders then ranked the fourteen welfare issues in terms of their importance.
The study results showed that stakeholders generally held consistent views on which welfare issues were most important, except for nutrition, which women ranked as more important than men did. In addition, except for weaning, these rankings ultimately coincide with the scientific literature on each welfare issue, which the authors discuss further. The welfare issues were as follows:
- Horsemanship: Horsemanship was ranked as most important by stakeholders, especially by those more experienced with thoroughbred racing. It includes the knowledge and attitudes of those working with horses, which can impact their ability to address horses’ needs. The authors do not provide any scientific evidence to support the importance of horsemanship but suggest that horsemanship could make the greatest impact in the context of training and competition.
- Health and disease: This issue was ranked second, perhaps because common training and management methods can cause serious physiological problems. These include respiratory disease, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and chronic fatigue.
- Horse education: The authors indicate that the proper handling and training of thoroughbreds from foals to adulthood can teach horses to cope with fear, preventing aggression and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In this way, this welfare issue also coincides with horsemanship (Issue 1).
- Track design and surface: Poorly designed and maintained tracks can contribute to lameness and fractures. Most injuries to racing thoroughbreds are track-related. However, the reporting of track-related injuries is inconsistent.
- Ventilation: Poor circulation in stables is known to cause respiratory problems for horses due to high amounts of ammonia, dust, and mold in the air. The authors support proper ventilation in thoroughbred stables, such as installing ceiling fans.
- Stabling: The authors cite the established claim that stabling interferes with a horse’s natural behaviors and lowers their welfare. The lack of social interaction, movement, and foraging results in boredom, isolation, and stereotypic behavior in horses. The horse being sedentary most of the time, then exercising intensely, can cause serious health problems.
- Weaning: A very stressful event in a thoroughbred’s early life is weaning, the process of separating the foal from the mother. Stakeholders underrated this issue compared to how important it is in the literature and gave incorrect answers about how best to ensure the horse’s welfare during weaning.
- Transport: Frequent transportation of racing thoroughbreds is common. Transportation contributes to numerous health issues in horses, especially upper respiratory tract infections. Transport may also scare horses. However, many thoroughbreds cope well with transport and some are not transported often, which makes this a less urgent issue.
- Nutrition: The amount of energy thoroughbreds expend in training and competition requires a calorie-dense diet high in starch and low in fiber. This type of diet causes painful gastrointestinal issues. However, many thoroughbreds do well on the diet, which made it less urgent for some stakeholders.
- Wastage: “Wastage” in the racing industry refers to an injury or disease that interferes with the training schedule of a thoroughbred, including conditions that result in the horse’s early retirement. Orthopedic issues are the leading cause of thoroughbred wastage in Australia. Many stakeholders don’t see wastage as a welfare issue, because the horses can retire from racing and become companion animals or work in a riding establishment.
- Heat and humidity: Horses can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, from 14 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, so heat wasn’t ranked as high as other factors.
- Whips: The use of whips causes pain and stress in the horse. Whips are also known to shorten the horse’s stride and impact rhythm during a race, leading to injuries. The racing industry regulates the use of whips, so stakeholders ranked this concern relatively low.
- Environment: Australian racing bodies regularly inspect stables, so stakeholders ranked this welfare concern relatively low. However, horses who are exercised in the early morning and confined to stables the rest of the day may suffer from a vitamin D deficiency.
- Gear: Gear, which stakeholders rated of lowest importance, includes saddles, stirrups, and bits. The authors surmise that more experienced professionals rated this issue lower because of the role some gear plays in protecting the horse and rider. Improperly used gear, like poorly fitting saddles and unclear or harsh rider signals with the bit, results in poor performance, so this welfare problem is relatively rare.
Another important welfare issue discussed was social structure, which the list didn’t include because the experts developing it assumed “environment” accounted for it. However, the scientific evidence indicates that social structure, or having other horses to interact with, is foundational to a horse’s natural environment. The authors mention that social structure is a primary welfare issue for thoroughbreds, despite its exclusion from the final list.
Animal advocates could use this study to identify key welfare issues for racing thoroughbreds and to advocate for improvements in these areas more specifically. Advocates could also use the results to educate the public and policymakers about the harms of the racing industry more broadly, and to call for higher welfare standards and guidelines to better protect horses.