SMH article today.
How is horse racing cruel?
A recent investigation puts animal welfare in the spotlight while activists have been saying horse-racing is cruel for years – but exactly how? And what do the industry and experts say in response?
By Simone Fox Koob
October 18, 2019
For a long time, it was about having a punt, checking out the fashion, maybe scooping the office sweep. But there’s a markedly different kind of conversation around this year’s spring racing carnival.
An investigation by the ABC’s 7.30 program has seen the billion-dollar thoroughbred racing industry again forced to confront issues of animal welfare after it found that thousands of discarded racehorses were being slaughtered in knackeries and abattoirs in New South Wales and Queensland.
Add to that the deaths of horses at successive Melbourne Cups, high-profile doping scandals and exposés into alleged animal cruelty, and it’s clear that animal welfare issues are in the spotlight.
Activists have been saying horse-racing is cruel for years – but exactly how? And what do the industry and experts say in response?
Is there an oversupply of racehorses?
Thoroughbred racehorses generally race for only two or three years before they retire – but they can live for up to three decades.
Most horses bred in Australia are intended to become competitors in the thoroughbred racing industry here, where $651 million in prize money is at stake every year and annual wagering turnover is more than $19 billion.
In the year to May 1, 2018, Racing Australia has estimated 14,197 foals were born, up from 13,823 the year before. However, numbers have been dropping for the past decades – in 2008-09 there were 17,792 foals born.
The number of races has remained relatively consistent, around 19,000.
After their career in racing, horses go into breeding or recreational activities or they are sent to a new home – or to knackeries, which sell the meat as animal food, or abattoirs, which export the meat for human consumption.
The process of horses leaving the racing industry is known as “wastage”.
In 2014, national regulations made it compulsory for thoroughbred owners to notify Racing Information Services Australia when their horse was retiring. But there is no compulsory mechanism to track the animal to the end of its life.
Studies are scarce. A 2004 study from the University of Sydney, funded by the RSPCA, found that about 6 per cent were sent directly to knackeries. Another study, prepared for Racing Victoria and released in 2014, followed a foal crop from 2005 and found that when they retired, 40 per cent of horses were “re-homed”, 20 per cent went into breeding, 19 per cent had died for unspecified reasons, 5 per cent were still racing and 5 per cent were sold overseas. The fate of the remaining 11 per cent was not known.
Racing Victoria disputes that many horses are killed after they finish racing, saying their statistics from last year show that almost 90 per cent are re-homed directly to the equestrian, pleasure or breeding industries, 6 per cent are euthanised, 4 per cent die naturally and just 1 per cent end up in abattoirs.
The 7.30 report found that around 300 racehorses had been killed in one Queensland abattoir alone in just 22 days, raising questions about how many horses do end up being slaughtered.
If you’re a horse, you know what your great-great-grandmother did, their prize money, their racing records … incredibly more detailed than most humans know about their family … and after that, up until recently, it was a black hole.
Animal welfare organisations hold serious concerns about the welfare of the horses who retire.
“We do know that we see ex-racehorses and thoroughbreds that end up in really dire situations,” says the RSPCA Victoria’s chief executive Liz Walker.
“I think the thing is, there is no transparency and data and what we think is essential is the mandatory collection and publication of life-cycle statistics from birth to death.”
She says horses are one of the only species of domestic animals that don’t have an official register. The RSPCA has seen a rise in reports of cruelty to horses, she says.
Racing Victoria’s head of integrity, Jamie Stier, says the organisation supports the creation of a National Horse Traceability Register. “That would be advantageous not only to racing but to the whole equine population and not only on a strictly injury or location basis to the use of horses but also the other benefits that aren't as easily identifiable, which are welfare-related.
“It gives us a good opportunity that should there be a disease outbreak, we would be able to manage and control that.”
This knowledge is urgently needed and “long overdue”, says Professor Phil McManus, a Professor of Urban and Environmental Geography specialising in human-animal relations and author of The Global Horseracing Industry.
“If you’re a horse, you know what your great-great-grandmother did, their prize money, their racing records, where they raced, how often they won as two-year-old. Those details are incredibly more detailed than most humans know about their family. We know all that stuff and after that, up until recently, it was a black hole,” he says.
“That’s why the wastage issue is really complex, there is a lack of reliable information ... A horse could be out in a paddock in Cranbourne or Pakenham and then a truck pulls up in middle of night and it’s taken to slaughterhouse. We have to go beyond that first destination, microchip every horse, identify it.
“It’s about trying to improve outcomes and thinking about it not just when the horse retires, we have to think about it at the very beginning and a lot of people have to take responsibility.”
What about the use of whips?
One of the most contentious welfare issues in racing worldwide is the use of whips.
Those who believe the device should be used argue it is necessary for safety – to control the horse – and to encourage the horse. Those who oppose its use say it is an instrument of cruelty and hurts horses for what is, essentially, entertainment.
The Australian Racing Board made padded whips mandatory in 2009, saying the “best scientific advice” was that these types of whips did not inflict pain or injury.
Whips cannot cannot be used in an “excessive, unnecessary or improper manner”, nor near a horse’s head, nor if a horse is not responding and not when horse and rider are past the winning post.
The racing board mandated in 2009 that the whip cannot be used more than five times before the 200-metre mark. This changed again at the end of 2015, restricting riders to five strikes with the whip before the 100-metre mark of every race. From that point on, it’s up to the rider’s discretion.
If these rules are breached, jockeys face penalties ranging from fines to suspensions, imposed by stewards.
The RSPCA wants whips banned. They say whips have the “potential to inflict pain and injury” and cannot be justified because “performance is influenced more by genetics, preparation and rider skill”.
They quote research from a 2012 study from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, in which leading equine specialist Paul McGreevy found that the “unpadded section of the whip made contact on 64 per cent of impacts, demonstrating that padding the whip does not necessarily safeguard a horse from possible pain”.
It also found that many jockeys were breaching the whip rules and stewards were not effectively policing them.
In the Melbourne Cup last year, quite a number of jockeys were fined for the overuse of the whip and the penalties were immaterial compared to what the jockeys stand to make from achieving a good result.
“In the Melbourne Cup last year, quite a number of jockeys were fined for the overuse of the whip and the penalties were immaterial compared to what the jockeys stand to make from achieving a good result,” says the RSPCA’s Ms Walker.
In the 2018 Melbourne Cup, six jockeys, including the first three across the line, were penalised for flouting whip rules. Winner Kerrin McEvoy was fined $3000 for using his whip nine times before the 100-metre mark (four more than allowed). First-place prizemoney was $4 million, 5 per cent of which would customarily go to the jockey, which means he would have won about $200,000.
“I think there is a growing community awareness about it … The industry is going to need to adjust.”
The RSPCA also doesn’t condone the use of spurs – the metal in the back of riding boots – or tongue ties, a piece of material wrapped around the tongue and tied to the lower jaw to keep the tongue in place during a race.
Racing Victoria’s position is that there is no credible scientific research, including the studies put forward by the RSPCA, that proves the padded whips cause pain.
“We are not seeing any physical evidence of injuries to the horse on race day and all the horses are looked at by our team of veterinary surgeons,” says Mr Stier.
However, his personal view is that there is “certainly room for consideration of applying a rule that allows a number of permitted uses of the whip throughout the race” and he is conscious of overseas reforms.
In Norway, whips have been banned since the introduction of animal welfare legislation in 1982. More recently, the whip was banned for the first time in the United States at the Santa Anita Park in southern California after a number of horse deaths.
What injuries do racehorses face and why are they sometimes killed on track?
Gastric ulcers are common in athletic horses due to diet, exercise, housing or stress, and horses can also suffer from muscle tear, most commonly in the rump or hamstrings of the hind limbs.
Then there are exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhages (EIPH), also known as bleeding in the lungs, which can occur during strenuous exercise.
When galloping, horses have a high cardiac output, pushing blood through the body and creating high pressure in the capillaries. These can rupture and release blood into the lungs.
To an extent, EIPH is an “inevitable consequence” of the extremely high cardiac output required by racehorses, say vets at the U-Vet Werribee Equine Centre, which is funded by the University of Melbourne, Racing Victoria and the state government.
Just over half (55.3 per cent) of starters had some degree of EIPH on post-race examination, a University of Melbourne study of Victorian racecourses found, making it a “serious condition in racehorses and prevention or reduction of its incidence is an important issue”.
It’s a condition animal welfare groups are particularly concerned about.
“Statistics should be collected around injuries and reported per race track and for types of racing too, and analysis needs to be done on the different trends,” says the RSPCA’s Ms Walker.
The industry insists this work is already going on.
Australia has the lowest injury rate in the world, says Professor Chris Whitton, from the U-Vet Werribee Equine Centre. But he acknowledges that the nature of racing means some horse injuries can be extremely serious.
“Racing Victoria are doing a lot, they have one of the biggest research programs into injuries in the world. There is always the opportunity to do more and we are dealing with animals and have to do our best for them,” he says.
The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses has created an annual “deathwatch” tally, which found that 122 horses were killed on track in the year to July 31.
There are significant limitations given the type of fractures they get on the racetrack: explosive, shattered bones ... For us to fix a fracture it needs to be a relatively simple one we can repair … We’ve gotten better.
When euthanasia is the best option for a horse, Racing Victoria says the procedure must be performed efficiently, humanely and with no anticipatory stress. Professor Whitton says there are a number of reasons horses are put down.
“Firstly, a horse needs to be able to stand on all four legs immediately after any procedure we do to fix an injury,” he says.
“There are significant limitations given the type of fractures they get on the racetrack: explosive, shattered bones that would be very difficult to repair, that’s why it’s limited ... For us to fix a fracture it needs to be a relatively simple one we can repair and immediately take the weight on that leg.
“We’ve gotten better and that’s why more horses are taken off the track for assessment,” he says.
Racing Victoria say they “take very seriously the care and wellbeing of our horses and have a track record of showing that”.
“There are risks associated with horse racing as there are with all sports but we work our hardest to identify risk and take appropriate action to minimise that risk,” says Mr Stier.
Some animal welfare groups, including Animals Australia and the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, also say horses are at greater risk of injury when they start racing aged two.
However, vet Professor Whitton says he has done a lot of research in this area and evidence has shown the “earlier you start a horse the less injury it has and the longer its career”.
“You need to introduce high speed, work it in carefully and gradually, but there are a number of studies which have shown the younger you start a horse, the longer its career and fewer injuries it has,” he says.
How are horses treated outside the track?
Hundreds of thousands of jobs nationally are tied to thoroughbred racing, and it’s generally accepted that most within the industry have a deep connection and love for the animals.
Successful horses, in particular, are generally extremely well cared for, with millions spent on their welfare. What is the life of a racehorse like compared to other horses?
“Compared to life in the wild, some of the horses and particularly the best racehorses do have a longer life, and the reason being, in the wild they don’t get medical care, they possibly could be attacked by another animal, they can fight amongst each other,” says Professor McManus.
“It’s tough, say in the Snowy Mountains, and it’s not as comfortable as a clean stable with fresh hay. Successful horses in terms of a racing career or potential breeding are very well looked after and it’s in an owner and trainer’s interests to do that, generally.
“There are concerns, though,” he says.
These include the racehorse’s diet, which Professor McManus says can be different to a natural diet and lead to ulcers.
There are also concerns around socialisation, given that horses are herd animals and can end up in stables around lots of horses the same age, with no leadership or herd mentality.
The heart rate goes up massively because that’s how they perform and their physiology is designed to enable them to be amazing athletes. How you determine what’s stress and what isn’t is very difficult to tease out.
It’s also, basically, impossible to know whether a horse likes to race.
“I don’t know anyone knows,” says vet Professor Whitton.
“Their instinct is to run. That doesn’t mean they enjoy it. Having an instinct to run and doing it doesn’t mean you enjoy it. It’s an impossible question to answer. People who say they enjoy it don’t know, and people that say they don’t enjoy it don’t know. It’s unanswerable.”
“The heart rate goes up massively because that’s how they perform and their physiology is designed to enable them to be amazing athletes. How you determine what’s stress and what isn’t is very difficult to tease out.”
Ms Walker from the RSPCA says while there is no doubt there is a “great affection” for horses in the equine industry that doesn’t mean that there are not entrenched animal welfare issues.
From an industry point of view, events such as the 10-month investigation by Victoria Police and Racing Victoria into the alleged use of jiggers (electric shock devices) by top trainer Darren Weir, who has been charged with animal cruelty and conspiracy offences, show that industry bodies are prioritising compliance.
“I think, without doubt, the racehorses are generally considered to receive the highest standard of care … that’s not to say that some individuals don’t behave as we expect them to behave,” says Racing Victoria’s Mr Stier.
“Any evidence or indication of inappropriate behaviour is addressed swiftly and firmly.”
How is the conversation about animal rights and ethics changing the racing industry?
In September, the ACT became the first jurisdiction in the country to recognise animal sentience, passing laws to recognise that animals can feel and perceive the world around them, and deserve to have a quality of life that "reflects their intrinsic value".
The greyhound racing industry has been overhauled in many states after serious animal welfare issues were uncovered, causing outrage.
What does the changing conversation around animals mean for racing?
“There will always be some out there who don’t wish to see horse racing take place – we have to acknowledge that – but what we are focused on [is] considering community expectation,” says Racing Victoria’s Mr Stier.
Professor McManus says it will be a test for the industry in the years to come to maintain its social licence to operate.
“If you whip a horse 18 times in the last 100 metres on a racetrack, it’s OK. If you did the same out in the street, you’d be charged with animal cruelty,” he says.
“It [racing] has a special status at the moment and I think that special status is what conflicts with changing expectations about animal welfare – and those things don’t align at the moment.”