‘A life well lived’: new welfare strategy to protect racehorses from birth to death *H&H Plus*

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  • H&H looks in-depth into racing’s new five-year plan and garners reaction from the wider industry to this ‘watershed moment’ for British racing...

    Promoting and protecting the truth that racehorses enjoy “a life well lived” was the key message from British racing’s newly created welfare strategy.

    While horse welfare is undeniably at the heart of British racing and equestrian sport, this five-year plan is the first time racing has had a single, overarching welfare strategy that covers thoroughbreds not just in racing, but from birth to death.

    The Horse Welfare Board (HWB), comprising a cross-section of the industry, put forward 20 recommendations, covering areas from euthanasia to the ethics of using horses in sport, a consultation on whip rules, more data collection and improved traceability.

    Its four aims are: the best possible quality of life, lifetime responsibility, best possible safety and the growth and maintenance of trust.


    The overarching message was accountability — that this is not a policy dictated from the sport’s decision-makers, but the responsibility of everyone who deals with thoroughbreds bred for racing.

    “The welfare of the racehorse is without doubt the most challenging debate affecting racehorses in this country or anywhere in the world,” said independent chair Barry Johnson.

    “It is important to emphasis the Horse Welfare Board isn’t starting from scratch, but is building on an impressive body of work from within the sport.

    “British racing must be a world leader in equine welfare. Racing should seek not only to survive, but to flourish.”

    The board warned of racing becoming a political topic and the risks this could pose to its future.

    It stressed racing has to be happy and confident in discussing the ethics of using horses in racing and to explain why horses have a better life because of the sport.

    “We can have the best welfare in the world and if we are not telling people about it, we can find ourselves on the back foot,” said Alison Enticknap, programme director.

    “The word ‘defensive’ comes up a lot and that comes from a good place — we are defensive because it matters to us. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t matter.”

    She referred to a quote from the strategy, which reads: “Every interaction on welfare is an opportunity to surprise people, to dispel a myth, or to change someone’s mind. In every interaction on welfare, we need to be inspiring a positive change in attitudes, not simply seeking to make a difficult conversation go away.”

    This was about the future of racing, but it will trickle into other disciplines. The points are in many cases as relevant for sport and leisure horses as for the thoroughbred.

    Accountability of owners and better education on their responsibilities, traceability of horses, improving safety and creating an end-of-life, decision-making tool — all these and more are as relevant to the sport horse owner.

    One recommendation was to develop a code of ethics, which “underlines the sport’s commitment to its horses” and has been mooted to be developed with other equine sports as a “sport horse charter”.

    The final recommendation is for racing to “step up its engagement and collaboration with other equine sports and sectors”.

    There are still questions to be answered — where the funding is going to come from for the 20 recommendations and 26 projects over the next five years is a major one.

    Future of the whip

    Tougher sanctions for whip rule breaches are on the horizon, with a consultation and review of penalties recommended “ideally by the end of October”.

    Between 2010 and 2018, the number of whip offences decreased by nearly 40%.

    Despite this, the welfare board warned that the sport “cannot afford to be complacent of the salience of the whip as a political issue” and the barrier they believe it presents in encouraging people into the sport.

    The Horse Welfare Board states the need to increase penalties is its “clear, minimum recommendation”, in particular for whip action offences (eg, over shoulder height), whip modification offences and repeat or multiple offences by the same jockey.

    It states the consultation should seek views on fines and/or suspensions and prize money sanctions, as well as the possibility of disqualification and discussion over future banning or retention of the whip for encouragement.

    Mr Johnson added this is “a matter of public trust” and not the case that the HWB wants the whip banned.

    “We’d like people, especially those unfamiliar with horses, to understand and accept what’s necessary for our jockeys to race safely in a fair sporting competition,” he said. “It’s not about taking away the whip. Anyone who’s ridden a half-ton horse knows you need to be able to exercise control for the safety of horse and rider. This is about what should be allowable under our rules and how we penalise misuse to keep breaches to a minimum.”

    What has the reaction been like?

    The industry reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

    The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has called it a “pivotal moment”, accepting all the recommendations including the whip consultation.

    BHA chief executive Nick Rust said he was “proud of the work already done by the sport” and the welfare board’s ambition.

    “Racing people want the very best for our horses,” he said. “We would love more people outside our sport to understand just how much we put into keeping horses safe and allowing them to enjoy the quality of life that goes with being an equine athlete.

    “I know our sport has been frustrated at times, because it feels not enough has been done to speak up for racing. I firmly believe the strategy gives us a platform to talk about all the good things we do with pride and confidence. That is why it is a pivotal moment, an opportunity to show that we can be trusted to do the right thing for our horses.”

    World Horse Welfare’s chief executive Roly Owers described it as a “watershed moment” for British racing.

    “It not only sees the first truly integrated approach to equine welfare across the industry, but it also clearly recognises the importance of public perception and its relevance to the future of racing,” he said.

    “We welcome the focus on not just the care of horses but their quality of life and basing decisions on rigorous evidence.

    “The board has been thorough in its rationale and sound in its recommendations and while it doesn’t provide a detailed framework, it certainly does set out a clear direction of travel that everyone within racing needs to embrace and be seen to be doing so.

    “Without doubt there are going to be some challenging days ahead, but World Horse Welfare will support British racing to implement the board’s recommendations, which have the potential both to create a bright future for the sport and enhance the wellbeing of the thousands of racehorses involved.”

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