New ways to keep track of what happens to horses in Britain after leaving racing are being developed, including a system to log what happens to each equine when their careers come to an end. Other plans being headed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) include simplifying associated paperwork and creating a rule to ensure accurate information is collected.
Allegations about the welfare of racehorses leaving the sport made international headlines this year after a TV documentary that showed shocking scenes of treatment of horses in slaughterhouses in Australia. But the alleged situation is extremely different to and in no way representative of UK reality.
Around 7,000 horses leave training in the UK each year and much is already happening to ensure their welfare, but major developments are planned with the aim of better understanding what happens at each stage of racehorses’ lives.
Since January 2018, foal births must be registered within 30 days, down from a year. British racing’s Horse Welfare Board, which met for the first time in April, is working on projects linking to lifelong traceability and welfare of thoroughbreds, from the database to a welfare assessment tool and an appropriate euthanasia policy.
The hope is these combined will give the industry greater insight on whether there are inch points or red flags where problems or loss of horses could be minimised.
“Measures are already being introduced to increase British racing’s ability to keep track of thoroughbreds, before they enter training and after their racing careers,” RoR chief executive Di Arbuthnot told H&H.
“The BHA and RoR will be working closely together to strengthen the bridge between the detailed data racing has of horses in training and the data RoR has of horses active in second careers.
“We recognise there is scope to do more to keep track of horses following racing and this will be a priority for RoR and BHA in 2020. Measures will also be introduced to increase awareness of the options available, how RoR can help owners and trainers and ensuring more horses are registered with RoR, and sooner, and making owners aware of their responsibilities under UK law to register all transfers of ownership.”
Mrs Arbuthnot added the aftercare system and infrastructure in Britain is “demonstrably more mature than in other racing jurisdictions”.
RoR is also helping other countries set up and improve systems, and learn what works well overseas.
The organisation has close to 6,800 horses registered as “active” in a second career; 3,467 in showing, 4,148 in dressage and 2,912 eventers.
“Thanks to RoR, British racing has a welfare safety net, which takes in and funds care of former racehorses, who but for charitable intervention could be at risk,” Mrs Arbuthnot added.
“Over the past couple of years, around 100 horses a year have received the benefit of funding. A far smaller number of horses receive assistance through the charity’s emergency relief fund.”
Room for improvement
BHA director of equine health and welfare David Sykes said the situation is “good”, but there is room for improvement.
“It is really important for the industry to get this right,” he said. “We need to be open, transparent and have traceability and welfare initiatives. Capturing that first step is our aim for next year.
“We want to know when a horse leaves training and where he goes; if he’s going to his owner, being retired, or to a retraining centre.
“We would like to be able to set up the system so we can capture if that retraining centre sells, or moves the horse on, so we have the next stage of traceability.”
He said work aimed at getting subsequent homes involved in RoR so they can track what happens next is ongoing.
“The challenge for racing is to be able to show the public we take responsibility for what we breed for the industry from the very beginning to as long as we can have some oversight at the other end,” he said, adding they hope the database in development will help look at whether certain patterns are red flags where intervention would help.
“For instance at a retraining stage, we might see a horse who has moved once or twice in a short period of time. That might flag something that says ‘when we have seen that activity, that horse might be at risk of being vulnerable — should [someone] intercede and say, ‘Is that ok?’”
Data protection laws mean pulling information from the government’s Central Equine Database is challenging, which is why the industry is keen to ensure former racehorses are logged with RoR.
“Both owners and trainers take responsibility now [for horses leaving racing],” he said. “I think we need to be looking at educating owners and syndicates more; it’s important for what happens to a horse after his career to be brought into a discussion early on.”
Rehoming is not always a suitable route for a horse’s welfare, for physical or behavioural reasons, and this is another area the industry is working on.
“Euthanasia is sometimes an appropriate welfare outcome and that can’t be avoided,” Mr Sykes said, adding that assessment of why this is the most appropriate route needs to be consistent.
“You are assessing the reasons they are not suitable for rehoming. We are also working out a euthanasia policy we can develop, that is acceptable to the public as well.”
Traceability is key
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers told H&H traceability is “fundamental to welfare” in ensuring each horse is responsibly cared for from birth to death.
“Responsibility for the welfare of horses used in racing, as with all equestrian sport, rests on the shoulders of those who own, train, ride and care for them,” said Mr Owers.
“In the public’s view, if a horse was bred for racing, it will always be a racehorse — no matter whether it is retired or never raced. So these horses remain racing’s responsibility.”
Mr Owers added horse sport increasingly needs social licence to operate.
“For racing to continue as a popular and well-regarded sport, it must ensure it operates transparently and accountably — always putting the welfare of the horse first — to maintain the trust of the public,” he said.
“We must also constantly challenge ourselves on what good welfare really means. And today more than ever, horse sport needs to actively listen to and respond to the concerns of the public if it is to continue to enjoy its support.”
“In Australia, there was rightly public outrage at the way horses were treated in that abattoir, which was not compliant with the national standards on the slaughter of animals or state welfare laws. In the UK, we have robust regulations to protect horses at slaughter and CCTV is mandatory in English abattoirs.
“This, together with a better identification process at end of life, gives greater protection to British horses.”
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