At the 50th annual conference of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in Paris last week, horse welfare experts encouraged racing officials to take a proactive approach to racehorse aftercare. A difference in cultural thinking was also on display, as welfare groups provided international leaders with a few pieces of advice that might be termed somewhat unpopular with Americans.
Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, believes owners need to begin thinking of their responsibility to a horse as a lifetime commitment, although that doesn't mean owners must retain custody of the horse for its whole life. When a horse leaves the track, Owers said, owners must make an honest assessment of what the best outcome could be for that horse. Part of their consideration before retiring or selling a horse to a second career should be not just whether the horse will be kept alive and repurposed, but whether he will get as high a level of care as he received at the track. (In some places, Owers pointed out, the pre-race veterinary exams actually enable racehorses to receive better medical care than what is standard in private riding homes.) This concept isn't new to Americans, who have watched in recent years as scandals have unfolded around rescue organizations that ran out of funds to feed and care for horses in their care.
One thing Owers suggested that is somewhat contrary to the American racing culture is that owners need to consider whether humane euthanasia is an appropriate option for their horse. As the Paulick Report noted earlier this year, euthanasia of horses physically or mentally unsuited for a second career is considered kinder by some in the aftercare field than trying to rehome the horse. Very often, experts believe those horses are more likely to wind up in neglectful or abusive homes because they get passed from hand to hand more often.
“It is the path of responsible ownership to give an animal a good life, but also to give it a good death,” said Owers. “That is why the issue of euthanasia cannot be ignored. It is so much easier to sort out the problem tomorrow than grapple with the situation today.”
In a similar vein, Owers suggested humane slaughter can be the right choice for some horses who will not realistically find homes. The official position of World Horse Welfare, which advises the British Horseracing Authority on various welfare issues, is pro-slaughter – in the right context. It's important horses not be hauled a long distance, not be neglected in the days leading to slaughter, and if they are to be slaughtered, they are killed in a humane and appropriate manner. Owers cited a University of Bristol report about the horsemeat scandal of 2013-15 which found that consumers in the UK would benefit from horses entering the food chain more openly. (European consumer confidence in its food was rocked when several beef products tested positive for horse DNA, despite labeling to the contrary.)
The IFHA provides guidelines for humane euthanasia of racehorses as part of its principles of good practice, although the document is more relevant to cases of on-track injury than off-track problem-solving.
Another area in need of reform is data related to horses leaving the racetrack. Not all racing authorities keep tabs on whether a horse is officially retired, and those that do only receive data on a limited number of horses, suggesting many thousands are off the radar. Jamie Stier, director of raceday operations for the British Horseracing Authority and chairman of the Horse Welfare Committee, sees this as a major issue. It not only makes it difficult for former owners and breeders to find horses after the track, but it can rattle public confidence in aftercare if off-track horses unexpectedly end up in bad circumstances with no explanations.
“When they appear in the media, regardless of the length of time since they exited our sport, the headline says ‘racehorse,'” said Stier. “We need to be responsible for it, and we need to understand the public will always see the horse as a racehorse.”
Additional data on when and why horses retire could also help aftercare organizations and racing authorities learn more about what they need on-track and off.
Stier reminded the audience of the recent demise of the greyhound racing industry in New South Wales, where racing is slated to be illegal as of next July. A government report found “overwhelming evidence of systemic animal cruelty,” part of which was a struggle to adequately rehome dogs off the track. The public was appalled by the idea the industry couldn't take care of its animals. Stier warned that horse racing is not immune to the same end if it isn't willing to take better care of its athletes.
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