Horsemen gathered at the Fasig-Tipton pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. last week to learn more about aftercare as part of New York's continuing education requirement for licensed trainers. Dr. Patty Hogan, equine surgeon and founder of Hogan Equine Clinic at Fair Winds Farm in New Jersey, explained both the necessity of retiring Thoroughbreds and signs a trainer can look for to know when it's time for a horse to leave the track.
The trainer continuing education program requires a certain number of completed CE hours, rather than specific courses, and a sizable portion of the audience were representatives from aftercare organizations or owners.
Hogan said there are three primary situations that should prompt a trainer to retire a horse, two of which are obvious and one of which is trickier to assess. When a horse is untalented for racing, it's both clear to most trainers and not a fixable issue. Similarly, when a horse suffers a serious injury that makes it unlikely for him return to his previous level of racing, it's clearly time for retirement. Where trainers can run into problems is deciding when a horse with chronic issues needs to find a second career.
In many cases, she worries trainers can fall prey to what she calls 'One Last Race Syndrome.'
“That's where the horse is racing and has a problem but there's one last check, one last race they think they can make,” Hogan said, noting one last race can sometimes make the difference between retiring with lots of second career possibilities, and retiring with very few if the horse suffers more damage. “When we're dealing with this it's mostly older horses, claiming horses that have something going on on x-ray and we know they're vulnerable.”
Besides limiting second career options (and therefore, making them difficult and more expensive to rehome), horses with chronic issues limiting performance is also more likely to be at increased risk for on-track breakdown. Hogan said stress fractures are a common finding among Thoroughbreds in her practice, but that doesn't mean they are always obvious to a trainer's eye. Advanced imaging like bone scans and MRI can reveal issues in bone and soft tissue which can hide from radiographs or conventional soundness exams. Researchers are currently working to identify biomarkers in blood that could show veterinarians when inflammation is present in the body, before it becomes visible to the naked eye.
Hogan also believes owners need to be thinking more about aftercare, well before they have to consider it for their horse. She presented examples of two horses, one that had an orthopedic stress injury at a young age and got appropriate treatment, and one that was diagnosed with a lingering knee issue but whose ownership declined surgery. The first horse ran for years, ultimately with a mild case of arthritis at retirement, while the second was eventually forced into retirement by the knee problem, which had worsened significantly. In her experience, owners interested in flipping the horse for profit, or running low-value claiming horses are less likely to invest the funds in surgery to treat stress injuries because the treatment may cost more than the horse.
Although some trainers may not give it much thought, Hogan said they should also think twice about sending a chronic bleeder out for a refresher and bringing the horse back to the races. Some horses with repeated episodes of Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage suffer scarring in the lungs which predisposes them to future episodes, likely limiting their performance abilities. Fortunately, this scarring does not appear to impact breathing for lower-intensity sports.
“They bleed from a very particular spot. It's always the back upper quadrant [of the lungs], and over time they get scar tissue there, and they get hematomas,” said Hogan. “Those horses can do so much if they're also sound horses.”
Hogan also warned trainers about sourcing their own aftercare solutions. As of 2009, the New York Racing Association has had the power to pull stalls or refuse entries from trainers whose horses end up in the slaughter pipeline. No matter how trustworthy an individual may seem, Hogan said people who show up on the backstretch looking for horses – especially horses with soundness problems – may not have the kindest or most thorough long-term plans for them.
“Unsound horses, I can guarantee you, will slip through the cracks,” Hogan said. “If you have an unsound horse you're trying to give away, it's going to end up in a bad place.”
Hogan presented her 'wish list' of changes she hopes to see to improve Thoroughbred aftercare. Included on the list: transfer of veterinary records along with ownership, more critical pre-race inspection, a transfer fee funding aftercare for each one of a horse's ownership changes, and more affordable, available euthanasia options for horses that need it. The latter, Hogan said, is something people usually don't want to talk about.
“That is an option sometimes,” she said. “It is far better to euthanize a horse that's chronically lame and can't go anywhere. It's a hard question but sometimes a good option.”
One more thing on her list: for horsemen to stop referring to horses surrendered to aftercare programs as “donations.” As panelists noted earlier in the week in a session on aftercare at Equestricon, programs like ReRun, New Vocations, and others usually spend more on a horse than they make back in adoption fees. Giving them one more mouth to feed is the right thing to do for the horse, but it's not exactly doing organizations a favor unless the horse comes along with a check to help cover his expenses while he awaits adoption.
In the social media age, Hogan said it's more important than ever to put the horse's welfare first. The public is not only more removed from an agricultural society than ever before, they're more removed from horses than ever, and more likely to view them as pets than livestock. That view comes along with a lot of anthropomorphism, and higher tempers than ever before if a horse's welfare is in question. Beyond concerns about public perception, Hogan pointed out that taking care of horses is only fair for those whose businesses depend on them.
“This is not charity,” said Hogan. “This is an obligation we all have. We all make a living off the backs of the horses, and we all have an obligation to make sure they move on to something else.”
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