Colic, Brexit and the whip: the BHA's David Sykes answers your welfare questions
The director of health and welfare responds to readers' queries
How long does it take for a horse to recover after a bad fall and what's the recovery rate?
This is a good question, and the answer is that we don’t know – as yet anyway. I have recently instigated a project analysing data from previous seasons to not only look at how horses perform over a period of time after a fall, but also their recurrence of falls or failure to complete at subsequent starts. The question here is if we have a horse who falls at a fence, should we be thinking from a welfare point of view that the horse needs to have a rest or a stand-down period before it's appropriate to race again?
We’ll be led by the data on this – if the data indicates there is a concern that horses underperform or are at more risk of injury for a certain period after a fall then we may look to introduce a stand-down period, similar to jockeys with concussion. If not, then we won’t.
What causes colic and why are horses so susceptible to it?
Colic is a term used to describe the clinical signs of abdominal pain in a horse. Horses are particularly sensitive to pain originating from the abdomen and are only able to respond clinically in a particular way.
The anatomy of the horse’s intestinal system and its complexity add to the susceptibility of this syndrome. Those clinical signs will include looking uncomfortable, pawing at the ground, increased heart rate, sweating, flank watching and frequently lying down and continuously rolling. These are all indications that the horse has some sort of abdominal pain. That pain may be because of distension of the gut from gas or an impact from fibrous food, all the way through to a twisted bowel, which may be fatal if not surgically treated.
Of the 4,000 plus thoroughbreds foaled each year for racing purposes, what percentage (roughly) do you expect to be alive aged ten and 15 years?
While we are confident a high proportion of racehorses go on to live a happy and fulfilling life following the end of their racing careers, it is extremely difficult to put a figure on the number of horses who are alive at a certain age. It is for this reason that, as part of the sport's new welfare strategy, we are developing an all-encompassing veterinary welfare database to ensure continuous and appropriate traceability as horses move through their careers.
What could Brexit mean for equine welfare, both in terms of collaborative research across Europe, and travelling horses?
Government has expressed consistently the view that we should use Brexit as an opportunity to raise standards of equine welfare, an approach that we would support. We regard horse transportation issues as primarily a welfare rather than trade issue – more barriers to free movement could cause welfare risks if horses are being expected to spend more time in transit.
Government is in discussion with the EU Commission to maintain the high health horse status of thoroughbreds in racing and breeding. If this status is accepted then it will ensure transport of horses from the UK to EU countries and the reverse is maintained similar to the current tripartite agreement between the UK, France and Ireland. Britain plays a leading part in equine science and welfare research as part of a global racing community via the industry-funded Levy Board and we would also be keen to ensure that this continues after Brexit.
Why is Lasix allowed in training in Britain? If horses are trained on it, doesn't it just make them more susceptible to bleeding on the big day when they can't run on it?
Lasix, like other equine therapeutic medicines, is allowed during training but not permitted to be present in a horse’s system on raceday, where only natural feed and water can be administered and a horse’s system must be free of all substances.
Rhododendron at Newbury on Saturday leaving the paddock on her way out on to the course was throwing her forelegs out in front in a very exaggerated manner. I have never seen that before in all my 30 plus years of experience working with horses. Can you please explain the reason(s) why she was doing this?
Rhododendron exhibited a prancing forelimb action as she left the paddock. My opinion is she was showing her happiness, willingness and excitement at going racing. She performed accordingly.
When horses suffer fractures, why is the most common course of action to put them down there and then?
The first thought of any vet treating an injured horse is the welfare of that horse, including appropriate analgesia to relieve pain and anxiety. The second thought is to assess and stabilise the injury if possible. The third decision is if the injury is catastrophic and recovery is hopeless or extremely unlikely.
If the injuries are potentially recoverable then the vets will do all they can to ensure the horse is not in pain and transport it to the racecourse veterinary facilities or local equine hospital for further treatment and assessment. However, in some cases the injuries simply cannot be recovered from and it is the most humane course of action to put the horse down.
The nature of horses' limbs means that when their bone fractures, it is very rarely a simple break, like you might expect in a human limb. Therefore reparation of the limb is often impossible. Should the bone be broken in a manner that would allow it to heal, there is then the added complication of the healing process for horses. They cannot be rested in a bed like human beings, and therefore they must be asked to bear their full weight on three limbs rather than four while the broken limb heals – this can cause serious complications. Even if you could persuade a horse to lie still while the bone healed, that would cause further complications – such as pneumonia. Therefore it is often simply more humane to put a horse with a catastrophic injury down.
What would you say to someone who believes people who race horses are cruel?
Those who work in British racing are proud of how the sport cares for its horses. Among a population estimated to be around 1 million, racehorses in Britain are among the healthiest and best looked after 2 per cent of horses in the country. More than 6,000 people dedicate their lives to the welfare of the 14,000 horses in British horseracing, providing them with a level of care and a quality of life that is virtually unsurpassed by other domestic or domesticated animals.
Thoroughbreds are the product of 300 years of breeding and they are bred to be the highly tuned and evolved equine athletes we see today. Their training and lifestyle involve the best possible care. No expense is spared on the highest quality feed, facilities and bedding to ensure they are happy and healthy athletes.
Jockeys say they need the whip for steering, but then why does the horse not move away from the whip every time they use it? Surely if that the were the case they'd need to change hands every stroke to keep them straight, like paddling a canoe - the horse can't tell the difference between a strike to ask them to go faster and a strike to move sideways. Reins have historically done a good job for steering . . .
The whip is an essential tool for safety, and careful riders in any equine discipline would always carry a whip for safety purposes, but its primary purpose would not be for steering. The BHA's whip review of 2011 found that acceptable use of the whip includes to focus a horse, to encourage it to perform at its best when in contention, and for safety. Any use that falls outside these parameters might be considered to be in breach of the rules. The BHA has recently announced it will be examining whether the existing penalties for misuse of the whip, and how they apply, constitute an adequate deterrent to jockeys.
How do we know horses enjoy racing?
There is always a risk with projecting a human emotion like ‘enjoyment’ on to a racehorse. Running is an instinctive and natural activity for horses. Thoroughbred horses are bred to race and often their temperament means that they are most suited to an active life and the thrill of competition.
How many vets are on course on a raceday?
This will vary from course to course depending on the event, but the BHA General Instructions state that there must be a minimum of two racecourse vets at every Flat fixture and three at every jumps fixture. This is in addition to at least one independent BHA regulatory vet, whose role it is to ensure the high standards expected of racecourses, trainers, stable staff and jockeys are met at every fixture, and to carry out regulatory roles such as sampling. At many fixtures there will be substantially more vets than this in place – for example, Aintree employs nine veterinary surgeons for their Grand National fixture as well as the additional BHA veterinary officers.
How much influence does the vet have on the conditions and provisions, e.g. on hot days/ice/the stables etc?
The BHA’s independent vets play an important part in decision making around all aspects of a raceday welfare and wellbeing, including the implementation of hot weather provisions or racecourse hygiene and cleanliness. No fixture can take place unless strict welfare criteria are met, and it is the role of the BHA’s independent vets to ensure those high standards.
If a vet is worried about a particular horse, can they pull it from the race?
Yes, horses are overseen, checked or assessed numerous times by vets on a raceday and if there are any concerns about a horse’s participation in a race then the vets may order that horse to be withdrawn from the race.
Are there sufficient provisions at racecourses to carry out immediate operations?
The veterinary facilities at British racecourses are first rate and the veterinary expertise is world-class – including state of the art equine ambulances which allow for horses to be given immediate and dedicated care should it be injured on a racehorse. If you were a horse and you could choose where to have an injury, it would be at the racecourse! For more complex issues racecourses have excellent communication and transport links to local equine hospitals with specialist equipment and veterinary surgeons, should a horse require further treatment.
Should there be a limit on how often horses can race?
Some horses thrive on racing while others require more delicate handling, and therefore at present it is not deemed appropriate to have a catch-all rule for this. Experienced trainers are able to manage their stables and their runners to give the best results for both the horses and the owners. Should there be any horses who are classified as a risk factor, for example due to frequent racing or recent injuries/long layoffs then they will often be assessed by BHA vets before participating.
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