Richard Hoiles: communication is key at every stage of a horse's life
Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is also entitled to expect that opinion to be based on facts and research rather than perceived truths or partisan grandstanding.
Horse Welfare Week in the Racing Post has highlighted the great strides the sport has made over the last 25 years in responding to society’s increasing concern about all welfare issues.
No longer an uncomfortable truth hidden in the shadows championed by the zealous few, the area is now far more mainstream, transparent and better supported by scientific study and robust statistics which underpin the sport’s responsibilities to the horses who participate in it, both during and after their racing careers.
Racing should be more confident in stating its welfare achievements while still communicating openly and honestly the risks involved. The racehorse is so named because it is bred to race. When horses were the main means of transport, the racehorse was the Formula 1 car of its time, the chance to prove ‘mine is faster than yours’, and the breed has developed accordingly.
Its speed, fleet of foot and lightness of limb mean injuries will occur. The difficulty is that injuries that are now easily healed in a human, remain fatal to a racehorse for whom prolonged recuperation can create major problems in avoiding weight bearing and the associated problems with laminitis and pneumonia. It still remains the most humane course of action in many cases to put a horse to sleep.
Good communication on racedays is vital. One of the most common misconceptions from this year’s Grand National was the deployment of green screens and bypassing of a fence meant that a horse had died rather than it being a jockey receiving treatment. Dark green screens have an old association that is hard to shake and a redesign – to perhaps include a red cross – may help break that perception.
If, however, the news is bad it must also be given in a timely manner and phrased with respect. The delays in the past gave the impression that such bad news was being swept under the carpet. Including such information in stewards' reports would allow everyone to be aware of the actual outcome and where to look rather than rely on the hearsay of social media.
Those with more drastic opinions on the morality of horseracing often base their views on the belief that banning the sport would allow a mass liberalisation of horses galloping to their hearts' content around idyllic green fields. The stark reality is that such an act would immediately sign far more horses' death warrants than a hundred years of racing.
Any animal who no longer has purpose immediately becomes more vulnerable to neglect and cruelty. Horseracing as an industry employs more than 18,000 people, provides a tax contribution of £275 million and a contribution to GDP of over £3.5 billion. Remove that purpose and investment and immediately masses of horses and people become redundant and vulnerable.
The challenge for the industry is to ensure adequate aftercare once racing careers are over, once their direct contribution to the sport has ended. Here it is again vital that racing strongly communicates the message that it is not finding a home or nice field that is the key, but instead finding the right home for the specific horse. The road to neglect is often paved with good intentions, someone taking on an obligation that it soon becomes apparent they are ill equipped to deal with, whether it be in terms of facilities, experience, finance or time. Racehorses are used to routine, they are used to being mounted on the move, their food arriving at a certain time and the companionship of others.
This puts a massive strain on the horse and owner in the early days, when a horse can’t be mounted because they wont stand still, when the lack of routine results in the rapid deterioration of physical condition and when it becomes apparent that the dreams of gentle evening hacks in the sunset are far detached from reality.
Understandably to this point most resources, through the funding of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) have been targeted where they will have the most numerical benefit. RoR is the official charity for the rehoming and retraining of racehorses receiving more than £750,000 a year. It has more than 13,000 horses registered.
It does not undertake the work itself but instead focuses on highlighting the potential alternative careers or homes for the 4,000-plus horses a year exiting the racing industry. They act largely as a clearing house, putting owners in touch with retraining yards or those in specialist areas such as showing, polo, team chasing, dressage and eventing. Accredited yards receive funding to take in horses, assess their attributes and requirements and match them with suitable new owners based on their own experience and ambitions.
The range and diversity of such yards that are available through the RoR website is testament to the success of the strategy as have many of the stories covered this week where ex-racehorses have achieved new heights in their second careers.
Moving forward, however, it is important that funding is not just driven by the numbers game and targets.
The danger here is that everyone wants to rehome the same type of placid, versatile, sound horse who is easily placed and hence yield a quick return financially. The issue is for those who carry more scars, both mental and physical, and for whom both time and more effort in finding a suitable home is required.
They are currently tagged as ‘vulnerable horses’ and specifically allocated to those with the facilities and expertise to deal with the challenges. The funding, however, is based on initial allocation and then when eventually rehomed and doesn’t always accurately reflect the timescales, and hence actual cost, required to allow this narrower more niche area the time it requires to find the perfect long-term match.
The other issue is that as time passes more horses that were initially placed to have successful second careers will eventually reach an age when again they may be looking to be rehomed, this time with fewer options and again more specific needs. It is important that if the industry is to fulfil its stated objective that its duty of care extends throughout their lives that this is addressed as part of its future equine welfare strategy.
Moving the majority through established pathways is a sound starting strategy but the second phase should ensure that the niche requirements of the minority are also adequately funded as these ‘vulnerable’ horses are often at most risk in the short and long term.
Racing can be proud of its advances in the area of welfare. Robust communication of the issues and funding across the whole spectrum can build on the progress made and ensure it is continued into the future. The Horse Comes First initiative focusing on welfare that took place at Cheltenham in December was an excellent example of the industry getting on the front foot. This approach will enhance understanding, inform opinion and improve debate to the benefit of all concerned.
Vitality by name, vitality by nature
It was a name very familiar to me from my time in Hong Kong from evenings when conversation turned to debating Hong Kong’s all-time top horses. Trained by Ivan Allan, Mr Vitality won 10 of his 14 starts and was the first to win the Hong Kong Triple Crown before injury curtailed his career. When he left for retirement in England, over 10,000 people turned up to the airport to see him off.
Here he was over a decade later in a newsletter documenting the progress of the horses at The Racehorse Sanctuary, a charity specialising in providing a ‘life after racing’ of which I am proud to be a patron. His back history was irrelevant, he was just a horse in need who had been fortunate enough to benefit from the care and dedication of those determined to provide a good quality of life for vulnerable horses.
Now in his mid-twenties Mr Vitality is still going strong, his life in Somerset a far cry from Sha Tin, but another success story for the time and patience of Graham Oldfield and Sue Collins and the many others who commit their lives to horse welfare.
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