“Poor racehorses! They lead such a sad life!”

Or do they?

As animal welfare awareness spreads, and the internet helps spread it, public concerns over certain equestrian sports are increasing. But many of these concerns could stem from a lack of understanding about the way the sport functions, said Camie Heleski, MS, PhD, an instructor and adviser in the University of Kentucky equine science and management program, in Lexington.

It’s important to address these concerns from a scientific perspective, however. That’s why researchers have recently conducted an overall look into the ethics of horse racing. Their work not only helps acknowledge the rightful concerns of a well-meaning public and contributes to better equine welfare but also helps resolve certain misconceptions.

“The horse racing industry gets a lot of media coverage, which makes it extremely visually impactful for the public,” Heleski said. She presented her work at the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Symposium, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Heleski and her fellow researchers used a scientific ethical evaluation framework she designed in 2012 to objectively explore what’s going on in horse racing. They identified five major areas of concern:

  • Whip use;
  • Horse wastage/career conversion;
  • Racing of very young horses;
  • Medication use; and
  • Management.

Whip use, she said, is a valid concern because evidence shows that even padded whips are painful. Studies have also indicated that they don’t make horses run faster.

“My experience is that once you have conditioned racehorses, if they want to run fast, they’ll do it,” Heleski said. “If not, there’s nothing you can do to convince them to go faster. Even retired Thoroughbreds still spend a decent amount of time running fast against the horses in the next pasture.”

Whipping regulations should evolve in response to the public voice, she said. But that doesn’t mean the whip should be banned entirely, as this could be dangerous for both horse and jockey—and even others nearby if a horse gets out of control.

“Jockeys’ legs are too high to be able to do anything effective to control the horse,” Heleski said. “They need that whip to do a pop on the shoulder and get their attention back.

“But we also need to accept that the public doesn’t want to see horses getting whipped,” she continued. “We don’t need to be whipping down the stretch. They don’t go faster when they’re getting whipped.”

Wastage, on the other hand, is not as worrisome as it once was, Heleski said.

“We keep seeing people bashing the horse racing industry on social media, especially with regards to what happens with retired horses,” she said. “But the industry has been working hard to keep wastage rates to a minimum, like keeping adoption fees low, developing rehoming centers, and contributing prize money to reconversion programs. And it’s working. It’s just remarkable what these horses, only 16 months off the track, are capable of doing.”

Transformed into competitive riding horses, off-track Thoroughbreds have gained a lot of attention across the country, especially in regions near major racetracks. “In Lexington, for example, it’s really become an especially popular type of horse,” she said. “A nice niche has been created for those horses there.”

The racing of young horses is also not a serious welfare concern, Heleski said. Trained appropriately following scientific guidelines, 2-year-olds actually benefit from the early workouts.

“People want to know, ‘Why are we racing babies?’” she said. “But recent bone physiology research suggests that sensible conditioning and racing is actually better for the soundness of these horses than waiting till they’re 5, 4, or even 3.”

As far as medication use is concerned, it’s a complicated issue because public perception will always affect it. “I don’t have a problem with horses getting Lasix or Salix for EIPH,” or exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, she said. “But the public does. Unfortunately, chances are the public perception isn’t going to work in favor of educating people about which medications make sense. In the end, we’ll probably just have to go clean slate—take on a zero-tolerance policy for medications.”

An issue that is of considerable concern, but less in the public eye, is how the horses are managed, Heleski said. “It’s personally my biggest concern in the racing industry,” she said. “These horses spend a lot of time in the stall. You do see the unusual racehorse facility that allows the horses to go out and run around a little bit. But we need to be asking ourselves, ‘How can we let the active racing horse have a somewhat more normal life?’ And by that I mean more freedom of movement, more forage, and more access to friends.”

One possibility is to encourage tracks to have more turnout areas for horses in active racing, she said. Another option is actually letting young horses in training stay at the home farm and even let them go out in the field with other horses.

Some “bold” owners and trainers are already allowing this, she added. “They’ve decided they’re going to accept that occasional kick or bite mark in exchange for the benefits they see,” Heleski said.

Overall, it’s important for the industry to recognize the welfare concerns of the horse, and not just during his active years. “If we’re going to use horses for entertainment and sport, we’re going to have to consider the full lifespan of the horse,” she said. “If we’re in a position to make enhancements, we owe the horse that and should do so whenever we can.”

And while horse racing is in the public spotlight, other disciplines face similar welfare issues—but with less public outcry. People in various disciplines would do well to support each other rather than criticize each other, Heleski added.

“Don’t throw stones if you don’t want your own industry to also be closely inspected,” she said. “Nobody is completely without flaw. We’re supposed to be in this together, not taking down individual bits and pieces.”

Author: Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA