Commercial Horse Racing Position Statement
Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics, is opposed to many of the established practices in the horse racing industry due to their significant animal welfare risks. These practices are unlikely to change due to the scale of the industry and the high financial stakes involved.
The racing industry is responsible for an enormous ‘wastage’ of horses. It is estimated that only 30 per cent of Thoroughbred foals born in Australia will race, and significant numbers of horses have no career after racing due to health problems or behavioural issues. With the minority of these surplus horses being re-homed, most are sent to knackeries or transported long distances to one of the few horse abattoirs in Australia. Such transport entails long periods without access to food or water. Being transported in large numbers with unfamiliar horses exposes individuals to the risk of bullying and aggression with no ability to escape, which is highly stressful and can result in injury.
Sentient opposes the commercial slaughter of unwanted horses. We recommend that controls be placed over stud owners to restrict overbreeding. Horse owners should assume responsibility for appropriate rehoming, rather than disposing of surplus horses without considering their future welfare. Furthermore, the industry should be mandated to fund options for careful rehoming, where horses are housed in groups with other horses. Where necessary, humane euthanasia is the only acceptable alternative to commercial slaughter.
The current housing of racehorses in individual stalls runs counter to their strong herd instinct and denies them the opportunity to engage in natural behaviours such as foraging and grazing. Race horses are kept standing in individual stalls for most of the day, apart from when training. This does not fulfil their need for social contact with other horses, and leads to frustration, lack of environmental stimulation and often insufficient dietary fibre. Consequently, one in ten race horses develops stereotypic behaviours such as weaving (head swaying over the stable door), crib biting, wind sucking and stall walking.
A related concern is the routine practice of feeding high concentrate diets two to three times daily, in contrast to sustained grazing on highly fibrous feed. This predisposes horses to gastric ulceration by interfering with the normal release of bicarbonate-rich saliva, which buffers stomach acid. Exercising while gastric acidity is high is thought to contribute to ulcer formation. A major study published in 2000 found that 89 per cent of race horses fed high concentrate diets during training had stomach ulcers.
The training of race horses remains focussed on the use of negative reinforcement, which involves applying and then removing pressure when the horse complies, despite evidence that positive reinforcement (such as clicker training) leads to faster learning and fewer stress related behaviours. It is crucial that the use of negative reinforcement strictly adheres to the principles of ethical training. The most public example of ill-timed punishment and violence to animals is whip use by jockeys.
Research published in 2012 provides evidence that the so-called padded whip does not safeguard the horse from pain; the majority of whip contacts breached Australian whip rules by involving the unpadded section of the whip, striking the abdomen (which is particularly sensitive to tactile sensation) rather than the hindquarters, or leaving visible indentations. These breaches went unnoticed by racing stewards. Furthermore, a related study showed that whipping horses does not improve racing times. Sentient is therefore opposed to the use of whips during racing and to the ongoing reliance on training methods that modify behaviour by producing pain or discomfort.
Commercial racing exposes horses to the risk of severe exercise-induced injuries. Common injuries are tendon strain (such as flexor tendon strain due to high intensity exercise) and fractures (such as carpal fractures or ‘knee chips’ due to fatigue from repetitive high loading during fast exercise, pelvic stress fractures and fracture of the distal phalanx), all with associated pain and lameness. The risk of injury is increased by the standard practice of racing two to three year old thoroughbred horses. These horses are still growing and therefore have immature skeletal systems. They have a particularly increased risk of shin soreness (dorsal metacarpal disease, involving pain and new bone production secondary to weakening of the growing bones in response to fatigue) and subsequent stress fractures.
Race horses are also predisposed to severe respiratory disease. The majority are affected by Exercise Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage, or bleeding into the respiratory tract due to the high intensity of exercise, which leads to high cardiac outputs and vascular pressures. Although most horses do not bleed from the nostrils, they experience respiratory distress after exercise. Researchers have shown that 56 per cent of racehorses have blood in their windpipe, and 90 per cent have blood deeper in their lungs. Inflammatory Airway Disease is another common disorder and has been documented in 33 per cent of young racehorses in training, despite the absence of clinical signs. Those with clinical signs experience chronic cough and decreased performance. Inflammatory Airway Disease is exacerbated by housing conditions (stabling, dusty hay, allergens, fungal and bacterial endotoxins and human activity, including motor vehicles) and overexertion in training.