Guest blog: Horses for Courses…

For something different, my wife (veterinary surgeon and animal ethicist and welfare expert) is contributing a post today. Enjoy!

If you live in Victoria, have any interest in horse racing or indeed, just happened to drive along the Citylink during the ‘blink and you miss it’ time the billboard was present, you can’t have missed the furore created by the message from the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR) that horseracing results in dead horses.

The aforementioned billboard showed an apparently dead horse with the slogan ‘Is the party really worth it?’, referring, of course to the upcoming annual Melbourne Cup meeting, and questioning whether any value gained from horseracing can justify the death of horses in the industry.

Naturally outrage has been sparked on all sides: Racing Victoria moved, successfully, to have the billboard removed and accused CPR of distaste, shock-tactics and a fundamental misunderstanding of the racing industry. Animal welfare organisations have taken a variety of opposing views ranging from the purely animal rights based through to a more moderate questioning of the welfare cost to horses used in racing.

Regardless of your opinion, it’s an interesting issue to explore as it touches on how we legitimise (or attempt to) our exploitation of other sentient species, and how we react when that exploitation is thrust in our face and questioned. By the way, I will use the word ‘exploitation’ in its true sense with no intent to be sensationalist.

I’m writing this from my experience and knowledge-base as a veterinary surgeon, animal welfare scientist and ethicist. I’ll admit right now it’s ‘top-of-my-head’ stuff but, if time allows, I intend to come back and clean this up with a stronger evidence base. For now though, let’s explore…

A useful approach to this (and indeed any other animal use issue) is the one taken by most developed countries when approaching the use of animals in research. That approach is based on a concept termed the 3 Rs: Replacement – can we use something other than a sentient animal to achieve the same goal?; Reduction – what is the least number of animals we can use to achieve the goal?; and Refinement – when using these animals, how can we best ensure their welfare? Before those questions are asked, however, a more basic, ethical review is taken, albeit from a utilitarian stance: do the ends justify the means? Is the result to be obtained worth the suffering endured by the animals?

In the case of horseracing, I think it’s worth taking that ethical review back a step and asking the most basic, but arguably most pertinent, moral question. Do we have the right to race horses?

To answer this question we need to be honest about what horse racing is. It is, quite simply, a form of entertainment for the enjoyment of one species – humans. If you really think about it, it is a rather primitive form of entertainment to boot. The machinations behind that entertainment might be complex and sophisticated, but the end result is a very basic running race (of course, jumps racing puts some hurdles, literally, in their way as well). And all this is in a world where we have more access to entertainment, of almost infinite variety, than ever before.

Of course, if we doubt our right to use horses for entertainment, that naturally throws a rather uncomfortable spotlight on pet owners too. Regardless, we should continue to ask the question as there may come a time when our ability to provide adequately, as a society as well as on an individual level, for the animals we keep for our own pleasure is diminished to the point where it can no longer be justified from a utilitarian stance. (Just how much utilitarianism is bastardised to justify our exploitation of animals for all manner of reasons is another debate for another day).

The ‘replacement’ aspect of the 3 Rs also asks the same question. Do we need horse racing to provide entertainment? Extending this question a little further, can we survive without horse racing, or will the impact on our society be too great to justify ending the sport? On a global scale, horse racing just isn’t that big a deal, especially when compared to other sports such as football. Only a relatively small number of countries have a substantial racing industry. Of course, racing’s main impact is a financial one, the global revenue from betting on racing is well over $100 billion annually and, in 2003 $15billion of that was gambled on horses in Australia. Surely it would be disastrous for the Australian economy to lose that huge annual pot of money? Well, here’s the thing, gamblers (and I mean the real gamblers, not the once a year punters) have an addiction and, if their gambling method of choice is not available to them, they won’t simply stop gambling, they’ll just gamble on something, anything, else. The revenue will still be there, albeit from a slightly different source.

Of course there is other income generated from horse racing, especially the big meets such as those which comprise the Spring Carnival. These race meets are used by businesses to schmooze clients, the public use these meets to socialise and entertain friends and guests and that revenue would be lost too. Or would it? Isn’t one of the great things about a culturally diverse, sophisticated nation like Australia the fact it provides numerous other opportunities for normal people to pretend they have more money and taste than they actually do? Wouldn’t those guest marquees and ‘best dressed’ fashion parades just up-sticks and move to yachting regattas, tennis events and the like? I think we can safely conclude that both the economy, and our desire for entertainment would be safe without horse racing.

Moving on to ‘reduction’. Can we reduce the number of horses used in the industry? Australia is the most prolific breeder of thoroughbreds after the USA, foaling 18000 annually. Only a relatively small of these will ever have a racing ‘career’, the majority cast off as not good enough. Indeed, according to the RSPCA, only 30% of thoroughbreds will ever race. This is an enormous amount of ‘wastage’ and immediately raises the question of what happens to the remaining 70%. Finding homes for 12600 thoroughbreds every year would be a herculean task for any country and it would be naïve in the extreme to imagine anything close to this number go on to live a decent life. Some will be bought to use in other equestrian pursuits but many more will ultimately be killed, often in knackeries, and that naturally brings to mind the welfare problems inherent in transporting and slaughtering horses in this manner. As an aside, the swift death from a bullet to the brain on the racecourse is arguably one of the most humane methods of euthanasia, yet it garners much more public outrage than the death of the unwanted horse transported to be killed at a knackery, mostly because the public rarely see, or even know about, this fate. Even those who do find homes are not necessarily guaranteed a decent life. In my youth I was heavily involved with horses and my horse of choice was the thoroughbred. I learned early on that they are remarkably difficult to keep and provide for in an appropriate manner, not least because of the eye-watering cost of keeping this most mercurial of breeds. Throughout my veterinary career, I have encountered countless cases of neglect of horses, almost always caused by ignorance of their needs rather than a wilful desire to harm.

Would it not be reasonable to take real steps to tackle this wastage? I see no real reason why the Australian Racing Board could not limit the number of new registrations each year. Knowing you might not get your horse registered would have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of foals produced. Of course, this would also reduce the chances of Australia producing another Black Caviar and make the nation less competitive in the global industry, but this might be a reasonable price to pay, and frankly, if it means it’s not worthwhile flying your horse to the other side of the planet to compete in one (arguably staged) race for the sole purpose of inflating her breeding value, I struggle to see the problem.

Furthermore, reducing annual registrations could be the first step to phasing out the sport altogether, should that be deemed appropriate, thereby avoiding the problem of what to do with thousands of horses in the event of a sudden ban. This would also give time for those employed in the industry to retire or retrain for other careers.

Finally ‘refinement’, probably the most complex of the 3Rs. If we are going to continue racing horses, how do we ensure, not only that suffering is minimised, but also that their welfare is maximised? Hop onto social media right now and you’ll see the most common argument from those supportive of horse racing is “you’ve never been in a racing yard, so you don’t know just how well the horses are kept”. There are numerous invites to ‘come along and see for yourself’. I’d argue that a more useful, and telling exercise, would be to pop along to a yard, any yard, and ask those caring for and training the horses what welfare is. What exactly is good welfare for a horse? I’m pretty certain that the vast majority of those raising and training these horses have a very poor understanding of what horses need, in the context of their welfare. I should be fair here and state that this would be the case in any situation where animals are used or kept, be it meat or milk production or even simple pet ownership.

The concepts of animal welfare, the ‘five freedoms’, were well defined in the 1960’s when the Brambell Report, from which they stemmed, was published. Indeed, this was the first time a concerted effort was made to define animal welfare. From the five freedoms, a compact of welfare needs was created, known globally as the ‘five welfare needs’. These needs apply to every sentient species and are: the need for a suitable environment, the need for a suitable diet, the need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, the need to be kept with, or apart from, other animals and the need to be protected from pain, injury, suffering and disease.

If I were to ask a trainer or stable lad or lass to list the five welfare needs, it’s not hard to imagine I’d be met with a blank stare. At best they would take a decent stab and likely come up with maybe two out of the five. Even were I to tell them what those five needs are, we would then face the problem of what that actually means. Just what is a ‘suitable environment’ for a horse? Who knows and how do they know? Most animal care the world over is based on anecdote and tradition, not evidence. Things are done because they’ve always been done that way, or someone told them they should do it that way. (Sadly, a lot of welfare advice is given by vets and vets have little more knowledge of animal welfare than those they are trying to educate). The systems on any yard to care for horses might be complex, sophisticated, and undoubtedly expensive, but if they are not based on evidence they are quite probably worthless. Furthermore, the mere fact that horse racing is ‘more regulated’ (whatever that means) than any other animal industry in Australia is meaningless, unless those regulations pertain to protecting and enhancing horse welfare in an evidence-based fashion (and I’ll give you a hint here, they’re not; except a few bits about disease).

Animal welfare science has made enormous progress in establishing and defining just what constitutes ‘a good life’ for horses, but no-one’s listening. A quick look at the Australian Racing Board’s website reveals not one publication concerning horse welfare. The closest we get are some references to, and guidelines concerning, health – just one of the five welfare needs. The Department of Environment and Primary Industries in Victoria fares no better, it publishes a number of Codes and Guides to the keeping of animals in Victoria, but these are not legislative instruments, they merely reference best practice and failure to adhere to, in this case the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Horses, is not an offence. This Code itself, is frustratingly vague, for example under behavioural needs, this advice is given: “Persons responsible for a horse displaying a pathological behaviour pattern (stereotypies) including weaving, crib-biting, wind-sucking, self mutilation, pawing, kicking or pacing must provide appropriate intervention therapy based on veterinary advice or accepted industry practice.” Accepted industry practice: there again, we have tradition and anecdote, not evidence.

The veterinary profession too needs to wake up to the concept of welfare. There has been the startlingly naïve comment made, this week in a national newspaper, by an equine vet no less, that horses would not be able to race as they do if they were not very well cared for. Once again, this typifies they view, sadly rife within the veterinary profession, that physical health is all there is to welfare. I would argue that it is possible to keep a human healthy enough (with the correct diet and enough drugs) to run a marathon a day, every day for many years. If I were to then proclaim that the simple fact they were able to do this indicated they had a great life, I would be laughed at, and rightly so.

If we really want to ‘refine’ the way racehorses are reared and kept (and, morally, we should really want to), we need to let the animal welfare scientists define what constitutes a good life for these horses. Not just reducing suffering, but actively enhancing their welfare. The Australian Racing board must listen and enact that advice in their Rules of Racing and the Victorian state government and DEPI must move to redraft their Code and make it a legislative instrument with real powers to ensure adequate standards of welfare are met. Until then, we cannot even begin to pretend that racehorses are having a party.

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