RIDING FOR A FALL - Ruining the horses
In the second section of Riding for a Fall, we look at the impact on the offspring, the hard 'remedies' in use and the role of the Animal Health Trust in the lethal experiments.
One top trainer, Ian Balding, summed up the crisis facing the industry when he told Racing Post: 'We get far more injuries than we used to. During the 1970s, as many as 90 to 95% of my two year olds ran at least once in the first season. In the 1980s, it dropped to 75 to 80% and in the 1990s it's dropped to 65 to 70%... The only reason for not running is due to injury.
'These figures tell a depressing tale... Shortage of labour has decreed...
horses rarely get ridden for more than an hour. We scarcely do any roadwork
with flat horses which is good for strengthening bone and hardening-up tendons
and ligaments, because of increased traffic... The fashion now is for speed
and more speed. We have gradually lost [the] strength, stamina and durability,
temperament, extra bone and courage that those horses have. If we carry on like
this, then slowly but surely we are ruining the breed.'
The problems Balding identifies arise from the irrational and self-destructive breeding practices, combined with the relentless demands thrust upon modern performance animals. When not racing, they spend up to 23 hours of their day stabled, deprived of the herd contact and freedom of movement that would ensure physical and mental health. Their lives are akin to those of secure unit prisoners. The longest time they spend out of their stables is when called upon to compete, and with racing now international, that often means travelling long distances by plane and road.
Feeble and sick
The consequence, according to one expert, has been 'big increases in equine
health problems', such as shipping fever.
Another endemic condition is chronic gastric ulcers. Notes O'Brien: 'A study
in Virginia, USA, reported in the Equine Veterinary Journal in 1996
The yearling sales
The yearling sales (for horses aged between one and two) are a vital money market that see the top prospects sell for a good return but thousands of under par horses weeded out and rejected. There are no publicly available statistics to indicate where and how these animals are jettisoned. But seasoned industry watchers, such as Kareena Grey who runs an investigative organisation called Discover Racing Death (KareenaGreyDiscoverRacingDeath@hotmail.com) is convinced that thousands are simply shot and fed to hunting hounds or turned into pet food.
There have been many notable changes to the way yearlings are prepared for
sale. One is the fashion - more common in the US than Europe - for animals with
perceived 'angular limb deformities', such as knock-knees, to be subjected to
leg-straightening surgery. Yet recent research by the president-elect of the
American Association of Equine Practitioners determined that such interventions
could cause serious leg problems. 'We found that a degree of carpal valgus [knock
knees] protects a horse from knee injuries. Study findings suggest that 'corrective'
surgery may do more harm than good'.
The surgery itself is not without hazards. One technique involves inserting screws and wire or staples on one side of the knee or ankle. Another requires peeling back the edges of connective tissue that surrounds and protects the bone, in order to stimulate growth.
Trading bone for speed
The legs of race horses are already in a vulnerable state due to breeders having systematically traded bone for speed. Those bones contain a spongy, honeycomb section inside, which acts as a shock absorber. The structure is necessary, notes welfare expert Dr O'Brien, 'because, when galloping at speed, the force on the lead foreleg as it hits the ground is over one and a half times the total bodyweight of the horse. Dr Thomas Tobin, of the Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Kentucky, has shown that horses' bones actually become weaker during the course of a race, sometimes by over 40%. The results can be appalling.'
'The right leg snapped...'
In September 1999, in the United States, 23-year-old jockey J.C. Gonzalez and his four-year-old mount, Wolfhunt, died within minutes of each other. As they rounded the final turn of a one mile race, Wolfhunt suddenly fell, throwing jockey Gonzalez to the track. A racehorse trainer 50 feet away described what happened next: 'The horse tried to stand, and first the right leg snapped, right between the knee and the ankle. Then he tried to put weight on the left leg, and it went above the knee. I could barely take my eyes off this horse trying to stand with these bloody stumps.' Jockey Gonzalez, with massive head injuries, was pronounced dead minutes later. Wolfhunt was destroyed on the racetrack.
The racing industry has two main remedial approaches to the ailments arising from its patterns of breeding, housing, feeding, training and competition. One comes under the heading of chemical and physical inducements. The other involves lethal experiments on live horses.
Chemical and physical inducements
The first category includes a range of drugs that often mask pain and suppress symptoms of injury. This allows a rapid return to racing but often at the cost of long term damage. One such substance is a powerful steroid called MPA, which is commonly given to young race horses who suffer lameness due to their punishing training regime. Administration is often by injection into the inflamed joints. There is evidence that such steroids weaken the bones and predispose them to fractures.
These substances actually appear on a very long list of drugs banned by the racing authorities in Britain - or rather it is an offence for these substances to be found in the urine of horses when they are tested post-race. Apart from the limited amount of testing that is done, the prohibition does not extend to animals - young or old - while they are training rather than racing.
'Butes', 'milkshakes' and snake venom
In a similar vein and also on the banned-for-racing list, is phenylbutazone (or 'bute'), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that is widely used in Britain to treat bone, tendon, joint and muscular injuries. Again, its use masks the pain that is a natural and protective reaction to injury.
Then there is sodium bicarbonate, given two to three hours before a race, via
a stomach tube, to delay muscle tiring. Known as a milkshake, it works by increasing
A Jockey Club-approved 'remedy' for exercise-induced lung bleeding is to dose
the victim with rattlesnake venom.
'My horse was thrashed...'
A more physical corrective applied to a poorly performing horse is the whip. Champion jockey Willie Carson spoke with admirable clarity about how he encouraged his mount, Alhaarth, to second place at Newmarket in 1996: 'I gave him six cracks, and I wouldn't like to lie down on that side tonight.'
Then there was the evocative account of whip use given by the owner of a young
filly in a letter to Racing Post in the winter of 2002.
is a less than noble tradition of lethal experiments on horses, designed to
yield solutions to the numerous ailments suffered by modern race horses, as
well as to increase their efficiency. Notable in this area is the aforementioned
Newmarket-based veterinary charity, the Animal Health Trust - subject of three
previous major exposes by Animal Aid. A number of the AHT's experiments, which
often involve low-value Welsh mountain ponies, have been wholly or partly funded
by commercial racing interests. In fact, the AHT jointly established in May
2002 a new company called Equine Genetics Research Ltd (EGR).
Also active in horse vivisection, as we have seen, is Cambridge University, especially its Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Equine Fertility Unit.
Animal Aid has two principal objections to horse experiments:
We believe that no animal, or group of animals, should suffer with the intention of enhancing the health of another group of animals - just as we would oppose experiments on any group of humans for the supposed 'greater good'.
The high incidence of limb damage and infectious diseases to which the experiments are directed, results from the extreme stresses to which modern performance horses are exposed. That is the unequivocal message the AHT - a veterinary charity, no less - should carry back to the industry, rather than colluding with it and thereby providing a kind of legitimacy for current exploitative practices.
Examples of recent experiments:
To study cartilage damage caused by strenuous exercise, 12 young female Thoroughbreds were exercised on treadmills - gently or hard - for 19 weeks, during which time they were kept indoors. All 12 were then killed and their lower legs sawn off for analysis. (AHT)
Many horses suffering limb pain and swelling are injected with steroids into their inflamed joints rather than being allowed to rest and recover. To test the impact of a commonly-used steroid on bone structure, eight young female horses were injected with the drug 16 times and exercised on a treadmill for 13 weeks. They were then killed.(AHT)
Eight horses were subjected to large full-skin-depth wounds at the back of both their front legs. Healing took between six and 12 weeks. One leg was treated, the other left untreated. (Jointly by the Universities of Cambridge and Sydney)
To measure horses' responses to low levels of oxygen, five animals were restrained in stocks for 70 minutes, while breathing through a face mask and simultaneously having their blood sampled and monitored via catheters inserted into their jugular veins and carotid arteries. (Co-funded by the AHT)
To study the long term effectiveness of influenza vaccines, 30 Welsh mountain ponies were infected with the flu virus - some suffered fever and coughing.
(31) And 18 Welsh mountain ponies were infected with EAV (equine arteritis virus). They were kept indoors for a month and studied. The six 'control' ponies suffered severe fever, depression, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis and nasal discharges. (32) (Both AHT)
19 mares were subjected to embryo transfer, involving the implantation of Thoroughbred embryos into much smaller ponies and vice versa. Two mares aborted and the foals of two others were stillborn. One pregnant mare was killed when she broke a leg. The Thoroughbred foals who were incubated in ponies suffered muscle wastage and freakishly long and malformed legs and hooves: their ankles were bent right over on the ground. It was claimed that the project would advance understanding of human illness.
74 mares were used to find the most efficient way of insemination. It was discovered that valuable sex-selected semen can be made to go a long way by delivering the semen to a particular part of the neck of the uterus. Seven of the mares were shot after insemination and their reproductive tracts removed for study.
(13) (Both Univ Cambridge Equine Fertility Unit)
In the third section of Riding for a Fall, we report on the 300 horses raced to death every year and the Grand National race itself, and we describe what happens to the horses once their racing days are over.