Animal Aid Background Notes on the Horse Racing Industry

Numbers

  • Approximately 12,000 foals are born into the closely-related British and Irish racing industries each year. Foal numbers have grown dramatically over the past fifty years. Only around 50 per cent are considered good enough to race. The available evidence indicates that many of the ‘failures’ are shot at stables or killed for meat, or repeatedly change hands in a downward spiral of neglect.
  • About 7,000 horses leave British racing every year – the same number who enter it. Only a comparatively small proportion of these animals are properly provided for.

Injuries & Deaths

  • The modern race horse is bred to be fast, but at the expense of bone strength and general health.
  • An Animal Aid study of available evidence shows that around 200 horse died on British racecourses every year, and about the same number are killed in training or because they fail to make the grade. The details can be viewed athttp://www.horsedeathwatch.com/.
  • Some 38% of these fatalities occur during, or immediately after, a race, and result from: a broken leg, back, neck or pelvis; fatal spinal injuries; heart attack; or burst blood vessels. The other victims perish from training injuries or are killed after being assessed by their owners as no-hopers.
  • Serious racing-related illnesses are now endemic. 82% of flat race horses older than three years of age suffer from bleeding lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage). Gastric ulcers are present in no fewer than 93% of horses in training, in whom the condition gets progressively worse. When horses are retired, the condition improves.

Breeding

  • During a six month breeding season stallions can be required to cover three mares a day. Whereas 30 years ago, covering 100 mares in a year was almost unheard of, it is now routine for leading stallions to have 200 broodmares on their books.
  • Outside of the breeding shed, stallions are kept well separated from mares and other males. When not housed in their stable, they are confined behind high fences. And to minimise any chance of a costly injury, insurance policies usually state that they must not be ridden. It is a life of near isolation and deadening routine that – barring physical breakdown – can go on for 20 or more years.
  • Breeding females are subjected to drugs and prolonged periods of artificial light to control and speed up reproduction.
  • Left to their own devices, mares in the wild have one foal every two years, or perhaps twice every three years. They deliver in the spring, after a pregnancy lasting 11 months. The racing industry forces healthy and fertile mares to produce a foal every year – as soon after January 1 as possible. The commercial advantage of being born close to January 1 arises from the fact that they would be one year old and likely to fetch a better price at the crucial yearling sales than a horse that is, say, 9 months old.
  • In 1957, precisely 7,826 mares were retained for breeding purposes in Britain and Ireland. Together, they produced 4,254 live foals. In 2012, the figures had risen to 21,718 mares and 11,912 foals.

National Hunt (Jump) racing

  • The majority of fatalities occur in jump racing. Horses used to be selectively bred for this sector. They were heavier-boned and more robust than the faster animals racing on the flat. Because of the increasing emphasis on speed in all racing sectors, horses entered into jump races are now more often ‘cast-offs’ from the flat. There is come evidence that jump horses are dying more now than in previous years.
  • Grand National: Animal Aid has, for many years, called for the Grand National to be banned. It is a deliberately hazardous race. A dangerously overcrowded field of 40 horses is forced to confront 30 extraordinarily challenging and treacherous jumps, over a course of nearly four-and-a-half miles. Since 2000, 28 horses have died on the Grand National course and, during the three-day meeting, 47 horses have been killed in that same period.
  • Cheltenham: This is among the most hazardous of Britain’s 60 courses. Since 2000, 53 horses have died at this annual festival – 11 of them in the 2006 meeting. Cheltenham’s downhill fences are notorious and over many decades have killed seasoned and novice horses alike. Even if they clear the fence rather than running into it, gravity can bring them headfirst to the ground upon landing.

Flat racing

  • Bone fractures in animals racing on the flat are no longer comparatively rare. Amongst a typical group of 100 flat-racing horses, one fracture will occur every month.
  • In the 2006 Epsom Derby, top race horse Horatio Nelson was destroyed after sustaining catastrophic injuries, including fractured cannon and sesamoid bones, a dislocated fetlock joint and open wounds that exposed severe damage to blood vessels, nerves and ligaments.

Whipping

  • Hitting a race horse with a whip of a specified design – the so-called welfare-friendly, padded whip – is regarded as acceptable by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), which regulates and enforces the rules as well as helping to organise, fund and promote racing.
  • A long-awaited review of the whip was published by the BHA in October 2011. It came after Animal Aid research revealed that the old rules were being breached almost 900 times a year, and several jockeys were offending more than 10 times during a twelve month period. The BHA review document contained the following admission: ‘The current whip guidelines and penalties for those jockeys who breach the Rules on whip use are not an effective enough control and deterrent in their current form.’ The new rules effectively halved the number of times jockeys could strike their horses, limited the number of times a horse could be struck in the last part of the race and introduced financial penalties (loss of riding fees and prize money) for breaches.
  • However, the BHA backtracked several times after jockeys refused to abide by the new rules. The former restrictions on whip strikes became merely a guideline – leaving horses who are repeatedly hit vulnerable to the subjective discretion of the Stewards as to whether or not they have been abused. The punishment regime was also greatly weakened, allowing jockeys an almost free rein to beat their mounts into submission.
  • Advocates of the whip argue that it assists horses to perform better and run more safely and that it provides helpful chastisement for when they behave ‘badly’. Our report, A Hiding to Nothing (a meticulous investigation of 161 races that were run during October and November 2003, involving 285 jockeys and 1500 horses), shows that whipping horses is more likely to drive them off a true line and place them and other horses in danger. Forty of the 161 races (around 25 per cent) were won by horses who were not subjected to any whipping at all. The report also shows that horses in a state of total exhaustion and out of contention were beaten. The whip was used on the neck and shoulders, as well as on the hindquarters. Horses being whipped 20, or even 30 or more times, during a race was observed.
  • Our findings have been supported by a 2011 University of Sydney report, An Investigation of Racing Performance and Whip Use by Jockeys in Thoroughbred Races. It also concluded that whipping race horses does not improve performance. ‘On average, they achieved highest speeds when there was no whip use, and the increased whip use was most frequent in fatigued horses. That increased whip use was not associated with significant maintenance of velocity as a predictor of superior race placing at the finish of the race.’
  • A poll commissioned by the BHA itself showed that 57 per cent of people in Britain want an outright ban on the whip.
  • A YouGov poll commissioned by Animal Aid in June 2014 found that 70 per cent of all respondents (or 81 per cent of those who expressed a view) oppose the use of the whip in horse racing.

Retirement

  • The Horserace Betting Levy Board (racing’s principal funding body) was established in the early 1960s when gambling laws were eased. It receives around 10% of bookmakers’ profits every year – totalling £69m for the 2015-2016 financial year. A small amount of that money was allocated to help fund the industry’s official retraining scheme for race horses – Retraining of Racehorses. However, under new rules, that funding was essentially diverted to ex-race horse event promotion, leaving the 7,500 horses who leave racing each year in an even more precarious position than before.

ACTION POINTS

The following initiatives would have an important impact on the welfare of Thoroughbred horses. We need your assistance to ensure they are implemented.

  • The publication of comprehensive data on equine mortality, sickness and injury.
  • A ban on the whip. It is not merely cruel, but our research shows that it is counterproductive from the point of view of the rider. Please visit our website for more details.
  • A proper fund for retired thoroughbreds.
  • A ban on the Grand National – a deliberately punishing and hazardous race.

Animal Aid makes no secret of its opposition to commercial horse racing. The evidence points to an industry that systematically exploits its principal resource – the thoroughbred horse. We urge the public not to support the industry by betting on horses or by attending racecourses.