Recently we had Melbourne Cup Day where the whole of Australia comes to a standstill at about 3pm to listen to, watch and cheer on the elite of the horseracing world. A huge amount of money will be won or lost, and the government will be happy about the revenue racing returns.
For me, this day is a reminder of the suffering racehorses in general have to endure every day they are in training. While the Melbourne Cup runners are being treated like royalty, the average racehorse back at the stables is facing another day of boredom, lack of exercise and lack of roughage in their diet.
These horses will have been fed their grain rich breakfast (a bit like serving us straight chocolate every day for breakfast) after their short workout on the track that is their only chance to stretch out and really run, to breathe fresh air and for their body to soak up some sunlight (if they are lucky to be exercised post dawn).
These horses can only dream of the days when they were allowed to graze in a pasture all day long, without the burden of rugs, able to enjoy a roll in the dirt, roughage when they want it and to run or stretch out in the sun for a nap. They dream of the days when they could play with their mates, help itch that scratch, and be a real horse.
Instead, when they enter the training stables as yearlings or earlier, they are locked away from their friends, can’t touch each other, sometimes can’t see many other horses, and are confined to that 3m square box equivalent to us living in our average toilet room.
They are fed twice a day or if they are lucky, may get some hay in between meals, or are bed on straw they can eat to satisfy their need to chew for 20 hours a day. If they don’t get the roughage going through their gut, they suffer painful gut ulcers that make them cranky and listless, grinding their teeth in agony. In order to cope with this artificial environment they develop ‘vices’ such as cribbing, weaving and wind sucking.
Then we humans try to put a stop to that by painting nasty tasting stuff on the cribbing surfaces, or covering them in metal, or putting a strap tightly around the neck to stop the wind sucking. And so the horses suffer, unable to relieve their boredom and pain and eventually they shut down or breakdown and are ‘turned out’ for a spell.
But if their racing days are over quickly (80% of racehorses bred never make it to the winners circle) because they are not fast enough, able to cope with the un-natural regime, are injured or go mental and their behaviour is dangerous at the starting barrier, they are sold, become breeding stock (if they have good bloodlines) or they are just sent straight to the ‘doggers’ (abattoir).
The average racehorse is an expendable item who needs to bring a return on the money spent on breeding or buying them. They are often owned by syndicates so the cost is shared and more people are involved at the racetrack to bring in more betting revenue.
Many syndicate members know nothing about horses so rely on the trainers to do the right thing. They think they are doing the best they can for the horses by providing them with ‘good’ food, locking them up in a box or small individual yard so they can’t hurt themselves. Covering them in rugs so they don’t catch a chill (but hardly ever taking them off so the horses can itch and roll, or escape the heat), and buying all the latest gadgets to treat the injuries that inevitably occur.
Most trainers employ a minimum number of often under-experienced staff to ride, educate and care for these horses because they have huge feed, vet and farrier bills.
Little do they realise if they were to start racing them as 3 or 4 year olds (instead of 2), change the confinement and feed, and employ a good hoof trimmer instead of nailing horse shoes onto undeveloped hooves, their vet and farrier bills would be greatly reduced.
The horses would benefit and live longer, sounder lives and perhaps be worth keeping as someone’s show hack, eventer or jumper at the end of their racing career. Its sad to hear people referring to a 6 year old racehorses as an ‘old’ horse – when they haven’t even completely matured, not usually until they reach 7 years of age.
Even the better racehorses who make good money for their owners can face a life of further abuse and neglect when they become broodmares or breeding stallions.
The broodmares endure year after year of producing foals and while they live the majority of that time in the pasture, they often have their hooves and nutrition neglected. If the pastures are too rich, they suffer hoof abscesses, laminitis, splits and long flared hooves that are painful to move around on, especially when heavy in foal.
The stallions must endure a life similar to the racehorse in work, often confined especially the more valuable they are, overfed and under- exercised, bored and socially deprived.
Due to the way they are kept stallions often become un-manageable and suffer cruel restraints like chains and severe bits, being beaten with poly pipe or a whip, every time they are led out of the stable to breed a mare who is nose ‘twitched’ and sometimes hobbled so she can’t kick him or resist.
Their breeding lives could be doubled in many cases by giving them a more natural existence, better hoofcare, roughage and regular exercise. Surely that would bring in a greater return for the investment over many more years?
However tradition is a hard habit to change. While there are some trainers/breeders looking for an edge and willing to try new things, many see them as fads that will pass and stick to their old ways, happy to settle for mediocre results and a high turn over of horses.
Perhaps the only way out of this rut is for some to set a good example such as the Horses First Club in the UK who give their horses a much more natural lifestyle, handling and training routine. Their website is www.horsesfirstclub.com – they are the future of racing.
Whichever way racing goes, only 20% of the 20% who make it to the winners circle are likely to be treated with anywhere near the respect and understanding these amazing equines deserve.
So spare a though for the average racehorse on the big race days, and don’t support them!
Instead, do something for the horses out there that just waiting for you to feed, understand, exercise and care for them that little bit better, starting with your own!