The need to ensure the highest standards of equine care and well-being throughout the racehorse’s life was the key message of session five of the business programme, “The Horse”, at the 39th Asian Racing Conference in Melbourne on 16 February.
Mr. Greg Nichols, Vice-Chairman, Asian Racing Federation and Director, Racing Australia, chaired the session and said the industry must have “an irrevocable commitment to the welfare of the horses from cradle to grave.”
“With that commitment, the sport can continue to be an important and integral part of society. The issue of horse welfare is polarising but we must ensure our message goes outside the racing world and further advance research which is at the heart of horse welfare and health,” Mr. Nichols said.
That view was endorsed by Dr. Christopher Riggs, Director, Equine Welfare Research Foundation and Chief Advisor, Mainland Veterinary Engagement, The Hong Kong Jockey Club, who stressed the need for quality research and a scientific approach, noting that history had many examples of science debunking what had previously been seen as common sense approaches.
Dr. Riggs spoke of the need to be able to identify horses at risk of injury which was the core of a program of enhanced veterinary screening introduced by Racing Victoria and explained in detail by its General Manager of Veterinary Services, Dr. Grace Forbes.
Dr. Riggs said: “One example of the instruction of science comes with racing fractures as we now know horses break their legs not because they take a bad step or put their foot in a hole, it’s a consequence of material fatigue.
“If we can identify the horses who are at risk of getting a fracture before they start the race, which is exactly what Grace (Forbes) and her program were trying to do in Melbourne, then we could stop them running and our work has shown that 90% of horses with stress fractures given the right amount of time will be fine again once the bone has remodelled.
“The trouble is, of course, you can’t see it; these horses (at risk) look fine, they won’t give any hint there’s a problem lurking there. So, that’s why we need some form of screening. Imaging with CT is probably what’s required to get the images to show the trainer.”
Dr. Forbes said her team’s approach was to ensure horse safety.
“There may have been mixed feedback from stakeholders based on some misinformation but our process was to enhance the safety of horses competing at the spring carnival. The initiatives set a new global benchmark.
“Two years in, we haven’t had any serious or fatal injury in our international horses or any horses competing in the Melbourne Cup. This has improved public confidence and the social acceptance of horse racing in Victoria and we are continually monitoring innovations and advances in science, technology and research,” Dr. Forbes said.
Ms. Hallie Hardy, Executive Director, Visit Horse Country, spoke of her organisation bringing people and horses together and changing perceptions. “We fill the gap between the general public and the horse as we move away from an agrarian lifestyle but it’s clear that people still see horse welfare as a high priority,” Ms. Hardy said.
Dr. Denise Goodwin, Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of Health Programs, BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, focused on the importance of the industry “developing programs which influence behaviours in a way that leads to positive change”.
“In summary, we all have a moral responsibility to provide for the needs of animals in our care,” said Dr. Riggs. “There is a definition of welfare which simply connects the needs of the animal and whether they are being met and that is totally quantifiable.
“We need to highlight the benefits and acknowledge the issues associated with racing and face up to them truthfully, honestly and openly and be very proud of racing but equally say it’s got its problems, just about everything in life has.
“We need to face up to our detractors with that insistence that we are doing something about our problems but we need to do it properly with good quality research,” he said.
Josh Gibson, Host of Racing Victoria’s documentary Here For The Horses, and a former AFL footballer, joined the speakers for a panel discussion, during which he highlighted the importance of ensuring that all participants provided a level of equine care that was “above the line” of what was expected of racing.
He said it was critical that the industry proactively addressed equine welfare issues as he “wanted to ensure racing was around for the next generation”.