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Earlier this week Panorama on BBC aired a show about the dark side of horse racing, what happens to the horses when they retire from racing. I think racing fans and horse lovers alike were worried about this documentary, especially once we heard that it talked to Animal Aid quite a bit, an organisation who wants to ban horse racing. But, while this documentary was aimed at the racing industry, and there are certainly some shady characters who are going to need to explain their actions, the issues discussed are not racing issues, they are abattoir issues.
Distressing ends in UK abattoirs
The majority of the documentary focused on how horses were treated at a specific chain of abattoirs in the UK. Sadly, there were ex racehorses going through these abattoirs, but there were also ponies, cobs and warmbloods. In the footage shown, the horses were not given the dignified end they deserved. Some travelled from Ireland to the UK while lame. Some were left in holding barns for over a week with a severe, untreated lameness. And then when it came to actually being euthanised, it was just sloppy. No horse should be treated like that.
Ex racehorses in the UK
Each year roughly 7000 horses retire from racing here in the UK. But not all of them leave the industry. Roughly 35% of these will go to stud, others will continue racing either in point to points or be sold abroad to continue racing. This does still leave a good number of horses needing new homes and jobs when they retire and thanks to some of the great work done by the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) and other organisations, they are becoming more popular with more people willing to take them on.
Unsurprisingly, I love an ex racehorse. I personally can’t imagine owning anything else now. But that being said, I do not think thoroughbreds, let alone ex racehorses, are for everyone. They are finely tuned athletes who have spent their whole life doing a very specific, intense job. It can be difficult for them to adapt to a new life and might need more care than another horse. I certainly wouldn’t recommend them for a novice owner. This limits the homes they can go to.
Euthanasia isn’t a dirty word
I personally don’t think euthanasia is a bad thing. It is sad but I think there are worse things. While I don’t think sending an ex racehorse to an abattoir should be the first, or the easy option, I do accept that it is an option. If they are injured, have an ongoing lameness or have a particularly difficult personality, I do not think it is unreasonable to think they might be kinder to put them to sleep. After all, I am sure we have all known a horse who has been passed around due to their faults (physical or mental) which often leads to the horse suffering one way or another.
The minority, not the majority
I also think it is important to point out that those shown in the documentary are the minority, not the majority. Unfortunately in all walks of life, there will be people who break the rules and cut corners to benefit themselves. We should all get behind the authorities investigating what is going on and putting a stop to it. But the actions of these people do not represent everyone. I am sure plenty of abattoirs go to great lengths to give the animals in their care the best possible end and plenty of owners and trainers go to great lengths to find new, long term, homes for their horses.
In case you didn’t know, I have shares in some racehorses through the Owners Group syndicates. Part of my yearly fee goes towards rehoming, retraining and looking after the horses once they retire. The Owners Group parent company owns a fantastic facility for their horses to have their holidays from racing. But when horses retire they will go there and either be rehomed or if they are not suitable to be rehomed, they will spend the rest of their days there.
Owners Group aren’t the only one to take such great steps to ensure the welfare of their retired horses. Many trainers and owners have their own schemes, working closely with retraining yards and charities. Possibly one of the best schemes is Godolphin’s rehoming programme.
More can be done
For me, what this documentary highlighted is that there is still more what can be done. I think there should be more guidelines, information and support for rehoming racehorses when they retire. Retraining charities are overloaded and under funded. Trainers lose money for the horse staying on their yard once they have retired. Many owners do not actually have a clue about horses, so might not know what is best for the horse. Making changes to funding and process could reduce the number of horses going to the abattoirs. The BHA have released some of the steps they are taking.
But the most important change we need to make, is improve the welfare of those horses going to abattoirs! Horses will always go to abattoirs and I think that is ok. What isn’t ok is when their time there is distressing and they suffer. This isn’t just a racing issue as many different types of horse go to abattoirs. The whole horse industry needs to put on the pressure to change this.