Researchers who examined the entry and exit of Thoroughbred racehorses in Victoria, Australia, found that a majority were retired voluntarily, often around five years of age.
Meridith Flash and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne said the spike in voluntary retirements at the age of five suggested that industry-level factors were at play, rather than individual horse-level factors.
The study team, writing in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, said the reasons for Thoroughbreds exiting the racing industry, or not entering it at all, are of interest to regulators, welfare groups and the broader community.
“Speculation about the outcomes of these horses threatens the community acceptance, or social license, of the Thoroughbred breeding and racing industries.”
For their study, the researchers carried out a representative survey of the 2010 Victorian-born Thoroughbred foal crop to determine the outcomes and reasons for exit for horses who had not entered training, or had exited training and racing by the age of eight.
Horses exported for racing or breeding (4%), or who were still actively racing (7%) at the start of the eight-year follow-up period were excluded from the study.
An online questionnaire was sent to breeders or trainers of the 3176 Thoroughbreds eligible for enrolment in the study.
In all, 2005 responses were received, for a response rate of 63%.
The two most frequent outcomes were that the horse had either been retired or rehomed (65%), or had died (16%).
For the 1637 horses that had entered training, 59% of the retirements were voluntary, followed by forced retirements due to health problems (28%).
For the 368 Thoroughbreds that had no record of entering training, death had occurred in 34% of cases. Of these 368 horses, 27% were listed as either being retired or rehomed.
The median age of retirement for Thoroughbreds that raced was five, regardless of sex, or whether their first race start was at two, three or four years of age.
While trained horses were most frequently rehomed outside the Thoroughbred industry (71% of the 1210 rehomed horses), more than a quarter of all trained horses remained within the industry, mostly as bloodstock.
For the 862 horses retiring outside of the industry, 568 were categorised as going on to equestrian or pleasure riding outcomes. The next most common retirement outcomes were companion/unridden pursuits (93 horses, or 11%), being returned to the owner with no further information available (81 horses, or 9%), or to serve as broodmares for non-Thoroughbreds (53 horses, or 6%). In some cases, the respondents were unable to categorise the retirement outcome.
Death (12%) was the second most frequently identified outcome among trained horses. Among these 197 horses, 13 went to an abattoir for reasons that included injury, illness, behavioural issues or poor performance.
For the 164 deceased horses that had trained or raced, the most frequent circumstance of death was non-exercising (68 horses, or 42%), followed by death during a race (47 horses, or 29%) and during training/pre-training (26 horses, or 16%), with two deaths reported during a trial or jump-out, and 21 responses where the circumstances were not specified.
For the trained but unraced horses categorised as deceased (33), death was most frequently associated with training or pretraining (13 horses, or 39%) followed by non-exercising (8 horses, or 24%) and during a trial or jump out (five horses, or 15%), with the remaining circumstances unspecified.
Musculoskeletal injuries were the most frequently reported health disorder resulting in death for trained horses. Fracture was reported most frequently as a cause of death, accounting for 48% of deaths in all trained horses, followed by tendon or ligament injuries, digestive, and cardiac disorders.
Discussing their findings, Flash and her colleagues said it was interesting that, although 28% of trained horses retired due to injury, nearly half of them were categorised as subsequently participating in ridden pursuits, such as equestrian or pleasure horse activities.
“This suggests that while the injury may have made the horse unsuitable for racing, it did not prevent the horse from undertaking less intensive ridden pursuits in their post-racing career.”
They say further research is needed to investigate the length of time that horses participate in their post-racing careers and what health disorders could prevent a successful transition.
Only one percent of trained horses (13 of 1637 horses) were reported to have been sent to an abattoir, substantially less than the six percent reported in another study. However, while the number of horses sent to an abattoir in this study was lower, the overall percentage of trained horses that died (12%) was higher than the 8% reported in that study.
They said documenting and understanding the reasons why horses do not transition from the stud farm to the racetrack is an important first step in developing strategies to reduce losses, improve productivity in the Thoroughbred breeding industry and inform discussions concerning the welfare outcomes for these horses.
“The most important finding of the current study was that approximately three-quarters of trained horses were re-homed upon leaving the racing industry.
“Also, it is important to note that the majority of Thoroughbred horses that did not return to the breeding industry were engaged in some form of ridden equestrian activity after their racing career was over.”
The University of Melbourne study team comprised Flash, Michelle Renwick, James Gilkerson and Mark Stevenson.
Flash ML, Renwick M, Gilkerson JR, Stevenson MA (2020) Descriptive analysis of Thoroughbred horses born in Victoria, Australia, in 2010; barriers to entering training and outcomes on exiting training and racing. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0241273. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0241273