Nearly all Thoroughbred racehorses in a Queensland study were successfully repurposed after racing, although those who bowed out with injuries were less likely to find performance roles.
The study, reported this week in the journal Animals, explored the incidence, risk factors and outcome for horses after retirement for racing.
Kylie Crawford and her fellow researchers noted there was international public concern regarding the retirement of racehorses, including the reason for retirement and the outcome for horses after racing.
“Thoroughbred racing attracts significant media and public attention,” the study team said.
“It is vital that the industry is focused on understanding the risks for voluntary rather than involuntary retirement and optimising the successful long-term repurposing of horses.”
The researchers investigated the retirement of racehorses in the south-east part of the Australian state over a 13-month period.
Recruitment of horses was performed by inviting all licensed trainers from the Brisbane Racing Club with three or more horses in work to participate.
Twenty-seven of 40 eligible trainers consented to take part and were interviewed weekly by Crawford, the lead author.
There was a median of 544 racehorses in training per week, and a total of 110 racehorse retirements over the study period.
It was found that 0.4% of the horses in training per week were retired.
Fifty-one percent of the retirements — 56 of the 110 horses — were involuntary. They resulted from musculoskeletal injuries, respiratory or cardiac conditions, or behavioural problems that prevented the horse from racing. Among these forced retirements, musculoskeletal injuries were the most common reason, affecting 40 of the 110 horses, or 36%.
The remaining 49% of horses of the 110 had voluntary retirements.
It was found that 98% of the horses (108 of the 110 horses) were repurposed after retirement, almost half as performance horses (46%). The remaining two horses could not be traced.
Horses that were voluntarily retired (because of racing form or an impending injury) were 2.28 times more likely to be repurposed as performance horses than those retired involuntarily.
Even so, 30% (12 of the 40) of horses who retired because of musculoskeletal injury were successfully repurposed as performance horses.
There was no association between voluntary or involuntary retirement and whether horses were used for breeding or pleasure.
Medium-term follow-up, after about 14 months, revealed that 105 of the 110 horses were still alive.
Of the five horses that had died, four had been euthanised. One was put down after sustaining severe injuries in a paddock accident after it galloped through a fence one month after retirement; another was euthanised five months after retirement after aggravating an earlier injury, a midbody sesamoid fracture. Another was euthanised following a joint laceration and infection eight months after retirement. The fourth horse was euthanised 12 months after retirement because of severe colic.
The fifth horse was sent to an abattoir five months after retirement after aggravating an old injury, a basilar sesamoid fracture.
“No horses were euthanised or sent to an abattoir by an owner or trainer after retirement from racing,” the study team said.
“One horse was sold to be used as a performance horse but was recognized at the disposal sales and purchased by the jockey who used to ride him. He was subsequently repurposed as a pleasure horse.”
The authors noted that they had evaluated only the medium-term outcome for the horses (a median follow-up time of 14 months).
“Although these findings suggest that successful repurposing of horses and their welfare was maintained in the medium-term, these results may not reflect the long-term outcome for horses in their new careers.
“Currently, once racehorses have retired from racing, there is insufficient control over the long-term welfare of these horses.
“There is a need for traceability and accountability for these horses to ensure that their welfare is maintained in their new careers.”
The study team comprised Crawford, Anna Finnane, Ristan Greer, Solomon Woldeyohannes, Nigel Perkins and Benjamin Ahern, all with the University of Queensland; and Clive Phillips, with Curtain University in Perth. Greer is also with Torus Research in Bridgeman Downs, Australia.
Crawford, K.L.; Finnane, A.; Greer, R.M.; Phillips, C.J.C.; Woldeyohannes, S.M.; Perkins, N.R.; Ahern, B.J. Appraising the Welfare of Thoroughbred Racehorses in Training in Queensland, Australia: The Incidence, Risk Factors and Outcomes for Horses after Retirement from Racing. Animals 2021, 11, 142.