Thoroughbred racing urged to be “a caring, sustainable industry”

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Great progress is being made globally in the field of aftercare for thoroughbred racehorses, but equine welfare must be at the forefront of all efforts.

That was the message at last week’s final session of this year’s International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses’ (IFAR) conference series, held virtually over four weeks.

The final session, “Aftercare for Racing Industry Participants: Owners, Breeders, and Trainers,” was moderated by media personality and aftercare advocate Francesca Cumani, who led the discussion and provided insights based on her many years of training and handling horses.

Presenters included Thoroughbred Breeders Australia and Aushorse chief executive officer Tom Reilly, who described the industry in Australia as respected — but subject to intense criticism. “Racing is well-accepted in society, (but) there is a small subset in parliament that is opposed to it. The animal welfare lobby has proved to be incredibly effective.”

This was evidenced by the fallout of a 2019 investigative journalism piece that showed former racehorses being treated inhumanely at an abattoir. The Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group was established with the support of industry stakeholders following that video, and the group will soon be releasing recommendations for the industry.

Dr Mark Fisher, from Kotare Bioethics Ltd in New Zealand, discussed the complexity of the animal welfare debate and that different people view an animal’s lived experience differently. He highlighted that perhaps the most important parts of animal welfare are enabling animals to be in their natural environment and ensuring that they are treated with dignity and respect.

Fisher cited that two ways of losing the animal welfare argument with the public are to be reactive rather than proactive and to shy away from building coalitions that include consumers and the public. Keys to public support are being transparent about welfare practices.

“Get your house in order and show it,” he said. “What sort of life do your animals have? How do we know? Can we trust you?”

Dr Christopher Riggs, The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Veterinary Science chief advisor and director of the Equine Welfare Research Foundation, made a presentation on the “one last race syndrome” – to squeeze one more race into a horse before retirement – and the risks associated with that mentality. He also warned of the impact of legal therapeutic medications because they can create a false sense of security as to the state of a horse’s joints and should be used judiciously. Riggs called for horsemen to consider all of these factors when contemplating that “one last start.”

IFAR Steering Committee member Dr Eliot Forbes spoke on the aftercare toolkit developed by IFAR, including supply and demand-based strategies for promoting Thoroughbreds beyond the racetrack. He stressed that aftercare should be a priority for all stakeholders, and a comprehensive aftercare plan includes transition strategies, effective traceability measures, community engagement, advocacy of the Thoroughbred breed, and networking.

“We want to see aftercare structurally embedded in the racing business model of every country and in the heart of every racing participant,” said Forbes. “A caring industry will be a sustainable industry.”

The conference was closed by IFAR chair Di Arbuthnot, who said the organisation was delighted by the global reception to this year’s conference.

Key to public support is transparency surrounding welfare practices in the thoroughbred industry, Dr Mark Fisher said at the IFAR conference.
Key to public support is transparency surrounding welfare practices in the thoroughbred industry, Dr Mark Fisher said at the IFAR conference. Photo by Five Furlongs

“All of our speakers and moderators offered valuable insights to share with our audience, and we are thankful for their participation and commitment to aftercare.

“The wide range of viewers who tuned into each of IFAR’s sessions indicates the interest from the Thoroughbred industry in prioritizing aftercare on a global scale, and the IFAR team is here to assist jurisdictions who wish to develop or enhance their programs.”

More from the conference:

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