A range of considerations for the effective care of thoroughbreds after their racing careers are over has been highlighted by a panel of experts at the sixth International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses (IFAR).
The international experts converged virtually this week to discuss the importance of aftercare to the Thoroughbred industry and the different components of aftercare plans that are necessary to promote the welfare of horses.
In opening the conference, IFAR chair Di Arbuthnot said the opportunities for retired Thoroughbreds were many and varied, as were the strategies that must be considered and implemented, regardless of location.
“These many paths have one goal, which has equine welfare front and foremost.”
Annamarie Phelps, chair of the British Horseracing Authority, spoke on the need for the entire Thoroughbred industry to prioritize aftercare for the sustainability of horse racing. She also highlighted the potential and power of the human-horse bond and the important role that retired racehorses can be as the sport’s ambassadors in bringing people and horses together.
“Meaningful change is not achieved through threats or admonishment, but rather through creating and owning a vision, building a coalition of like-minded people, and supporting them with tools and strategies to deliver change,” Phelps said.
“Many people come to racing for the sport, but they stay because of the wider benefits… the physical and mental well-being they get from their involvement with racing’s people and our fabulous horses. It is this connection that transcends our industry, brings us into alignment with our critics, and speaks to our common humanity.”
Dr. Meredith Flash, lead researcher for the Australian Thoroughbred Wellbeing Project, reviewed findings from a study she conducted as part of the Australian Thoroughbred Wellbeing Project to examine outcomes for horses leaving racing.
“[Previous research has] created these perceptions that only the lucky few are rehomed and that most are sent to slaughter and that they’re often unsuitable for rehoming due to injury or behavioral issues. So, what we wanted to do was investigate those perceptions,” Flash said.
The survey found that about 19% of the racing population exits each year, and more than half of the horses that were retired were removed from racing voluntarily. Ultimately, most of the horses included in the survey ended up in equestrian or pleasure careers outside of the Thoroughbred industry, and fewer than 1% were sent to slaughter. These findings provide a critical update to some of the previous perceptions about the lives of Australian racing Thoroughbreds.
Jock Hutchison, president and co-founder of Horseback UK, delivered his presentation while demonstrating with his off-the-track Thoroughbred Peopleton Brooke, whom he uses in his program to assist military veterans and those suffering from mental health issues. He praised horses, specifically Thoroughbreds, for their ability to excel in equine-assisted therapy due to their intelligence and sensitivity. Hutchison has found that military veterans can relate to off-the-track Thoroughbreds due to their similar backgrounds of needing to rediscover purpose in second careers.
“A horse is essentially what it’s taught to be, and if we’re prejudiced against a horse or human because of where he comes from or because of the breed he is, then we’re not doing ourselves any favors,” he said.
“We’re all here to help these horses, but maybe the question we should be asking is not ‘How do we help those horses’ but ‘How do these horses help us?’”
Dr Jeff Berk, a veterinarian with Equine Medical Associates PSC and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), discussed the decision-making process for considering humane euthanasia for retiring or recently retired racehorses. The AAEP guidelines recommend euthanasia if the horse is experiencing 1) a chronic condition that results in continuous pain or a pain that cannot be treated with medication, 2) a condition that will result in a poor quality of life, 3) soundness issues that will result in medication or stall confinement for the rest of its life to be comfortable, or 4) an unmanageable medical or behavioral issue that renders it a hazard to itself or others.
“Euthanasia is an extreme option,” said Berk. “The need for euthanasia can potentially be minimized by recognizing subtle performance-limiting issues at the track before they become chronic and irreversible. This requires education of all the stakeholders: trainers, owners, and veterinarians alike.”
Angela Schuster, managing director of Schuster Consulting Group, talked about the challenges with tracing horses for the duration of their lives and described a traceability toolkit that leverages those operational aspects, which the industry is already doing well, and identified focus areas to achieve best practice.
“The primary purpose for traceability in the Thoroughbred industry may be driven from a desire for the industry to maintain its social license,” said Schuster. “If you want to make claims with the welfare of an animal or even its origin, you will need traceability as the backbone that allows you to demonstrate or provide evidence of those claims.”
This year, IFAR partnered with the Japan Racing Association (Japanese Consultative Committee on Aftercare of Racehorses) to put on the event. The session on April 5 was moderated by international broadcaster Rishi Persad, and IFAR concludes with its second session on April 19, which will be moderated by Australia-based racing broadcaster Caroline Searcy.
Speakers will include Michael Drapac, owner and breeder; Dr Adrian Farrington, executive manager of Veterinary Clinical Services at The Hong Kong Jockey Club; Kirsten Green, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project; and Jennifer Hughes, general manager of Equine Welfare for Racing Victoria.
The session will also feature a young professionals panel moderated by Searcy and composed of Godolphin Flying Start trainees George Broughton and Elinor Wolf; Harry Derham, assistant trainer; Caoimhe Doherty, co-founder of Treo Eile and stud manager at Forenaghts Stud; and Natasha Rose, Equestrian Affairs project manager and Retired Racehorse Unit manager for The Hong Kong Jockey Club.