Running for Their Lives

Note: I wrote this in 1997, not much more than a year after becoming vegetarian.  Keeping it here for archival purposes.

By the time this is printed the famous Spring Carnival of Melbourne's horse racing industry will be well underway, and its showpiece the Melbourne Cup will have recently been run. The social elite will have had their chicken and champagne breakfasts, the average punters an excuse for a barbecue and drinks with friends, and hundreds of millions of dollars will have changed hands, mostly into the coffers of the racing industry.  Amidst all this celebration it has be asked how many, of the millions of punters in Australia and indeed around the world who bet on these and other races, spare a thought for the plight of the horses on who's backs this industry literally runs.

Recently S.B.S. in continuing it's tradition of being almost exclusively the only Australian television station that broadcasts material regarding animal welfare, screened a British documentary called "They Shoot Horses Don't They?". While it dealt mainly with the racing industry in Britain and Europe, it is obvious that many of the practises contained within it are as prevalent in the Australian equestrian industry as they are anywhere else. The facts it raised about the industry in Britain and Europe were both eye opening and shocking, raising the curtain on a multi billion dollar industry where the horses welfare doesn't even run a place against their potential for commercial exploitation.

The procurement of thoroughbred horses for racing is a mass production line kept rolling under the supervision of highly trained vets. Each year ten of thousands of horses are selectively bred and raised in the hopes of them becoming horses capable of winning or placing in races. What happens however, to all the horses which inevitably don't make the grade? Stabling and training are expensive and a horse which cannot pay its way is liability to its owner, the most expendient avenue for the owners therefore is to rid themselves of their unwanted horses at any price and to anyone they can.

There are a number of ways in which unwanted thoroughbreds are "disposed" of, the most predominant being to slaughterhouses and to the knacker trade. In an interview with the owner of a slaughterhouse, he estimates that in Britain alone, upwards of twenty five thousand thoroughbreds a year are slaughtered from the racing industry, for their meat and other consumables. The meat goes to both animal and human consumption, with horse meat being considered a delicacy in France and across much of Europe. It is estimated that over seven thousand horses a year are exported to Europe from England. However as the documentary graphically portrayed, these could be the lucky ones.

Horse racing both here and overseas generally begins at the age of two years, although it is reasonably common for horses to begin racing as young as one year and ten months. However a horse which can live to thirty or forty years old, is not fully matured until it is at least four. Predominantly this is related to the skeletal structure, with many of their bones not being fully grown until three and a half to four years old. As an advocate of racing Dr. Jeremy Taylor of Bristol University admits, they are "more prone to injury. Skeletally immature". Asked about the implications to the foals (as they still are considerd at this age) trainer Dai Burchell stated that they "get jarred up, sore shins, you name it, they've got the bloody lot". Then asked why he continued this practise he stated "Ideally I'd like to break horses at three, get them racing at four, but these things don't happen. People buy a horse and want to go racing". Basically this comes down to the economics of having the expense of stabling and training for an extra one to two years, when the horse might still not turn out to be a "winner". An equine consultant to the R.S.P.C.A. also stated, that "Co-ordination is not fully developed at that age, like children. They are not physically capable of doing what they are supposed to do". It is obvious to the vets, trainers and everybody else involved that horses would be greater able to stand up to the stresses of racing if they were given the chance to fully mature, however this would eat into profits and is considered untenable.

Of course the majority of foals don't make the grade and they are disposed of, but even the ones who do can only look forward to an uncertain future. Whilst they are winning or paying their way, a horse can look forward to being looked after with the care that a winning investment would expect. One day however, the legs will not be as fresh, their muscles not as young and then they can expect to be thrown on the scrap heap, a thoroughbred still racing in it's teens is considered unusual.

One of the side effects of racing, which is worsened by racing at such young ages is tendon injury, and one of the ways this is treated is by a bizarre process called Bar-Firing. To quote a description of this process "red-hot, and I mean red-hot, irons" are put directly onto the hide at the bottom of the horses legs. The theory being that the ensuing blistering and injury will create a situation where it carried the tendons until such time as they had a chance to rehabilitate. One trainer when questioned about his use of the practise said that he knew the process was barbaric but he tried not to think about it. He stated his vet was happy to do the process for him. To quote Dr. Jeremy Taylor of Bristol University again "Firing has no place because it has no beneficial effects on the healing of the tendons themselves....and beyond that vets think there is some success and it still goes on". Asked if Bristol University promoted the practise he went on "(It is) commented on at most veterinary colleges around the world as an alternative therapy - not promoted as a good solution". When asked why some vets still use it regularly, after a prolonged pause he said he didn't want to answer that on television. One horse on which this cruel technique was used was called "Hello Dandy" and even apart from the Bar-Firing which left deep, permanent scars on his legs, he is a telling example of what happens even to winning horses, with wealthy owners. "Hello Dandy" was an extremely succesful horse, winning many races and among them was the Grand National, one of the most prestigous races in Britain and the world. He was owned by a wealthy aristocrat named Lord Onslow who after his usefulness in racing was over, simply left him in a field on his estate. He was found after having been left out in all weathers, covered in blisters. Thoroughbreds are not able to withstand harsh weather conditions due to their lack of exposure to them. His owner - Lord Onslow's, solution to the problem was typical of the industry, he wanted to shoot him. Instead he was found and rescued by a British organisation called the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, where he is now fully recovered and living the sort of idyllic lifestyle many of us imagine succesful horses to have after racing. The Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre's work involves trying to help these highly bred, highly strung horses, become more placid in nature and therefore able to be succesfully kept by private owners who do not have the funds or training to take care of such high maintenance horses.

The British Racing Assocation despite claiming it is concerned for the welfare of the horses it exploits, makes no contributions to any of the horse welfare groups in Britain despite a multi million pound annual budget. Even amongst the horses that make it into racing, three thousand a year are destined for the scrap heap because of injury, age or declining performance. The Queen of England, the richest woman in the world, is one of the worlds most elite race horse owners, yet her horses are destined for no fairer a fate than any others. Films show a horse breaking its neck in a hurdling race, one who broke its neck in training, another destroyed because of back problems, one - killed like so countless others because it had a broken leg and many others killed during and after races, or sold off to whatever fate if they are deemed to be no good.

As previously stated just to keep a thoroughbred is an expensive business, which means any who are not profitable "must" be gotten rid of in the most expedient way possible. Some of those who do not end up on dinner tables or in pet food, are sold at various auctions in outerlying regions. Under cover footage has been taken at these fairs, showing these hot blooded horses being kicked, whipped and beaten into submission by untrained people who know of no other way to handle them. In order to make them appear more placid to prospective buyers, they are also often given heavy sedatives just before auction. Many of the horses are left in a frightened and poor condition. Footage at one fair showed children first riding a thoroughbred over dangerous stones next to a river, whilst another ran behind whipping it quite savagely. Moments later it ended up in the water where other children began hurtling rocks at its exposed upper portion, which obviously was very painful to the horse, however it seemed to amuse the onlooking adults who could be heard laughing in the background of the film.

Throughout the documentary the recuring theme was one in which the welfare of the horses was not given the slightest consideration, and it horrified me by the end how many smiles and laughs vets and others in the field greeted questions about their barbaric practises. The following quotes are typical of the ignorant attitude which appears to prevail around this industry centred on the exploitation of such a beautiful and noble creature. Bill O'Gorman, trainer at Newmarket one of Britains richest and most elite stables when asked if he liked horses replied "I wouldn't say I liked them. I'd like to think I respect them to some degree because it's what I make my living out of" Dai Burchell horse trainer - "We don't worry what happens to our car when it rusts away", Interviewer - "But a horse is different to a car", Burchell - "In what way? We use a horse to do a job, with the same way you'd use a car. When he goes on winning and getting a place he's got a home, once he stops doing that, he's out". Interviewer - "Do you think that the fact vets who deal with horses have to have a close relationship with the racing industry, makes it difficult for them to hold onto their objectivity", Dr. Jeremy Taylor - "Now thats a question...pause........It depends on what you mean"...laughter, then no other response. Tristain Rickes of the British Racing Association who wants to see more horses being bred so they can have a race every eight minutes - "We'd like to see the numbers increase to provide those competitive race programmes and its crucial that it happens not only for the racing industry itself but for the betting industry which needs good competitive fields on which their clients can bet and also for the government because the government derives a lot of money from racing through betting duty, somewhere in the region of three hundred and fifty million pounds a year."

So with the industry looking at more and more breeding to increase their chances of getting good horses, and the huge international betting machine needing fodder for its particular game of chance, it looks like the thoroughbred racing industry is not even paying the slightest heed to the sentient creatures on which its whole industry is based. So the next time the Melbourne Cup or some other race comes around, think very hard about what your money is supporting and your interest validating. As you watch the horses running for our entertainment, remember that they are literally running for their lives.


A few days after writing this article, I was conversing with a young man whom I worked with as we fed wood into a machine at the saw mill where we were both employed. You can imagine my surprise when after I started discussing my article with him, he informed me that he had once been employed at an abbatoir where horses and camels were slaughtered. As I asked him more and more about the job, I became somewhat shocked to find that he had actually enjoyed his job which had been to shoot the horse/camel as it came through the stall to the platform on which he did his job. In his own words he said "It was a rush." I also asked him if he thought that they might feel any pain (I make it a point to try to be diplomatic about these things, which may be a failing but nevertheless..) to which he replied that he was certain that they did. The main thing he said that has stuck with me was when he told me that they often missed and it took more than one shot to kill the animal. With a grin on his face, and once again in his own words "gee they went wild".