Animal Aid

RIDING FOR A FALL - Worked to death

In this first section of Riding for a Fall, we expose the workload of the modern breeding stallion, the mare's burden and the throughput and output of the racing industry.

The breeding stallion - worked to death

A select number of high performance males are retained at the end of their racing careers to serve as breeders. They are kept at commercial studs, to which 'high quality' mares are brought so that they can be 'covered'.

Twenty years ago, Shergar, the most desired stallion of his generation, had a 'book' of around 40 mares. Today, successful sires are required to impregnate hundreds of mares every year. Supreme Leader and Pistolet Bleu covered, respectively, 325 and 335 mares in 2001. (5) Both died from what leading racing commentator, Alastair Down, surmised was exhaustion. (6)

'The real question,' he wrote, 'is whether these sorts of backbreaking loads are a good thing at all. ...Go to any sale of young jump stock and you will hear the word "overproduction" muttered darkly from beneath cloth caps with the implicit criticism being that it will all end in tears.

'One wonders,' Down added, 'about the mental state of some of our modern stallions, particularly the jumps stallions who seem to be saddled with a workload of heroic proportions.'

He went on to ponder the inevitable 'deleterious effect on the breed' that this scale of activity will have. '...Is the obsession with short-term gain blinding [the breeding industry] to the fact that the ringing of the till could soon become the tolling of a bell?'

Another leading commentator echoed Down's concerns. (5) 'There is serious over-employment among the [jump] stallion ranks, often involving horses whose credentials as prospective sires of hurdlers and chasers are difficult to discern...Breeders seem quite content to abandon any thoughts of applying discernment and are readily sucked in by deals offered by big studs, often over horses who, in more enlightened times, would not have been allowed in the breeding population.'

Even damaged and 'flawed' stallions can become the most coveted of breeding machines, despite the prospect of their weaknesses being passed on to their offspring. Three superstars of flat racing in 2000 were Dubai Millennium (now deceased), King's Best and Kayf Tara. Each retired to stud, even though the first two did so with broken legs and the latter with a recurrence of a serious leg injury.

Artificial insemination by another name

Racing's governing authorities around the world - including the Jockey Club - have always insisted that foals be produced by direct contact between stallion and mare, rather than by artificial insemination (AI). Artificial impregnation has been resisted because, the argument goes, it opens the way to a potentially catastrophic narrowing of the gene pool as a result of literally thousands of mares being impregnated by a single highly-prized stallion.

Ironically, the workload faced by top stallions results in the equivalent of a low-level version of AI. But, in any case, there is nothing low tech about the reproduction methods used by commercial race horse breeders - and, in particular, the regime to which the mare is subject. (See 'The Mare's Burden'.)

Racing's authorities have, furthermore, always been ambivalent on the question of the deepness of the genetic pool from which it draws its 'stock'. There is the curious reality that all modern Thoroughbreds can be traced back some 230 years to just three individual stallions: all of them Arabians, one of whom was captured from the Turks in Hungary, and is referred to as the Byerley Turk. Equally, the female contribution to the line derives from a mere 30 to 40 so-called foundation dams. And there is an additional deliberately introduced element of in-breeding practised by top breeders in search of extra speed: any two horses who are brought together for mating will share one common ancestor, when looking back four generations. Sometimes, they even share two.

The mare's burden - production line pregnancies


There have even been efforts (11) to speed up the gestation period itself. In a Newmarket experiment, which resulted in the birth and rapid death of 80 foals, some of the offspring were induced before 300 days and the rest at between 300 and 320 days. A normal gestation lasts about 340 days. All emerged weak, ailing and exhibiting tremors and twitches. Some had marked facial paralysis. Fifty-eight foals died within 90 minutes of birth, but some lingered for seven days. It is not known whether such experiments have been repeated."

Left to their own devices, mares in the wild have one foal once every two years, or perhaps twice every three years. They deliver in the spring, after a pregnancy lasting 11 months. The racing industry forces mares to produce a foal every year and as soon after January 1 as possible.

The first day of the year is the official birth-date of all race horses, no matter how much later in that year they are born. The commercial advantage of being born close to January 1 arises from the fact that horses can be entered into the crucial yearling sales as soon as they reach the age of one. A horse that is, in real terms, only 9 months when the sales come along, is disadvantaged against animals a few months older and stronger.

To achieve the earlier birth, breeders bring forward the mare's oestrus cycle - the period when she is receptive - from May, when it would naturally occur, to February or March. This is done by exposing her to months of artificial lighting lasting, not uncommonly, 16 hours a day. (7)

Where the mare 'stubbornly' refuses to come into season, powerful drugs (prostaglandins) are used to kickstart her.

Extreme breeding 'efficiencies'

Advancing the time of oestrus is only the beginning. To control when actual ovulation occurs within the two to eight day season, multiple injections of artificial hormones are administered. Following delivery of the foal 11 months later, the objective is to re-inseminate the mare within 10 to 30 days. (7)

Another 'efficiency' is surrogate feeding. This is a system whereby Thoroughbred mares, after delivering their foals, are not detained by having to suckle them but, rather, that job is given to non-Thoroughbred females. What of the foals these 'common' mares must have had in order to provide milk for the more expensive progeny? It would seem that a proportion of them, at least, is simply sent for slaughter. Hillside Animal Sanctuary ( reports (8) having rescued a common foal from just such a fate last year.

Embracing the brave new reproductive world

Despite approving these extreme measures, would the racing authorities embrace AI along with other reproduction technologies such as embryo transfer? A top researcher at the Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's Equine Fertility Unit - a registered charity based at Cambridge University in Newmarket - has recently gone on record calling explicitly for an end to the AI ban. (9) Furthermore, Professor William 'Twink' Allen insists that a project to map the genome (or genetic composition) of the Thoroughbred horse will enable bad traits to be bred out and thereby open the way for the busting of the ultimate taboo - the mating of stallions with their own daughters, and brothers with their sisters. A geneticist at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) - a veterinary charity also based in Newmarket - is a leader of the mapping project, while Allen's team is providing it with animal tissues. The AHT's work, he says, is proceeding 'way ahead of the rest of the world'. (10)

Confirming that the project is in large part about producing better performing animals for the racing industry, Allen told Racing Post in February this year: '...if the map can tell you, "Boy that mare's got some bloody good speed genes", you say, "OK, let's make sure we fix that into that family".' (10)

Mares 'doped and raped'

Allen supports his case for AI by pointing to the horrors of modern, high-throughput conventional breeding methods. 'First, if you have a young maiden mare who's frightened of the stallion. You've seen it in the covering yards. Well, she has to be screwed down and doped and raped. And that's dangerous for her, and particularly dangerous for the stallion exposing his crown jewels. That could all be overcome by artificial insemination.' (9)

The professor is already busily experimenting in the area of 'assisted' pregnancies. He was reported in April 2001 to have produced the world's first test tube foals, named Quickzee and Eezee. (12) And a scientific paper he published that same year with two colleagues, describes their search for 'low dose' methods of mare insemination 'that offer a practical means of exploiting new breeding technologies' such as sex-sorted semen. (13) (See 'Lethal experiments on live horses'.)

The violence of embryo transfer

Allen - father-in-law of jockey Frankie Dettori - also headed a team that has experimented with another 'advanced' reproduction method that the racing authorities currently prohibit - embryo transfer (ET). Already used in non-racing equine circles, ET maximises the output from a single prized horse by flushing several eggs from her at once. These are then grown in other less valuable horses. The various steps involved in ET are not pretty. They call for deep probes into and manipulation of the rectum and vagina, repeated internal flushings using litres of water, the administration of hormones and other drugs, sometimes the surgical removal of the ovaries, and the 'exteriorisation' of part of the womb called the uterine horn - this last procedure involving an incision being made in the flank of the recipient mare so that part of her uterus can be pulled through the opening.

Malformed foals

In the case of the professor's ET experiments, rather than getting a low value Thoroughbred to grow an embryo obtained from a more valuable animal, embryos were switched between ponies and much larger Thoroughbreds. This resulted in several stillbirths, abortions and the delivery of nutritionally deficient, mutant foals. (14) Among the bizarre justifications advanced by Allen for these experiments is that they would help understanding of the foetal origins of adult diseases in humans.

Cloning on the agenda

But if Allen's AI, father-into-daughter and womb swap agenda is already alarming racing's traditionalists, let alone the general public (the Sunday People billed his embryo transfer work with the headline: 'Horror Prof rips the foals from wombs of racehorses' (15)), he is far from chastened. Allen now wants to proceed with horse cloning.

'The horse is man's product...'

In evidence on February 5, 2002 before the House Of Lords Select Committee on Animals In Scientific Procedures, Professor William 'Twink' Allen, director of the Equine Fertility Unit, a registered charity based at Cambridge University, declared: 'There are groups I know of who are actively trying [cloning] in other parts of the world. There is quite a race on between us at the present time. There are a number of reasons to want to clone horses. There are individual wealthy people who want to reproduce their favourite horse and if that produces funds for research then I say, jolly good, we are the first to line up to try and do it. As well as that, I think the things that can be learned from a cloned animal are tremendous, in a horse particularly things like behaviour... and performance.

'We are dealing with an athlete in a horse and the idea of nurture versus nature is very pertinent as to whether you can reproduce that physical athletic excellence and how much of it is genetic and how much is induced by how the animal is raised and treated. Of course clones would answer that so quickly. I am very keen on it in that respect. It also would provide us with very valuable experimental animals to work with... Yes, cloning will come in; it should come in; and the sooner we can do it the better.'

'If a clone is born abnormal, we will put it down...'

Despite the extremely high number of abnormal foetuses and sickly newborns arising from all current animal cloning experiments, Allen did not see any 'ethical or welfare considerations'. He told the committee: 'If an abnormal animal is produced we will put it down. I take the view, and I hold to it, that a domestic animal is man's product essentially for man's use. It would not be there unless man had decided to produce it. We either eat it, have entertainment with it, ride it, use it for sport, or whatever. It is beholden upon us never to cause suffering unnecessarily to that animal, but I do not hold that it has ethics in its own right at all.'

'My perfect chairman...'

A Home Office Inspector was currently resisting Allen's application for a licence to clone horses. But Allen told his Lords 'inquisitors' that Lord Soulsby - the chairman of the local 'independent' ethical review panel charged with overseeing his experimental work - had 'very kindly helped to gather together' four top level Cambridge University cloning enthusiasts to bend the ear of the unco-operative man from the H.O.

Lord Soulsby - whom Allen described as a 'perfect chairman...I am very lucky' - was also, on the House of Lords Scientific Procedures Committee before whom Allen was giving his evidence last February. The other members of his local ethical review panel were a local solicitor and the 'lady owner of a stud farm'.

Throughput and output

In 1957, precisely 7,826 mares were retained for breeding purposes at the end of their racing careers in Britain and Ireland. Together, they produced 4,254 live foals. (16)

By 2001, the figures had more than tripled. 25,146 mares were employed and produced 14,701 living foals. (16) Of this annual 'output', only around 5,000 actually came through training to race on the track. (1) The fate of the 'failures' is one of racing's dirtiest and best-kept secrets. (See 'When Racing is Over...')

A downward spiral

While there was never a time when every new Thoroughbred foal progressed to racing, the proportion falling by the wayside has risen exponentially over the decades. Around one third currently make the grade. In the 1920s, when far fewer animals were produced, more than 80% of foals progressed to racing. (2) What these figures expose is a rapidly declining rate of return - many more females being impregnated by severely over-worked stallions to produce proportionately fewer racers. Add to this the fashion for horses with unfeasibly thin, long legs - legs that move fast but which fracture more easily - and the result is a self-defeating downward spiral.

In the second section of Riding for a Fall, we look at the implications for the breed, the hard 'remedies' used and lethal experiments on live horses.

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