Animal Aid

RIDING FOR A FALL - Ruining the horses

In the second section of Riding for a Fall, we look at the impact on the offspring, the hard 'remedies' in use and the role of the Animal Health Trust in the lethal experiments.

The offspring - 'We are ruining the breed'

One top trainer, Ian Balding, summed up the crisis facing the industry when he told Racing Post: 'We get far more injuries than we used to. During the 1970s, as many as 90 to 95% of my two year olds ran at least once in the first season. In the 1980s, it dropped to 75 to 80% and in the 1990s it's dropped to 65 to 70%... The only reason for not running is due to injury.

'These figures tell a depressing tale... Shortage of labour has decreed... horses rarely get ridden for more than an hour. We scarcely do any roadwork with flat horses which is good for strengthening bone and hardening-up tendons and ligaments, because of increased traffic... The fashion now is for speed and more speed. We have gradually lost [the] strength, stamina and durability, temperament, extra bone and courage that those horses have. If we carry on like this, then slowly but surely we are ruining the breed.' (17)

The problems Balding identifies arise from the irrational and self-destructive breeding practices, combined with the relentless demands thrust upon modern performance animals. When not racing, they spend up to 23 hours of their day stabled, deprived of the herd contact and freedom of movement that would ensure physical and mental health. Their lives are akin to those of secure unit prisoners. The longest time they spend out of their stables is when called upon to compete, and with racing now international, that often means travelling long distances by plane and road.

Feeble and sick

The consequence, according to one expert, has been 'big increases in equine health problems', such as shipping fever. (18) The last 35 years has also seen the spread of infectious, stress-related diseases, such as equine herpes and influenza. Exercise induced bleeding lungs is one more condition that is rife among the Thoroughbred racers. The lung-bleeding phenomenon has been studied by independent animal welfare researcher Dr Tim O'Brien, who notes: 'A Japanese study in the Journal of Comparative Pathology (19) examined racehorses performing low-intensity exercise on a track at running speeds up to 8.5 metres per second, and found that more than three-quarters of the horses suffered haemorrhaging into their lungs. 8.5 metres per second is around 19 miles per hour. In race conditions, horses may frequently be required to achieve speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour.'

Another endemic condition is chronic gastric ulcers. Notes O'Brien: 'A study in Virginia, USA, reported in the Equine Veterinary Journal in 1996 (20) found gastric ulcers in 93% of horses in race training; in horses who had actually raced, the incidence was a staggering 100%. A study from Hong Kong, reported in the same journal, (21) found that the stomach lesions appeared to be chronically progressive during training, but regressed if the horse was retired. This ulceration may be related in part to the high-cereal, high-energy diet given to racehorses - more acidic than the animal's natural pasture-based diet, to which they rarely have free access.'

The yearling sales

The yearling sales (for horses aged between one and two) are a vital money market that see the top prospects sell for a good return but thousands of under par horses weeded out and rejected. There are no publicly available statistics to indicate where and how these animals are jettisoned. But seasoned industry watchers, such as Kareena Grey who runs an investigative organisation called Discover Racing Death ( is convinced that thousands are simply shot and fed to hunting hounds or turned into pet food.

Vanity surgery

There have been many notable changes to the way yearlings are prepared for sale. One is the fashion - more common in the US than Europe - for animals with perceived 'angular limb deformities', such as knock-knees, to be subjected to leg-straightening surgery. Yet recent research by the president-elect of the American Association of Equine Practitioners determined that such interventions could cause serious leg problems. 'We found that a degree of carpal valgus [knock knees] protects a horse from knee injuries. Study findings suggest that 'corrective' surgery may do more harm than good'. (22)

The surgery itself is not without hazards. One technique involves inserting screws and wire or staples on one side of the knee or ankle. Another requires peeling back the edges of connective tissue that surrounds and protects the bone, in order to stimulate growth.

Trading bone for speed

The legs of race horses are already in a vulnerable state due to breeders having systematically traded bone for speed. Those bones contain a spongy, honeycomb section inside, which acts as a shock absorber. The structure is necessary, notes welfare expert Dr O'Brien, 'because, when galloping at speed, the force on the lead foreleg as it hits the ground is over one and a half times the total bodyweight of the horse. Dr Thomas Tobin, of the Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Kentucky, has shown that horses' bones actually become weaker during the course of a race, sometimes by over 40%. The results can be appalling.'

'The right leg snapped...'

In September 1999, in the United States, 23-year-old jockey J.C. Gonzalez and his four-year-old mount, Wolfhunt, died within minutes of each other. As they rounded the final turn of a one mile race, Wolfhunt suddenly fell, throwing jockey Gonzalez to the track. A racehorse trainer 50 feet away described what happened next: 'The horse tried to stand, and first the right leg snapped, right between the knee and the ankle. Then he tried to put weight on the left leg, and it went above the knee. I could barely take my eyes off this horse trying to stand with these bloody stumps.' Jockey Gonzalez, with massive head injuries, was pronounced dead minutes later. Wolfhunt was destroyed on the racetrack.

Hard 'remedies' - the drugs, the whip and the lethal experiments

The racing industry has two main remedial approaches to the ailments arising from its patterns of breeding, housing, feeding, training and competition. One comes under the heading of chemical and physical inducements. The other involves lethal experiments on live horses.

Chemical and physical inducements

The first category includes a range of drugs that often mask pain and suppress symptoms of injury. This allows a rapid return to racing but often at the cost of long term damage. One such substance is a powerful steroid called MPA, which is commonly given to young race horses who suffer lameness due to their punishing training regime. Administration is often by injection into the inflamed joints. There is evidence that such steroids weaken the bones and predispose them to fractures.

These substances actually appear on a very long list of drugs banned by the racing authorities in Britain - or rather it is an offence for these substances to be found in the urine of horses when they are tested post-race. Apart from the limited amount of testing that is done, the prohibition does not extend to animals - young or old - while they are training rather than racing.

'Butes', 'milkshakes' and snake venom

In a similar vein and also on the banned-for-racing list, is phenylbutazone (or 'bute'), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that is widely used in Britain to treat bone, tendon, joint and muscular injuries. Again, its use masks the pain that is a natural and protective reaction to injury.

Then there is sodium bicarbonate, given two to three hours before a race, via a stomach tube, to delay muscle tiring. Known as a milkshake, it works by increasing blood CO2(23) The extent of their use in Britain is not known.

A Jockey Club-approved 'remedy' for exercise-induced lung bleeding is to dose the victim with rattlesnake venom. (24) The logic behind the alleged cure ... exposed by Kareena Grey - is that, because a bite by a rattlesnake causes massive internal haemorrhaging, a small amount of venom can help build immunity to bleeding.

'My horse was thrashed...'

A more physical corrective applied to a poorly performing horse is the whip. Champion jockey Willie Carson spoke with admirable clarity about how he encouraged his mount, Alhaarth, to second place at Newmarket in 1996: 'I gave him six cracks, and I wouldn't like to lie down on that side tonight.'

Then there was the evocative account of whip use given by the owner of a young filly in a letter to Racing Post in the winter of 2002. (25) Wrote Jasmine Chesters of Braunton, North Devon: 'When she came out for her first race this year, the only words I can use are that she was thrashed. Not by other horses but by her jockey. She was hit at least 12 times inside the last furlong and a half and finished third. Her rider was suspended for two days but the harm he did to my horse is incalculable. She has never run the same since. She breaks well but on reaching about the four-furlong pole, when she is nearly always in the first four or five, as soon as she is smacked to push her on, she drops herself out. Her emotions must be in turmoil. She must be expecting to be thrashed again. We have nursed her all season but to no avail. Now I have to make the decision as to what to do with her.'

Lethal experiments on live horses - the role of the Animal Health Trust

There is a less than noble tradition of lethal experiments on horses, designed to yield solutions to the numerous ailments suffered by modern race horses, as well as to increase their efficiency. Notable in this area is the aforementioned Newmarket-based veterinary charity, the Animal Health Trust - subject of three previous major exposes by Animal Aid. A number of the AHT's experiments, which often involve low-value Welsh mountain ponies, have been wholly or partly funded by commercial racing interests. In fact, the AHT jointly established in May 2002 a new company called Equine Genetics Research Ltd (EGR). (26) This is the enterprise, referred to above, that is working on mapping the equine genome in order to eliminate genes that give rise to 'defects'. The AHT's partner, and principal investor in the project, is the British Horseracing Board.

Also active in horse vivisection, as we have seen, is Cambridge University, especially its Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Equine Fertility Unit.

Animal Aid has two principal objections to horse experiments:

  1. We believe that no animal, or group of animals, should suffer with the intention of enhancing the health of another group of animals - just as we would oppose experiments on any group of humans for the supposed 'greater good'.

    The high incidence of limb damage and infectious diseases to which the experiments are directed, results from the extreme stresses to which modern performance horses are exposed. That is the unequivocal message the AHT - a veterinary charity, no less - should carry back to the industry, rather than colluding with it and thereby providing a kind of legitimacy for current exploitative practices.

Examples of recent experiments:

In the third section of Riding for a Fall, we report on the 300 horses raced to death every year and the Grand National race itself, and we describe what happens to the horses once their racing days are over.

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