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Wastage, Bleeders, and Murky Data in the Horse Racing Industry

Hey Australia, it’s Melbourne Cup Day.

It turns out that it’s actually quite hard to find well-researched information on issues of animal welfare in the racing industry.  All credit to organisations who lobby against cruelty in the industry, but their sites aren’t always the best of source of resources, and at times show a misunderstanding of the underlying statistics.

Given it’s Cup Day, I’ve put together an overview of some of the studies I’ve encountered during a quick skim of the literature. Bear in mind that I haven’t looked in detail into the authors, nor methodologies used in the studies, so cite with caution.  The two issues that immediately arose when I ran a search were ‘wastage’ (the commercial term for horses lost to the racing industry) and ‘bleeders’ (horses suffering from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage or ‘EIPH’).

One of the most concerning aspects in my opinion is how just murky and under-scrutinised this whole industry appears to be in this respect – pinning down solid, credible data is no simple task, even where suspicions have been raised that the industry may be the horsey equivalent of a puppy mill.   For example, there’s very little information relating to the origin of horses sent to abattoirs.  This in in part due to an glaring absence of record keeping, the complication of abattoirs frequently procuring horses via auctions rather than directly from from racing stables, and the fact that some of the relevant data (where it exists) is considered to be commercial in confidence.

An estimated 80 per cent of those horses that actually end up on the racetrack suffer EIPH – these horses are known in the industry as ‘bleeders’.  (Hinchcliff, K.W., et al., Association between exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage and performance in Thoroughbred  racehorses. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2005. 227: p. 768-774.)  This is quite an interesting one statistically, as horses can either bleed from the windpipe or in the deeper lung area, with some commentary noting the former applies to ‘around half’ of all racehorses, and the latter up to 90 per cent.  Wikipedia references studies stating the proportion of racehorses suffering EIPH at some point in their career falls between 40 per cent and 70 per cent.   I’m not clear on the number of non-racing horses who suffer from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, although some of the literature implies it is significantly lower.

It’s been estimated  “pregnancy in 1000 Thoroughbred Australian mares produces only 300 horses which will actually race”.   (Bourke JM (1995) Wastage in Thoroughbreds. In ‘Proceedings from the Annual Seminar, Equine Branch, NZVA’. Auckland pp. 107-119. Veterinary Continuing Education, Massey University)  Where do they go?  One of the more nteresting and recent studies in this area – greatly impaired as it was by lack of industry data – is detailed in a 2008 paper published in the Equine Veterinary Journal.  Here’s an extract of the relevant section:

An assessment was also made on the possibility of collecting further data within the abattoir setting. In this study data was collected over three collection dates from 340 horses processed at an Australian abattoir. This occurred between November 2007 and January 2008. The data showed that 59.8% of the horses had a dental age of  7 years with the remainder (40.2%) being > 7 years. Observations of the types of brands present indicated that 52.9% of the horses processed had originated from the racing industry with 40.0% of the sample group carrying a Thoroughbred brand and 12.9% carrying a Standardbred brand. The remainder of the group (47.1%) had no visible brand.

Wastage or horse loss (Jeffcott, 1990; Bailey, 1998) occurs at all stages of the horse’s life, including prior to racing, and it is estimated that pregnancy in 1000 Thoroughbred Australian mares produces only 300 horses which will actually race (Bourke, 1995). Similar pre-racing wastage has been found in Standardbred horses (trotters and pacers). A survey conducted on the 1990 crop of Western Australian Standardbred foals (Dyer, 1998) reported that 29% of foals were unregistered while approximately 26% were registered but never raced. Of the unregistered foals, 25% died or were destroyed and in 13% of cases, the cause of death was deliberate destruction. Of the registered, unraced horses 15% died and deliberate destruction was the cause of death in 12% of cases.

Bourke (1995) has also estimated that approximately 33% of the Thoroughbred population of Victoria may be lost to wastage each year however, these wastage figures include all areas in which horses are lost to the racing industry (e.g. reproductive failure, death of foals, various training and racing injuries and those relinquished for slaughter: Bailey, 1998). Interestingly, a more recent survey of racehorse trainers in the 2002/2003 race year reported similar figures. Hayek et al. (2005) found that the total wastage rate for horses in training or racing was 39% for Thoroughbreds and 38% for Standardbreds. Of the 39% of Thoroughbreds which left a racing stable only 6% were reported to have been sent to a knackery while 17% of Standardbred horses were reported to have been sent to the same destination. However, as the authors noted these figures do not include horses which were sent to a slaughter plant via a more indirect route, that is being sent to auction and purchased by an agent buying horses for slaughter, so the exact number of Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds in the study group which were ultimately slaughtered remains unknown.”

Doughty, A., Cross, N., Robbins, A. and Phillips, C.J.C. 2009. The origin, dentition and foot condition of slaughtered horses in Australia. Equine Veterinary Journal 41, 808-811.

Additionally, some of the literature suggests that horses who are unsuccessful on the racecourse may transition into the more harmful sport jump racing – a spectacle banned in New South Wales, and recommended to be phased out elsewhere by an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry.   Clearly, in addition to wastage and health issues, not to mention the subjects of gambling and whipping, there’s also a whole discussion to be had about the ethics of meat production versus the breeding of animals for an entertainment industry and so forth.  But, given they’re currently running  a Race That Stops A Nation, that’s one for another day.

Category: activism

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@dilettantiquity is interested in an unreasonable number of things, including the wide and wonderful universe, happiness, well-being, wine, optimal human experience, non-violent communication, complex systems, existential nihilism, rationality, technology, grassroots organising, cacophony, music, creativity, learning and love.