Horse Racing first reached British shores in 200 AD when Roman soldiers organised competitions. By the 10th century, the sport had become popular with royalty, with several monarchs introducing laws and rules through the years, gradually embedding its importance in our national heritage. There was a period where horse racing was banned (1654-1660) after Oliver Cromwell outlawed it, but it was re-introduced when King Charles II took to the throne. Since then, the sport has continued to expand, and today, there are 60 racehorses in training in Britain owned by King Charles III and running in royal colours.
Horse racing has grown considerably through the years, and naturally, negativity has grown with it. Many charities such as Animal Aid are continuously campaigning to ban the sport, deeming it ‘intrinsically cruel’. They believe that horses are raced to death and forced to partake in racing that they don't enjoy. This, however, couldn't be further from the truth.
A recent YouGov survey on UK public attitudes to the use of horses in sports found that 40% of respondents would continue to support it, but only with improved welfare. The issue is you only hear the bad things about horse racing, very little is made of the continuous improvements being made regarding welfare. Negative opinions or images shared online can influence people quickly because of the speed at which they circulate, so the BHA and other bodies within the sport must work harder to educate the public. Providing information on topics such as how horses are looked after and decisions the sport is planning to make will not only provide people with a better understanding but also help to alter the stereotypes surrounding it. The industry must also be proactive in making accurate content immediately available and addressing issues before they reach the media.
Whilst the change in public perception of the sport presents a new challenge, several safety improvements have been implemented in recent years, which need to be promoted. Barry Johnson, independent chairman of the BHA’s equine welfare board, stated: “A lot of positive changes are happening around areas such as safety and traceability of horses. There have been enormous achievements — £35m spent on research and veterinary care — that is a massive bonus for the whole of the equine industry. The racehorse industry finances that. The rest of the horse industry, right down to the Pony Club, benefits from all the research.”
As a result of the investment in British racing, the number of fatalities on British racecourses has decreased by 1/3 in the last 20 years, to 0.21% of runners. Let’s take a look at the improvements being made…
Padded hurdles were first introduced in 2001, with a further change rolled out in 2014 which saw the old birch hurdles replaced with a foam pad. The aim was to reduce the faller rate and risk of injury to both the horse and jockey. This change has contributed to a 15% reduction in faller rates compared to the old birch hurdles, whilst also reducing the risk of minor injury to the horse, such as cuts and grazes. Further minor refinements have since been made to the shape of the pad and the hurdle frame.
Research commissioned by the BHA revealed horses have reduced colour vision compared to humans. It was found that horses only differentiate objects in a palette of blues and yellows; so, the standard orange colour was difficult for them to contrast against a range of backgrounds. An initial trial of yellow found that the colour deteriorated too easily, thus white was used instead. White is more conspicuous against the fences and surroundings, maximising visibility in a wide range of conditions. From March 2022, an estimated 368 fences (2,132 hurdle panels) will be changed to white across 40 racecourses in Britain. Making such alterations not only makes it easier for the horse, reducing the number of fallers, but also improves overall safety.
The Grand National
The Grand National has been at the forefront of major changes since 2012. These include:
● Altering the core of the fences to be more forgiving
● Levelling off the landing side of fences so that it is even on take-off and landing, reducing the risk of a horse stumbling or injuring its legs
● Introduction of ‘misting’ fans to keep horses cool post-race
● Moving the start of the race away from the grandstands creating a calmer environment for the horses
A calmer environment for the horses to begin, coupled with improvements in safety around the fences, and increased focus on horse welfare during/post-race has seen significantly fewer fatalities and fallers since these changes were introduced. There were no fatalities from 2012 to 18, and only 54 fallers from 2012 to 22 (not run in 2020) compared to 104 fallers in the same period from 2001 to 11. That's an average of 5.4 fallers per running since the changes were introduced, compared to an average of 9.45 fallers per running in the 10 years beforehand.
After increased concern regarding the use of the whip during a race, amendments have been introduced to reduce the number of times it can be used. The most recent change saw the threshold reduced to six uses in a flat race and seven in a hurdle race, with an increased focus on it being used for encouragement and safety. Increased penalties for misuse offences have also been introduced, which will see jockeys penalised for over-use, using the whip above shoulder height, using it in the incorrect place or too frequently, and excessive force. The latter, for example, carries a minimum five-day ban (double in class 1 and 2 races). Disqualification has also been introduced as a penalty for the most serious breaches, with a new whip referral committee created to evaluate all rides and impose any necessary sanctions.
Use of Thermal-Imaging
Improvements in technology have seen horse safety improve both on and off the track, in particular, through the use of thermal imaging cameras. A system designed to detect muscle and ligament damage was introduced in 2016, measuring the cool-down rate of a horse's legs. Used by trainers and veterinary surgeons, this helps to detect strain or damage, significantly reducing the risk of injury. Alongside this, a similar technology was introduced at racecourses more recently to check the temperature of horses post-race. Overheating is an ever-present risk during racing, so ensuring the horse cools down properly is vital. Since using this technology, horse fatalities have been reduced by around 30%.
Royal Ascot has also seen some changes in recent years. These include, but are not limited to:
● An enhanced unsaddling area (2016) to accommodate large fields easier and to benefit from maximum shade, preventing overheating after a race
● 300 pop-up irrigation systems were overhauled in 2017, delivering a more efficient watering system for the track
● Five qualified equine vets are on duty every day at Royal Ascot, dedicated to welfare, with the ability to attend an incident within 1 minute
● Three equine ambulances are on the course at all times, with two veterinary boxes to assist with swift diagnosis before administering treatment to horses or moving them to equine hospitals
These changes have significantly improved welfare standards at the track, with similar changes being implemented at tracks around the country.
Race Day Protocols
Veterinary Surgeons, as mentioned above, are accredited by the BHA and provide immediate first-aid and treatment to horses. Several new protocols have been introduced which have seen improvements in the recognition and treatment of horses which overheat after racing, and in the diagnosis of horses suspected to have experienced irregular heartbeats following a race. This is another step towards improving animal welfare on the track. The BHA has also increased the number of pre-race examinations and ‘Suitability to Race’ examinations, which include a detailed examination and review of a horse’s history. This is used for horses that have suffered an injury or have previously been noted as ‘lame’. The procedure is undertaken by a BHA vet and the trainer’s vet at their yard to ensure the horse is fit to race and not suffering from any long-term effects.
Racing in Hot Weather
A series of measures related to racing in hot weather have been introduced for racecourses, racecourse staff, jockeys, and trainers and their staff. Whilst racing takes place in the heat abroad, such as in Dubai and Australia, precautions have been implemented in Britain to keep horses cool, comfortable, and safe when racing. The measures introduced by the BHA are to be implemented if temperatures are towards or increase beyond 30 °c, although stewards at the course can take action when they feel it is necessary. Some of the most important measures include:
● Avoiding long-distance races at the hottest time of the day
● Cool horses on arrival, before, and after racing
● Take the temperature of the horse on arrival
● Hold the horses in a shaded area
● Allow access to stables earlier in the day or the night before to allow travel at cooler times
● Mobile water supplies around the course
● Measure ambient temperatures in different areas of the course regularly
● Don’t apply any sheets, rugs, or chemical cooling rugs
You can see the full list of measures here, all of which are essential to the horse’s welfare:
Zero Tolerance to Steroids and Drugs
A zero-tolerance policy on anabolic steroids has been enforced, to not only ensure fair competition but also to protect the horse's welfare. There is also a threshold for the amount of cobalt present in a horse's system on race day. Cobalt is a naturally occurring substance in horses, but an elevated level could pose a threat to the horse and is a sign it has been injected as a performance-enhancing drug. In line with the other improved pre-race checks, this will ensure that the welfare of the horse is not impacted. Stringent rules have been put in place to punish anyone found to be using performance-enhancing steroids or drugs in racing.
All-Weather Racing Surface
All-weather tracks in the UK use either a Polytrack or tapeta surface. Polytrack is the preferred surface, as it has minimal jar and no kickback, meaning the horses can enjoy their racing and it puts less stress on their tendons. Tapeta is very similar but slightly more versatile regarding harsh weather. British racing has stayed away from dirt tracks, so unlike in the US, British tracks are fairer and more forgiving. This helps to reduce injury to horses' hooves and legs and also reduces the risk of slipping in wet weather.
Fibresand was a type of surface used at several tracks, including Southwell and Wolverhampton in the past, but this produced a lot of kickback which many horses didn't like. These courses have since been converted.
Although it’s clear the industry is doing a lot to improve animal welfare, people need to understand the positives of the sport to change their opinions. Running and jumping come naturally to horses and the care and support that they receive are far superior to almost all other domesticated animals. Many have concerns over animals being used in sports, and it's likely through a lack of understanding that this stigma exists. The quality of life for horses in training is high, and racing brings far more life to the horse population than it takes away.
Here are some positives of the sport:
● Racehorses are housed in a secure clean setting with access to plenty of green space
● They eat well-balanced diets year-round
● They graze and play with other horses in the field, as well as experience human interaction
● Human protection keeps them away from predators, contagious diseases, parasites, and harsh weather
● Veterinary support is on hand whenever injuries occur with access to other means, such as chiropractors and physiotherapists
● Racing and training give them a purpose for stimulation to expend energy and activate their brains, preventing anxiety, stress, and boredom
● They develop close bonds with other horses and humans
● They love the challenges that racing provides and are often seen running past horses even after losing the jockey
● Without racing, the thoroughbred breed would’ve died out ages ago
So, how can this information be used more effectively to win over an apprehensive population?
Advertising could be used more effectively to portray to the public what they're missing out on. As it stands, almost all the TV, newspaper, and internet adverts around racing relate to gambling. This doesn't exactly paint a great picture… Being more real with people will not only help to show the positives of the sport and what they're missing out on, but also capture the emotions of racing.
Changing how advertising is used goes hand in hand with the use of social media. Using it as a tool to be more forthcoming with insider information and data will help to educate and make information more readily available. A shift towards content such as what it takes to get a horse to the races and how jockeys prepare for a race will not only challenge the stigma that currently surrounds racing but also bring people to the sport.
Finally, the use of webinars and other videos would help to create discussion. Whilst social media sites such as Twitter can often generate unnecessary hate, these free resources will bring together lots of useful information about the sport and make it accessible to the masses. The information can be provided by racing experts and other credible sources to educate people on all aspects of horse racing, whilst allowing interaction and promoting discussion. What more do you think could be done to change the public perception of racing? I'd love to hear your thoughts down below!