Horse welfare is something that is widely discussed, often for all the wrong reasons. Horse racing, like any sport, is dangerous, but the stigma surrounding cruelty to horses is still ever-present in the modern-day. Many people consider horse racing to be cruel, arguing that horses are mistreated and pushed far too hard, then forgotten about when they are considered "not good enough". But this couldn't be further from the truth. The amount of hard work behind the scenes from the trainers and their teams, and the attention to detail to ensure a horse is in tip-top condition often goes unnoticed. They spend hours upon hours every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year caring for these animals, looking after them, and putting their welfare first. Yet many still seem to pick on the same few issues…
I’m delighted to have a very special guest, horse racing trainer Martin Smith, who I have worked with on this article. We will discuss some of these issues and providing an insight into what happens behind the scenes.
First up, horse welfare:
What are your thoughts on horses being used for entertainment, and the idea that they develop injuries because of it?
The principal reason we breed horses nowadays is for entertainment. Whether it be hacking, show-jumping or racing, they are all forms of entertainment. If we did not use them for entertainment, then there would be no need to keep breeding them and the population would be decimated. Thankfully, we don't send them to war or use them for transport anymore, so this is their primary purpose. Regarding the injuries, we hate to see them, as does everyone, and we do everything possible to prevent them. Unfortunately, it happens, but when it does, we do everything we can to get a horse back to full health, spending at least 50% of our time ensuring the horses are fit and healthy. Whether it be through the exercise we do, the feeding, or even treating something as small as a rash, we do everything we can to look after a horse's well–being.
What would you say to the people who think horses are mistreated in horse racing?
The closest thing I’ve probably seen to mistreatment is someone losing their temper with a horse, and this is down to poor horsemanship on their part. Racehorses aren’t easy to handle, but I can safely say horses are not mistreated by us or most people I have ever worked with. People think they know more about horses than they actually do, which can lead to these sorts of issues, but I’ve never worked anywhere where horses are mistreated or malnourished. Unfortunately, people believe what they want to believe and it’s very hard to convince them otherwise. All we can do is show them what we do through the use of videos on social media. If they don’t want to acknowledge it, then that’s fine, but it makes it a lot harder for them to argue otherwise when the evidence is readily available.
Many welfare charities want the whip banning, but it is an important safety feature for both the horse and the jockey. Where do you stand on the use of the whip and would legal welfare standards for horses be welcomed?
A race is a dangerous situation, and so I believe you should be able to carry a whip. Many horses require that extra bit of control and using the whip allows for this. I believe however that they use it too much, and I can safely say from my riding days that I rode multiple winners where I didn’t use the whip probably more than 3 times. Reducing the number of times that a jockey may hit a horse would make them think much more about being tactical, and adopting the ethos of not pushing a horse too hard. This would make horse racing more interesting as it is harder for the jockeys, and much kinder on the horses. It is also worth noting that there is no limit on how many times you can slap a horse down the neck, and I believe this should also be limited. As a result, myself and many others would certainly welcome legal welfare standards. We have very high standards and it would be nice to see others kept to that standard too.
What would you say to the people who want to see an end to all horse racing because it is “intrinsically cruel”?
What does a jockey do aboard a horse to prevent injury and ensure the safety of the horse they are riding?
Every stable has different standards for its riders, and it comes down to the ability of the rider to do these things well. For my riders, we want to keep the horse balanced, moving straight, and most importantly calm. A horse going sideways with their back-end swinging out is more likely to cause an injury, which it is important to avoid. Keeping the horse calm minimizes the risk of injury by around 90%.
This section gives an excellent overview of horse racing and hopefully puts to bed some of the negative stipulations surrounding it. The care and attention the horses receive behind the scenes are second to none, and their safety along with that of the jockey is paramount. The whip is used simply as a steering device and the popping sound it creates is used to encourage the horse. The foam coating helps to prevent injury. Regardless of how you look at it, the primary use for a horse nowadays is entertainment; it’s just unfortunate that horse racing has this stigma of cruelty surrounding it. It is difficult to remove the negative opinion on horse racing for many people, but the increased number of videos and information on social media will help to fight against this. Likewise, the idea of legal standards for welfare would be welcomed by most of the horse racing community, as they share a very similar opinion to the public on several matters.
Next, let’s look at what life is like for a racehorse behind closed doors:
What does a typical day look like for a horse in your yard?
Do you have any examples of horses that you trained that were retired due to not making a suitable racehorse, and have gone on to another career?
There have been several horses we have found forever homes for after not making the cut in racing. One was a lovely filly called Cookupastorm most recently who had come to us after a lot of racing as a 2-year-old and unfortunately had a sore knee as a result. There was no permanent damage and we could have medicated it to keep pushing through, but you could tell during races she wasn’t fully committed and enjoying herself. She was taken to the National Horse Racing Museum to be re-trained, and during her time there found a new owner. She’s now leading the Life of Riley, hacking away in Newmarket, and even has her own social media page. We like to find horses a forever home to avoid them being purchased, re-trained, and sold on for profit.
What practice do you follow after a race to ensure a horse receives the best possible care/treatment?
As soon as the horse is off the track, they are cooled with water and then walked until they stop blowing. This allows ample time for them to wind down and for the stable staff to pick up on any cuts the horse may have gotten during the race, ensuring they are treated quickly to avoid infection. The day following the race; we trot the horse to ensure it isn’t lame now the adrenaline has stopped flowing and take the time to re-analyse the horse, picking up on any other issues that may have developed overnight. The horse then spends up to a week doing some gentle walking and recovering in the paddock. Once they come back to training, they are fresh and well and ready to go again.
How do you decide when a horse should have a break? What is the process of winding a horse down and then gradually bringing the horse back to fitness afterwards?
This analysis makes it clear to see that anyone involved with horses has a deep affiliation with them. The process of looking after them post-race, whilst at home or following an injury is very complex, and there are meticulous checks/routines that help to keep them in tip-top condition. From checking for cuts, to gently easing them back into faster work, everyone in the team plays a vital role in caring for and maintaining the welfare of a horse. The idea that we forget horses when they aren’t good enough is essentially null and void. As shown above, horses can have a variety of careers. Everyone wants a horse to lead a long and happy life, and although sometimes it takes a while to find an environment that they are happy in, the trainer and team around them won’t stop working until they have achieved that.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Martin for his excellent insight and co-operation on this piece and wish him all the best with his stable for the rest of the season.