The Melbourne Cup brings out horse racing enthusiasts and opponents but a Charles Sturt University academic said, if proper practices are taught and engaged with, it does not have to be the dangerous industry it can be perceived to be.
By Senior Lecturer in Animal Nutrition in the Charles Sturt University School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences Dr Glenys Noble in Wagga Wagga.
It is the so-called ‘race that stops the nation’, but the Melbourne Cup is also the race that divides animal enthusiasts.
Whether you love it or hate it, all eyes will be on the Melbourne Cup next week. It’s the race that stops the nation and draws the attention of racing enthusiasts and protestors alike.
The horse industry is steeped in tradition, some of which results in valid care of the horses, but some traditional practices are simply outdated, and this greatly impacts the horses’ quality of life and potentially its health and performance.
Adoption of evidence-based training has been slow and continues to be an issue in this tradition-based industry.
There is a focus at Charles Sturt University on research and teaching practices within the Bachelor of Equine Science (with specialisations) to ensure updated methods are used and taught to ensure graduates and alumni are training and nourishing race horses properly during their career and retirement.
Students are taught during their degree about what a horse needs for a good quality of life, including ethical training methods, low-stress horse handling, and disease and injury management.
Teaching these practices during the degree ensures the next generation of trainers, owners and managers are equipped with up-to-date information on the industry, so the future leaders of the racing industry are aware of the health and welfare considerations needed to care for racehorses effectively and ethically.
I am aware of the opponents of racing that consider it potentially dangerous to the racehorse, given that the animal is working to the upper end of its physiological limits, like all elite athletes.
Unfortunately, some horses are injured during a race in the full glare of the media. For publicity purposes, opponents of racing then sensationalise the tragic event.
But with appropriate physical training, nutrition, social enrichment, health care, and monitoring for injury and illness, the risk to the horse is greatly reduced.
The most important factor here is to have the horse properly trained and conditioned for the competition it is competing in.
Fitness of a racehorse is extremely difficult to measure as it is not a tangible thing. With strong, healthy bones and muscles, musculoskeletal injuries are minimised, and risk of catastrophic breakdown is greatly reduced.
It is imperative that the hard work of diet, exercise and training is done along with close monitoring to pick up injury risks early. There are no shortcuts to training a successful racehorse, such as resorting to unethical practices like drug doping and senseless punishment.
Care for a retired racehorse is not greatly different to other horses, once the racehorse has adapted to its new environment.
Racehorses take varying amounts of time to adjust to life post-racing. There is a change in diet, change in housing, change in work and riding style, and change in overall husbandry.
It takes patience and sound training using learning theory to re-educate and re-train a racehorse for another career. The horse is not a robot, nor can it be beaten into submission to do what we want it to do or how we want it to behave.
We have several research projects catering for the safety and care of racing and retired racehorses.
The main research is funded by AgriFutures Australia and is called ‘Maintaining welfare and integrity of Australian Racing’. This project is being run in collaboration with the main Australian horse racing forensic laboratories investigating the detection of prohibited substances in racing Thoroughbreds.
Prohibited substances may be used to enable an injured horse to compete or to enhance its athletic performance that may push it beyond its physical limits; either practice increases greatly the risk of serious injury during a race.
Another project completed last year, in collaboration with the University of Melbourne, investigated the reasons why Thoroughbred racehorses are retired from racing.
If we can identify why horses are retired from racing, we can better evaluate their potential for alternative careers and re-homing as well as suitable care and management of these horses post-racing.
I recently spoke at the Advancing Equestrian Practice to Improve Equine Quality of Life conference about the Charles Sturt University’s Equine Science Group’s public submission made to the Thoroughbred Welfare Initiative on addressing issues associated with re-homing retired Thoroughbred racehorses and unraced Thoroughbreds.
The Charles Sturt Equine Science team look forward to working with the Thoroughbred Welfare Initiative to improve outcomes for retired Thoroughbreds.