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Better Off Alive

I feel I ought to offer some sort of response to an article appearing on my newsfeed every few posts this afternoon suggesting that “more racehorses should be shot when their racing days are over”, and perhaps offer an alternative solution to the problems it raises.

“Better off Dead” essentially attests that the majority of ex-racehorses end up under-fed, under-worked, poorly managed, highly stressed and suffering from pain caused by old racing injuries, conformational problems, poor feet and poor training. It suggests that because ex-racehorses are cheap to buy straight off the track, that they are generally purchased by people without the financial resources or knowledge to look after their complex needs. An added point is that many times, it can be foreseen that these horses were never going to suitable riding horses due to their temperament, conformation, injuries or just too long spent in the “system” to be able to truly rehabilitate.

I certainly don’t disagree with everything that is said in this article. As my job as a trainer of horses, I have met many owners who have ended up with horses they don’t know how to manage or ride and through months/years of trying to make things better, they have found themselves in a hole with a serious climb ahead of them to get out. I must say though, this is not an issue exclusive to owners with ex racehorses, or indeed, cheap horses. One of the most frustrating things to watch is when clients have bought themselves a very expensive, well trained “schoolmaster” only to find they lack the knowledge to maintain that level of schooling/condition/management.

My experience isn’t that people are desperate to pick themselves up an ex-racehorse, cheap or otherwise, but rather they are put off by that label. Warmbloods are very much still the fashionable choice for dressage, show jumping and general leisure and I’ve found so many people hold extremely negative and unfounded preconceptions about ex-racehorses. In my experience, people who have been interested in ex-racehorses, on the whole, are experienced horse people and a little wary of them.

I’m extremely lucky to have a very good relationship with the racehorse trainer I work with. He always gives me a very full and honest description of the horses he sends me and I know he would never even tell me about the horses that would be inappropriate riding horses. When we find new homes for the horses, we are extremely picky and would rather keep them than move them on just to make space. This way we can ensure they only go to people who fully understand what is required to keep these horses sound and happy.

My personal issue with the ex-racehorse system is the lack of information people get before buying them. Commonly they’ve bought them at a sale and haven’t done their research speaking to trainers/owners/lads and lasses - What is this horse like? What is their daily routine? What are they used to being fed? What are their likes and dislikes? Do they have any medical issues or injuries? You would never dream of buying a horse on the open market without this kind of information. Going into any sale blind is just plain daft and really irresponsible when you are talking about trying to give this horse the best chance of a new life. And the other pit-fall is just being the victim of someone telling you lies just to wipe their hands of a problem horse. I have seen this happen and know it’s a major issue. Again though, this is rife throughout horse-sales in general not just the ex-racehorse market.

For me though, the reason for me wanting to make a response to this very popular article, that many of my friends are in agreement with, is that while I accept that there will be those horses that are not suitable for the leisure market, a bullet to the brain shouldn’t be the obvious solution.

Whether being shot is the most dignified end is a different debate to be had, but I would challenge the belief that death by any means is a reasonable response to the problem. Who are we as humans, justified in putting an end to a life that we created, just because they are no longer useful to us? I am aware that this is another issue not restricted to the ex-racehorse community and that, sadly, it’s common place and deemed acceptable to have a horse put-to-sleep if they can no longer do the job that they were intended for. I’d argue that this isn’t acceptable and that we have a duty to look after our flawed animals if we choose to welcome them into our families.

We do need a solution though and I said at the top of the page that I’d attempt to offer one! I feel that the racing industry needs to take responsibility here and make a major system and culture change to limit the number of horses that churn though it’s machine. As with any major change, it will take commitment, hard work and years and years of slow progress to filter through. A major change needs to be bought into by all levels of the industry and I don’t doubt that that that will be a hard slog. I’m no expert, but just as we in the leisure horse industry are counselled against irresponsible breeding, so should the racing industry. While the studs themselves are commercial enterprises unlikely to turn away potential customers in order to make an ‘ethical’ choice, private breeders themselves have to start to question why they are breeding. Are they hoping to have a homebred winner? Can they not find a nice young horse on the open market with the bloodlines they want? Can trainers do their part in the supply-demand stakes and be a bit more picky with the quality of horses they take in to train? Can owners take on the responsibility of their horses’ retirement/re-habilitation/re-training after they leave racing by paying towards a ‘pension’, can bookies and gamblers do their part and pay a percentage of their earnings towards rewarding these lovely horses who try their hearts out week in week out to earn them money with a fitting afterlife?

This may seem like an idealistic, unrealistic dream and I agree with you - I didn’t say my solution would be quick and easy! My solution isn’t a straight forward one, or as quick a fix as simply shooting the less appealing horses, but sometimes the right thing to do, isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Sometimes, we need to tackle a problem at it’s root and that can mean disruption, putting your neck on the line, time, effort, money, blood, sweat and tears, but the result is in fact a solution, not just a temporary fix.

I completely agree that ex-racehorses don’t deserve a retirement where they are malnourished, poorly managed and unhappy. But my view is that we can offer them a much better solution than a bullet to the head. It’s entirely possible to provide them with a life where they are very much better off alive, the question is will anyone bother to make the effort?

Karen xx

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