Everything Else

Better Off Dead?


The ultimate athletes, doing what we have spent 300 years selectively breeding them for.

This is not a piece I write lightly. I suspect it will lose me some friends, whilst others will scratch their heads and wonder at my logic. I write this as a lover of the thoroughbred racehorse. I write this as someone who has helped many racehorses enter the world and take their first steps.  I write this as someone who spends most Saturday afternoons glued to the spectacle of horses and jockeys giving their all in pursuit of the winning post. I write this as someone who has ridden racehorses on the gallops and over schooling fences for several trainers. I write this as someone who spent a month of their holiday one year getting up at 6am to watch the best of the country’s two year olds being put through their paces in training, and trying to learn what distinguished the good from the great. I write this as someone who has owned many ex-racehorses, and who has just returned from a day in the saddle of their current ex-chaser-turned-hunter. I am writing to explain why I truly believe that more racehorses should be shot when their racing days are over.

Some ex-racehorses are lucky. They pass out of racing into a new career – whether that be a distinguished retirement to stud, or down  a new path in life as a hunter, eventer, show horse or even a happy hacker. Some earn these new lives through personal recommendation or word of mouth from the trainer or lads and lasses who have looked after them in racing, others through reputable rehoming charities such as the TRC, HEROS or Greatwood. These charities do a remarkable job in retraining racehorses and giving them the life skills to survive outside the trainers’ yard. They also thoroughly vet the new owners, make sure that expectations are realistic and follow up after rehoming with regular visits to ensure the welfare of the horses.  These horses really are the fortunate ones. However due to the sheer numbers of horses leaving racing each year (an estimated 5000) these will always be the minority.

More and more often however I am seeing the ex-racehorse as the low budget option. They can be purchased either straight out of racing, through an intermediary or through the sales ring for a few hundred pounds. As a consequence they are increasingly bought by people who, frankly, cannot really afford to keep a horse at all, let alone a thoroughbred with complex management needs.  We have spent the last 300 years selectively breeding these horses to be the ultimate athletes – to be the fastest sprinters, to have the stamina to gallop for up to four miles, to take big brush chase fences in their stride. We have not done this to selectively breed an animal that will happily winter out in half an acre of knee deep mud, or one that will cope with not being ridden for a fortnight, then be on its best behaviour at a ‘fun ride’ with other horses charging at it from all directions.

Now before the outraged emails start, I am not saying that thoroughbreds cannot be turned out 24/7, nor am I saying that they cannot enjoy a low pressure happy hacking lifestyle. Apart from anything else in any breeding program there are always those that don’t make it because they are just too laid back to be competitive. Those horses will always be fine. No, what I am sick of seeing is underfed, underworked, highly stressed, misunderstood, badly managed ex-racehorses living out a miserable existence because they had the misfortune to be cheaper than the coloured cob that they followed into the sale ring.

So many are thin and underfed. These range from the occasional emaciated welfare case to the just plain thin. And it’s almost as though it’s expected that they’ll be thin ‘because they’re an ex-racehorse’. No, they’re thin because the management is wrong. Because the horse only cost £500 so it doesn’t merit having the dentist regularly. Because the owner daren’t feed them adequately in case they ‘go loopy’. Because they can’t afford to feed them adequately. Because they stress the weight off as they can’t cope with the lack of management (but that’s just thoroughbreds for you, innit?). Because they have untreated ulcers, but scoping and Gastrogard are expensive, and who insures a £500 horse?

So many are chronically sore and  lame – some due to previous racing injuries, some due to shocking conformational problems, some due to poor feet. Feet which were likely managed reasonably well in training but can’t cope with a combination of an inadequate diet and being shod far too infrequently. Because farriers are expensive, and remedial farriery is ‘extortionate’ (but it’s just got crap feet because it’s a thoroughbred, innit?).

So many simply don’t get enough exercise, or don’t get the right sort of exercise. They don’t get worked regularly and sympathetically, in a way which will build muscle and topline, in a way which will enhance their natural athletic frame and abilities and help them adapt well to their new lives and careers. I suspect many people are afraid to give them enough work (because it’s a thoroughbred, and if it gets fit it will be loopy, innit?). I suspect many people haven’t got the time or the knowledge to ride them in a way which will keep both their bodies and brains happy.

So many are stressed and unhappy. Because they spent their formative years in a ‘system’. Because they are creatures of habit who understand work, routine and company in everything they do, and all of a sudden all of those familiar touchstones have been removed and they are expected to instantaneously adapt to a totally alien way of living (but it’s OK because we can give them a calmer to sort it all out, innit?).

I see these horses day in and day out and it breaks my heart. I honestly think that the problem stems from oversupply. Ex-racehorses are cheap and therefore they will inevitably end up as the low budget option – undercared for, however good the initial intentions of the purchaser. Loving them (and many of them are loved enormously) isn’t enough. They are expensive and demanding animals to keep, and keep right.  I should know! They do not suit everybody.

I honestly think that a lot of these horses would have been better served by being shot at the end of their racing days. There are many who can, and do, go on to do fantastically in new careers, to lead a happy and fulfilled life in fabulous new homes;  but equally there are many, for reasons of temperament, medical issues, chronic injuries or bad conformation, who will realistically never make good, happy riding horses. Maybe if we accepted this and made sure they weren’t being offered to the general horse owning public for the equivalent of the cost of a new sofa then they wouldn’t end up badly managed, underfed, sour and unhappy.  There are worse things than being dead.

Maybe it’s a ridiculous idea and I’m completely idiotic to suggest it. However I am pretty sure that by removing the horses with the poorest chance of ending up with decent new jobs and homes we would raise the value (both monetary and otherwise) of the rest. I do know though that I love, admire and understand thoroughbreds, and I have had enough of seeing so many ending up eking out such a poor existence once their racing days are over.

About the author

The Eventing Vet