Science turns to racehorse care

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Welfare experts from Australia and beyond recently pointed to quality research as vital for the lifelong health of racehorses.

The 2023 Asian Racing Conference held in Melbourne, which included guests from 35 countries, hosted expert discussions on advances in injury prevention and the innovations for horse safety and care.

Among the experts was Dr Christopher Riggs, Equine Welfare Research Foundation Director and a key veterinary advisor to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, who spoke of the importance of using scientific research to improve horse safety.

“One example of the instruction of science comes with racing fractures as we now know horses break their legs not because they take a bad step or put their foot in a hole, it’s a consequence of material fatigue,” Dr Riggs said.

“If we can identify the horses who are at risk of getting a fracture before they start the race then we could stop them running and our work has shown that 90 per cent of horses with stress fractures, given the right amount of time, will be fine again once the bone has remodelled.

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“The trouble is, of course, you can’t see it. These horses (at risk) look fine, they won’t give any hint there’s a problem lurking so that’s why we need some form of screening. Imaging with CT is probably what’s required to get the images to show the trainer.”

He referenced the work of Racing Victoria’s General Manager of Veterinary Services Dr Grace Forbes, who spoke of her team’s program to identify risks before they could become injuries.

“Our process was to enhance the safety of horses competing at the spring carnival. The initiatives set a new global benchmark,” Dr Forbes said.

“Two years in, we haven’t had any serious or fatal injury in our international horses or any horses competing in the Melbourne Cup. This has improved public confidence and the social acceptance of horse racing in Victoria and we are continually monitoring innovations and advances in science, technology and research.”

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Visit Horse Country Executive Director Hallie Hardy spoke of bringing people and horses together in our increasingly urban world and the work of her organisation in changing perceptions.

“We fill the gap between the general public and the horse as we move away from an agrarian lifestyle but it’s clear that people still see horse welfare as a high priority,” she said.

Dr Riggs supported open and honest discussion on both the benefits and issues in racing.

“We all have a moral responsibility to provide for the needs of animals in our care,” he said.

“There is a definition of welfare which simply connects the needs of the animal and whether they are being met and that is totally quantifiable.

“We need to face up to our detractors with that insistence that we are doing something about our problems but we need to do it properly with good quality research.”