Tuesday, July 23, 2024

From racing to retirement — study investigates industry misconceptions

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AgriFutures Australia, Media Release, 17 August 2022

In stark contrast to public perception, a detailed investigation into Australia’s thoroughbred racing industry has found more than 90 per cent of horses retiring from racing go on to enjoy life outside the industry as pleasure or companion horses or broodmares.

Beautiful close-up shot of a chestnut coloured race horse mare with a dark mane on a horse ranch in New South Wales, Australia. Horse standing on grass within a forest.

Significant attention has been directed at the industry recently regarding the fate of thoroughbreds retiring from racing.

Findings also revealed that only 0.2% of horses are likely to be sent directly to an abattoir when exiting their racing career — a figure significantly lower than previous estimations. 

The Australian thoroughbred horse racing industry injects $9.1 billion (directly and indirectly) to the Australian economy each year. Ensuring the ongoing viability of the industry is vital to the Australian economy and safeguarding the welfare of horses is important to the industry and the broader community. To achieve this welfare aim, industry participants need to know how horses move in, through and out of the industry.  

With funding from AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horses Program, Dr Meredith Flash and a team of researchers from the University of Melbourne recently concluded an in-depth study into the demographics of the Australian national thoroughbred racehorse population for the 2017–18 season.

The Wellbeing: Racing demographics, reasons for retirement and post-racing destinations project interrogated industry records to describe the patterns of racing at national, state and territory levels during a single racing season. 

Racing Australia (RA) supplied data for all RA-registered horses in the 2017–18 racing season. Analyses were conducted on the total population of 37,704 thoroughbred horses trained with an intention to progress to a race start, or that raced between 1 August 2017 and 31 July 2018 across Australia. 

“Knowing how many racehorses leave the industry’s care and where they go after racing will assist with resourcing programs that transition horses to their post-racing career, and will help evaluate the efficacy of such programs,” Dr Flash said.

As part of the project, the research team surveyed trainers across Australia to gather information on ‘inactive’ horses to identify the reasons these horses were not participating in racing at the end of the season.

Dr Flash explained that this group of horses were those undertaking active non-stable training, were spelling, had been transferred, were retired, had been exported or were deceased.

“Of the 37,704 horses registered to participate in the 2017-18 season, 12,996 were inactive,” Dr Flash said.

“We asked 1,254 trainers to nominate an outcome, age at the time of the outcome, and reason for the outcome for a representative sample of 2,509 inactive horses.”

A total of 43% of these horses were reported to be still participating in the racing industry through active training or racing, spelling or active training outside the racing stable environment.

“Most horses permanently exiting the racing industry were retired for ‘voluntary reasons’, such as poor performance or owner request. Only 29% of retirements were due to injury or illness, though nearly half (46%) of these horses went on to be used for ridden activities post retirement,” Dr Flash said.

On exiting racing, the destination of three-quarters of retired or re-homed horses was equestrian or pleasure horse activities, and breeding. Most (70%) retired horses were re-homed outside the thoroughbred industry.

Only 5.3% of the inactive horses were categorised as deceased. Most deaths were due to injury or illness, with only 0.2% of these horses reported to have been sent to abattoirs.

This, together with the large number of horses re-homed outside the industry each year, suggests thoroughbreds appearing at abattoirs are coming from parts of the equine industry not under direct control of the racing industry.

Efforts to improve traceability of horses as they transition into their post-racing careers will provide data to help the racing industry address this issue.

Annelies McGaw, AgriFutures Australia Research Manager, believes the results of this project will provide direction for future research to improve the sustainability of the racing industry.

“This study is the first time detailed information pertaining to the racehorse population in Australia has been collated and examined at a national level,” she said.

“These findings highlight a number misconceptions regarding the number of thoroughbreds that retire from racing each year and their fate, but it also highlights the need to undertake further research to improve and document the pathways to retirement for horses and the perceptions of retiring thoroughbreds within the recreational horse industry.”

The findings are also linked to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Welfare Working Group report The Most Important Participant: A framework for thoroughbred welfare, which was funded in part by the AgriFutures Thoroughbred Horses Program. This report recommends enhancing traceability after racing to improve thoroughbred welfare in Australia.   

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