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What are the animal welfare issues associated with horse jumps racing?

Jumps racing poses many welfare risks to racehorses which can result in significant pain, injury, distress and death. Thoroughbred jumps racing comprises either hurdle or steeple obstacles which are at least 1 metre in height. Jumps races are at least 3km long (1km or more than flat races) and, in addition to clearing obstacles, horses are required to carry heavier weights than for flat races. Furthermore, jumping in a pack over obstacles also places horses at risk of collision with each other.

Jumps races are only held in Victoria and South Australia and account for less than three percent of all Thoroughbred racing in those states with relatively few horses competing.

The key welfare risks posed by jumps racing are:

Deaths due to catastrophic injuries

A catastrophic injury is a severe injury to the spine, skull, limbs, tendons and other bony structures such as the pelvis or shoulder which are either untreatable or result in extreme pain. Horses suffering such an injury on the racetrack are euthanased as soon as possible.

Of the known deaths in jumps racing in Australia, the majority of the cases required euthanasia due to a catastrophic injury. A study by the University of Melbourne reported the risk of injury and death of a horse competing in a jump race as 18.9 times greater than a horse competing in a flat race [1].

Since 2009, at least 66 horses have died from injuries sustained due to jumps racing but the death toll is believed to be much higher because the industry has not been compelled to publicly report all associated injuries and deaths.

Non-fatal injuries

Non-fatal injuries include those which do not require euthanasia, on humane grounds, within 24 hours of being sustained such as a minor fracture or ligament/tendon damage. Some horses also receive lacerations due to contact with jumps obstacles. Considerable pain can be experienced in relation to an acute injury as evidenced by lameness, as well as possible pain endured during the healing process and/or treatment regime. Detecting pain is difficult in prey animals such as horses, as they generally mask signs as a survival instinct to avoid being pursued by predators. Therefore, it is likely that a significant number of horses suffer from pain that is not alleviated.

Fatigue

In addition to being longer and having to jump obstacles, jumps horses are also required to carry heavy weights being a minimum of 64kg compared to 54kg for flat racing, thus adding to the already huge demand placed on these horses. Fatigue is a significant factor resulting in a higher incidence of falls, injury and death, particularly in the latter part of a race [2]. Since 2009, jockeys are required to retire horses who are fatigued from the race but this may not always happen, placing tired horses at increased risk of injury.

Impact of falls and collisions

Being prey animals, horses rely on their speed and agility to escape danger. Any circumstance which impacts on a prey animal’s ability to flee is likely to induce stress. These include collision with another horse or obstacle, jumping or landing awkwardly or experiencing a fall – all common occurrences in jumps racing as demonstrated by the 3.3% fall rate reported for the 2012-2014 season in Victoria and South Australia [3]. The percentage of horses hitting obstacles and/or landing awkwardly is higher than the fall rate. Thus, jumps racing exposes horses to many aversive experiences associated with falls and collisions which are likely to invoke fear and anxiety.

Use of whips

There is considerable public concern over the whipping of horses for the sake of sport, financial gain and entertainment. Of serious concern are the results from a study in the UK which showed that horses competing in hurdle and steeplechase races, who were being whipped and progressing through the race, were at least 7 times more likely to fall compared with horses not being whipped [4]. This evidence should have lead the racing industry to introduce tighter whip rules with increased penalties for jumps racing and investigate whether the use of whips should continue. However, in 2017 the converse happened and Racing Victoria doubled the permitted number of whip strikes for jumps races compared to flat races. Apart from clearing obstacles, jumps horses are required to run further and carry heavier weights than horses competing in flat races. To allow these horses to be whipped more is unacceptable.

Poor performers forced to race

There are several cases where horses are not adequately assessed to ensure they are fit and capable of participating in a jumps race safely. A review of the history of some of the horses who have died whilst competing in a jumps race indicates that either the assessment processes are inadequate or they have not been fully implemented [5]. More stringent requirements are needed to ensure that only fit and capable horses compete in jumps races to avoid further preventable deaths.

Jumps racing and the law

In 1991, a Senate Select Committee report on animal welfare recommended that governments in states where jumps races were still held should phase them out within three years. The NSW State Government banned jumps racing in 1997 under animal welfare legislation and Tasmania ceased jumps racing in 2007. Victoria and South Australia continue to hold jumps races but over recent years parliamentary bills have been introduced in South Australia to prohibit the sport demonstrating that there is some political will for jumps racing to cease.

The opinion of the South Australian Law Society is that jumps racing arguably offends the existing s13(1) or (2) of the South Australian Animal Welfare Act 1985 with the former referring to aggravated ill treatment resulting in serious harm or death and the person intends or is reckless as to that consequence.

Jumps Racing in South Australia

In 2016, a South Australian Select Committee made 28 recommendations to improve jumps racing in South Australia due to inadequate measures undertaken by the industry to safeguard the welfare of jumps horses. Key select committee recommendations were for the industry to;

  • document and report on the nature and outcome of non-fatal injuries to horses arising from collisions or jumping or landing awkwardly;
  • consider processes for follow-up vet assessments to detect injuries that may not have been detected immediately after the race;
  • investigate and compile data on factors that may contribute to horses not finishing races;
  • consider the relationship between non-completion and high attrition rates (retirement of horses from jumps racing) resulting from non-fatal injuries;
  • develop, implement and report on a Safety Action Plan, particularly for steeplechase races;
  • provide funding for an equine rescue and rehoming program for unwanted horses, including jumps race horses that cannot be transitioned into other equine pursuits and
  • collect, collate and publish SA data of the proportion of horses that are registered to race that go to slaughter and for this to be publicly available.

The RSPCA acknowledges that the committee recommendations, if implemented, will help improve the welfare of jumps horses but has suggested additional requirements which are necessary to achieve substantial improvement. Unfortunately, Thoroughbred Racing South Australia has not publicly committed to implementing all these recommendations. In fact, the industry has failed in meeting two key performance indicators set by the select committee for falls (3% maximum) and deaths (1 fatality) for the 2017 season with two horses having died and the fall rate more than double the benchmark.

RSPCA policy

The RSPCA is opposed to jumps races because of the high probability of a horse suffering serious injury and death associated with this activity. While jumps racing continues, the RSPCA advocates for the mandatory collection and publication of comprehensive lifecycle (birth to death records) and injury statistics for all racing codes.

References

[1] Boden LA et al (2006) Risk of fatality and causes of death of Thoroughbred horses associated with racing in Victoria, Australia: 1989-2004. Equine Veterinary Journal 38:312-8

[2] Judge David Jones, Review of Jumps Racing in Victoria, Commissioned by Racing Victoria Limited (November 2008)

[3] Ruse K, Davison A and Bridle K (2015) Jump horse safety: Reconciling public debate and Australian Thoroughbred jump racing data, 2012-2014. Animals 5:1072-1091

[4] Pinchbeck GL, Clegg PD, Proudman CJ et al. (2004) Whip use and race progress are associated with horse falls in hurdle and steeplechase racing in the UK. Equine Veterinary Journal 36(5):384-389

[5] RSPCA South Australia (2016) Submission to the Committee on Jumps Racing in South Australia pp15-18

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Updated on September 23, 2019
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