The recent Horse Racing Ireland Equine Welfare Symposium showcased the potential for doing so much more to enhance horse welfare. But talks, however enthusiastically received, are not the same as action.

Lifetime traceability for all equines has been talked about for years and yet no real progress has been made. Lifetime traceability will encourage responsible ownership and management of horses and, when needed, increases the chance of ensuring accountability. For that reason it has huge potential to improve welfare for all equines and to protect those of us who really do strive to do the best by our horses from the damage done by those who don’t. And yet, despite the much hyped importance of the equine industry to Ireland, we are still no closer to implementing this safeguard for equines.

The question of a timeline for the implementation of lifetime traceability was raised at the symposium and the answer was that “it’s a work in progress, it’s complicated. It took 50 years to create a working system for cattle so it’s going to take time”.

These answers are not good enough.

Surely something was learnt in the 50 years it took to create the system for cattle? But more importantly than that, the symposium had just hosted a demonstration of how technology can be used to improve equine welfare. This included a company called EquiTrace showcasing a software app that, amongst other things, allows a GPS position to be recorded every time a horse’s microchip is scanned. The company has already been awarded the contract in New Zealand to set up their lifetime traceability system. It is not as easy as it sounds to perfect the system but it is relatively easy to start to create the bare bones of one. And that is what we need to do. We need to start now.

Of course there will be non-compliance but that cannot be an excuse for not starting. People evade car insurance but the government doesn’t then decide to give up trying to enforce the issue. Every horse that finds itself on the system takes us a step closer to achieving the aim. This company may not yet have every answer. They may not even be the company that gets the contract when it is finally issued but they have shown that there is a solution. A solution that has been available since 2016 and yet the powers that be, sat in the same room as the technology providing the beginnings of an answer to the industry’s problem, are still telling us they don’t yet have a solution.

Tolerant society

There are other welfare issues we have to address as an industry and the decisions we make will impact how we are judged as an industry and therefore how much general support we retain.

The importance of retaining a social license to operate is vital to ensure the continued strength and popularity of the whole equine industry. It is not about pandering to the extremists. It is about demonstrating to the usually very good judgement of the great general public that we really are doing the best we can for the horses we work with.

In Ireland and the UK we are blessed with a tolerant society compared to many other countries. But to retain that tolerance and support we have to be seen to truly be doing our best. Talking about traceability but taking so long to implement it is not doing our best.

Young horses

We are learning more every day about how to train and manage horses to give them the best quality of life. This includes how best to prepare them for the jobs we ask them to do and how to reduce injury risk.

A huge area of misunderstanding centres around the training of young horses and, as an industry, we have not done a good enough job in explaining that early but appropriate conditioning of potential equine athletes has been shown to reduce their injury risk in later life. Just as it does in human athletes.

But now we are seeing Germany seeking to impose a ban on the training of young horses. We have plenty of evidence-based examples of the right things to do to make life better for our horses and ultimately for ourselves. The happier and healthier the horse the more likely he is to be able to perform well for us, whether as a racehorse, a sports horse or a leisure horse. We need to speed up the feeding of these ideas into practical everyday use, and also explain to a wider audience the message behind them. Otherwise you risk legislation and practices based on emotions rather than evidence.

Strategic Plan

Within racing the most recent HRI Strategic Plan has the potential to do this if it fully grasps the opportunity and does what it says on the tin.

We have the promise of continuous professional development for racehorse trainers. This needs to embrace not only licensed trainers but also point-to-point handlers, pre-trainers and ideally stud farms.

But a golden opportunity is currently being missed by not ensuring that the most innovative thinking, and the adoption of best practice, forms the largest part of the pre-licensing course for racehorse trainers. The course criteria currently states that the course is not designed to teach you how to train racehorses. It is expected that you come to the course having gained that knowledge by working in a racing yard, as a jockey or with point-to-point experience.

This means the newest generation of licensed trainers are starting out on their careers with the bulk of their knowledge passed down from whoever they worked for previously. Some will have gained knowledge from exceptionally gifted and/or forward thinking colleagues but not everyone will have been that fortunate.

The current format of the course does not encourage them to question what they have already learnt or to think about whether they could improve the way they do things. How much better it would be to challenge their thinking with the latest evidence-based principles on the training and management of horses, and to give them the opportunity to pick the brains of a variety of successful trainers, large and small.

Large sections of the current course could be learnt elsewhere if needed. Most local councils provide courses on health and safety, media skills, business management, employment legislation et cetera. Let the racehorse trainers’ course offer access to examples of best practice and evidence-led ideas on the specialised subject of racehorse training.

People campus

The HRI Strategic Plan also has ambitions to create an equine people campus as a centre of excellence for industry and international participants. What a huge opportunity this would be if the proposed campus could spread its wings to encompass the whole equine industry rather than just racing.

We have much to learn from each other and well-trained, inspired and dedicated human participants are needed by the whole equine industry. Evidence-based training and management principles benefit all horses, not just racehorses. And this does not mean that everything new is good and that everything that came before is bad.

The best horsemanship practices have stood the test of time. But we should all be willing to question how and why we do things a certain way and to appreciate that sometimes there is a better way. We have to believe that only a terrible few intentionally set out to make a horse’s life harder or more stressful than it needs to be. But it can be all too easy to allow convenience and financial considerations to influence how and why we do things.

We could make so much better use of the knowledge available to us. We have known for some time that the majority of soft tissue and bone injuries in performance horses are the result of accumulated micro damage (repetitive strain injury) rather than a single catastrophic event.

The sports horse world is well ahead of the majority of the racing world in not only providing more varied training techniques for their horses to reduce the impact of repetitive strain but also in their understanding of the importance of the four S’s in reducing injury risk and increasing performance potential. Suppleness, symmetry, strength and skills training. How did we ever come to think that a racehorse needs to be less of an athlete than a sports horse? Athletes needs the four S’s to be an integral part of their training regime.

Providing the horse with the means to retain and improve his four S’s requires a rider with the understanding and ability to influence how the horse uses his body. Common sense, human sports science as well as equine research all tell us that the four S’s play an integral role in reducing injury risk and maximising performance potential.

Biomechanically correct

We need to ensure our riders have the knowledge, the skills and the opportunity to influence the horse they are sat on for the better. As trainers we need to think about how we can provide greater diversity in the horse’s training regime which will incorporate the four S’s. It will require more effort and probably take more time than accumulating more and more miles of cantering and fast work. But asking a horse to trot in a balanced and biomechanically correct way around or up and down the gallop on one of his ‘canter’ days would be a small step in the right direction.

It will also allow each rider to play an even more significant and inspiring role in their horse’s development and wellbeing. All horses will benefit from riders who have the ability and opportunity to influence the horse’s way of going for the better. These are the skills and the knowledge that need to be accessible to those already in and those entering the equine industry.

The equine people campus could grasp this opportunity and let Ireland lead the world by providing a centre of excellence that genuinely is what it says it is. And a positive outcome could well be that this approach will help combat the current staffing crises by making a job within the industry more attractive and more inspiring.

The Equine Welfare Symposium was inspiring. The HRI Strategic Plan is ambitious and exciting. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips and we already have many of the answers. What is needed is the will and the determination to implement the answers we have now.

Debby Ewing is a licensed racehorse trainer, freelance journalist and author with a keen interest in horse welfare, especially reducing injury risk. She has been involved in riding and training event horses, point-to-pointers and racehorses in both England and Ireland for over 30 years and specialises in injury rehabilitation. Under her maiden name Debby Sly, her books have included Badminton Horse Trials - The Triumphs and the Tears, The Practical Riders Handbook and The Encyclopaedia of Horses.