THERE is almost universal agreement that equine safety and care should be the top priority for the sport of horse racing. It is called out clearly in HRI’s recently published Strategic Plan 2024-2028. Our Department and Minister, in continuing to fund us, always emphasise the importance of ensuring the highest standards of equine welfare.

What does it mean? The science of equine welfare is evolving and its study is accelerating. Opinions vary about what are the essential elements in what could be considered the best possible world for our horses. This variety is coupled with the undeniable fact that for many people, the use of animals for any human-centred purpose is, by its very nature, unacceptable.

EU law

I grew up around animals, my father a vet, a career I followed. The book by James Heriot called “If Only They Could Talk” was published in 1970, a book by that title would probably not be published today, as our understanding of animals has moved on.

Animals are enshrined in EU law as sentient beings and they talk to us all the time; we were, maybe, not in the habit of listening. My efforts to distil equine welfare to its essence leads me to a simple phrase – that we are asked to see everything from the perspective of the horse.

I arrived at my current role, director of equine welfare and bloodstock in HRI, believing that, from my lifetime of experience with the sector, that the standard of care in the context of husbandry is extremely high

Nudge the culture

I know how many of our workforce are vocational, where the love of the job is greater often than the reward, and that the horses involved in racing have a good life. So, I have been keen to steer a path which reflected this excellent care while trying to nudge the culture in a different direction.

HRI’s Strategic Plan outlines directly that one of our nine key strategic priorities is to “cultivate a culture of zero compromise in equine safety and care standards.” This will be actioned if, in 2028, we are able to say that we have “enhanced safety and demonstrated the measurable high quality of equine care at all stages of life.”

Bad behaviour

These words were chosen carefully to reflect that the controllables for us are specific targeted measures which are good for the horse. Whether this pleases everyone is doubtful, but it does align with our reach. There is always the danger of outlier bad behaviour.

We may never shift the opinion of those directly opposed to us. We can make decisions directly beneficial to the health and wellbeing of our horses. We can stretch ourselves to see things from the horse’s perspective.

So how will we get there? We have launched an Equine Care Capital Development Scheme through which we are investing in enhanced race day protocols for greater horse safety, to include an investment in specific trot-up areas at all racecourses for pre-race inspections. We have also commenced a major procurement project to assist racecourses in migrating from traditional birch hurdles to a safer alternative.

Consistent teaching

We continue to support the not-for-profit organisation Treo Eile in promoting the highest standard of aftercare of racehorses and in upskilling people in this area. We are integrating consistent teaching of equine welfare into educational modules.

We have also committed to greater transparency in the care standards which we know are high and are a selling point for our industry. We are developing the sophistication of our traceability system so that it will link every horse to a keeper.

As well as that we are supporting the IHRB in its research into racehorse injuries and working with the racecourses to improve the presentation of the tracks.

Book your spot at the HRI Equine Welfare Symposium

THE first HRI Equine Welfare Symposium takes place on Friday, 24th of May in the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge and onwards to the Curragh Racecourse. The speakers include Tamzin Furtado, Orla Doherty, Rachel Annan and Graham Adams. There will also be presentations from Equimetrics, Sleip, Equitrace, Race iQ and Equine MediRecord. Most importantly, there will be open panel discussion driven by questions from you, the delegates, steering the conversation into the areas of most concern to you.

Public perception

The theme of the symposium is “Changing Stride,” reflecting onward movement but also a shift in emphasis. The speakers will deal with the change in public perception of the sport, the behaviours of horses in training, a method of welfare assessment and an explanation of the new raceday protocols.

The presentations from the technology companies are all pointing to both the innovation in this area and also to a future where so much more is known and measurable. This can seem frightening, but it is challenging us to rip up the script and continually learn and improve.

Consistent and responsible

When our HRI’s Strategic Plan calls out that we will “inspire and attract future participation” - that is partly an equine welfare story. Where the Strategic Plan asks us to “nurture success at all levels,” that is an equine welfare story. And obviously, where it says we will “provide consistent and responsible care of our people, our horses and our environment” that too is all about equine safety and care.

Whatever you think equine welfare is, the fibres of its thread run through everything we do. What seems like a vulnerability can become our greatest strength.