Responsible Horse Ownership and Racing Reform (AAEP 2010)

Responsible ownership is one of the keys to addressing the country's equine welfare problems, said Scott Palmer, VMD, of the New Jersey Equine Clinic. He noted in a presentation at the at the 2010 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, Md., that racing is one segment of the horse industry that regularly is subject to public criticism, mostly due to catastrophic injuries sustained by race horses. Palmer described responsible horse ownership and the need for reform in some aspects of the racing industry at the meeting.

"Responsible horse ownership must first address the basic needs of the horse, including food, shelter, and health care," Palmer said. "Their well-being must be a priority, and we need to recognize that this stewardship represents significant time and financial commitment."

He described the basic needs of the horse, the financial hardships that some horse owners face, and the challenges that arise because understanding of equine welfare and definitions of appropriate standards of care vary among individuals and organizations.

"Both science and society have a role to play in deciding what constitutes an appropriate level of animal welfare," Palmer wrote in his study. "Whereas science can determine what type or degree of animal welfare risk exists under specific circumstances, science cannot determine what type of risk is acceptable." In other words, defining appropriate welfare risk is subjective and innately complex.

Palmer pointed out that the ethics of horse racing, for example, has come under fire. Some organizations label racing as objectionable, due to equine welfare concerns. At the same time, the American Veterinary Medical Association, views the sport as acceptable. Such conundrums illustrate the complexity of equine welfare issues, he explained.

Palmer added that the racing industry has been working to improve the safety and welfare of the horses involved.

"The NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) created the Safety and Integrity Alliance in 2008 to address five major areas that were felt to be critical to the safety and integrity concerns of racing fans," Palmer said. The five areas the alliance opted to focus on were all veterinary-related: medication and testing, injury reporting and prevention, safety research, creating safer racing environment, and the care of retired racehorses.

The AAEP Racing Committee has drafted White Papers on Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, and Standardbred racing, which address welfare issues specific to these racehorses, he noted. The group also recently drafted "Clinical Guidelines for Veterinarians Practicing in a Pari-Mutueal Environment," a document designed to help vets who are making welfare and ethical decisions at the track that will support the health and welfare of the horse.

The Jockey Club and the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation held a Safety and Welfare Summit recently that addressed topics such as racing equipment and safety, racetrack environment and training practices, continuing education and licensing, and transitioning racehorses into second careers, Palmer described.

"The welfare and safety issues of racing, while extremely important, are only one segment of our larger responsibility to be good stewards of the horse," Palmer said. "Recommendations by the AAEP Racing Committee are applicable to all performance horse disciplines. The fundamental assumption underlying AAEP Racing Committee recommendations is: What is good for the horse is good for the sport.

"This is the lens through which we must view the everyday welfare challenges of equestrian sport," he added. "Although winning is the obvious goal of competitive equine sporting events, we must remain focused upon the fundamental obligations inherent in our stewardship to the horse. To the degree that we lose sight of that focus, both the horse and the sport as a whole will suffer."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.