Forum: Groups in Tune With Equine Welfare

The American Horse Council held its National Issues Forum June 16.

Representatives of various equine breeds and disciplines found out June 16 they have a lot in common when it comes to the welfare and safety of horses.

The “Welfare of the Horse,” called the most inclusive program of its kind, was the sole topic for this year’s American Horse Council National Issues Forum in Washington, D.C. It offered participants a chance to learn what others are doing as the welfare of horses—or any animal for that matter—comes under closer public scrutiny.

The forum covered everything from horse racing to the carriage horse industry which, in Charleston, S.C., at least, is highly regulated. And the horses, according to Tommy Doyle, are well maintained.

“We’re at the forefront of animal welfare,” said Doyle, president of the Carriage Operators of North America. “We’re out there 365 days a year.”

Doyle is a second generation carriage operator whose family has about 40 horses and 90 employees in Charleston, where carriage rides per year number about 250,000. The city has an equine welfare policy that requires regular veterinarian checks and use of microchips, Doyle said.

Horses can’t work more than eight hours per day, and their temperatures are taken after every tour. If it’s hotter than 98 degrees, the carriage rides are suspended. The horses are turned out every four months.

“The system we have in place is 100% effective,” Doyle said.

Doyle indicated that caring for horses is second nature in his family. Still, public perception and potential attacks by animal-rights activists call for a plan and documentation.

Doyle used the breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles as examples of what can happen in the public arena. He said those two incidents were no more indicative of the Thoroughbred industry than the US Airways flight landing in the Hudson River was indicative of the airline industry.

Laura Hayes of the American Endurance Ride Conference said endurance horses must meet certain heart-rate parameters, undergo complete vet exams and soundness checks, and can’t compete if it is determined they are lame. The discipline even has a drug-testing program with a zero-tolerance policy, she said.

Equine fatalities are reported voluntarily, but of 40 cases, only one horse owner chose not to participate. All fatalities are investigated, and the results made public, Hayes said.

“The AERC believes in transparency,” she said.

Cindy Schonholtz, chair of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association Animal Welfare Council, said it’s key to have a welfare and safety plan in place, have the “right person speak” when questions are asked, and have the facts.

“A written statement is worth its weight in gold,” Schonholtz said. “How many of us have been misquoted?”

Schonholtz said animal-rights activists’ strategy is to “divide and conquer” by using “sensational media,” undercover investigations, messages that target children, and the legal system. Violence is a possibility, she said.

“The whole (equine) industry needs to consider security plans before you’re targeted,” Schonholtz said.

The various equine groups continue to work on an exit strategy for horses than can no longer compete or be of service. The situation of unwanted horses—about 80,000 to 150,000 a year, depending on estimates—has been worsened because of the economy and its impact on horse owners.

Dr. Scott Palmer of the New Jersey Equine Clinic spoke about responsible horse ownership and maximizing funds to properly care for horses. But he said the statistics can’t be ignored.

Palmer noted it would cost about $18.6 million a year to euthanize unwanted horses, and about $234 million a year to take care of them.

“I don’t care if you like it politically—these are facts that we have to deal with,” he said. “Somewhere down the road, we’re going to have to euthanize more horses to make this work.”

Palmer said it’s not uncommon to spend about $15,000 a year to keep a horse, and that’s one that doesn’t compete.

“It’s time for a welfare audit,” said Palmer, who gave the forum’s keynote address. “This is not a unique problem to any one segment of the industry. We don’t get a pass on this. The horse is going to pick up the tab.”

Meanwhile, Mike Ziegler, executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, said a fourth track—Delaware Park—will be announced June 17 as being fully accredited by the alliance, with Hollywood Park expected to be next. Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Keeneland were accredited earlier this year.

The alliance was formed in 2008 to create a blueprint for equine safety and welfare in Thoroughbred racing.