As a breeder and owner of racehorses, a former racing journalist and now the owner of Racing Refuge and a director of equine assisted therapy charity Horses For Hope, I feel well qualified to comment on the scandal exposed by the recent 7:30 Report.

Firstly it is clear that racing authorities have been asleep at the wheel in terms of addressing the “wastage” problem. While money is being spent, it is nowhere near enough and being directed at the wrong priorities.

Racing Victoria’s equine welfare budget says it all.

  • Equine health and injury prevention research: $1.6 million
  • Welfare-related veterinary services: $1.5 million
  • Off The Track program: $0.3 million
  • Management & projects: $0.4 million

Out of $3.8 million spent less than 10% makes its way into the Off The Track program which assists the transition of racehorses to other pursuits. The big money goes to a handful of researchers at Melbourne University trying to prevent racetrack injuries and a re-branding of the money racing has to spend anyway on veterinary services as “equine welfare”.

Racing NSW has a similar problem in that while 1% of prizemoney is dedicated to “equine welfare” the bulk of that has been spent on the acquisition of two farms, ostensibly as retirement homes for racehorses. Actual re-training and rehoming is done by a staff of 2 or 3 people.

I first alerted Racing Victoria to the looming wastage issue in 2008 while still a racing journalist. Management at the time did not see it as an issue which was confirmed by the fact that they had no idea and did not care if a horse had been retired or not and if so what happened to it.

Paul Bittar who joined Racing Victoria in 2009 as Chief Strategy Manager (he later became head of the British Horseracing Board) was the first racing executive with the vision to investigate the issue. At my suggestion he commissioned a survey into community attitudes to racing.

The survey showed that women aged 20-35 were most opposed to racing, mainly because of its perceived treatment of horses. The demographic is important because not only are women of that age key decision makers for themselves but they are the mothers of most children, set the social agenda in many households and control a great deal of expenditure.

The results came as quite a shock to a male dominated racing industry convinced that women loved racing because they dressed up to go to the Cup Carnival.

Off the back of that survey I was asked to create the Racehorse Outplacement Program which was the forerunner of what is now the Off The Track program.

My thinking while creating the ROP was that the problem with ex-racehorses was that they had a reputation for being unsound both mentally and physically. Decades of unscrupulous misrepresentation by trainers and dealers meant that buyers would pay as little as possible for the “wastage” as they expected to be in a world of hurt financially and sometimes physically by taking on such a horse. What this meant was that there was little difference between the value of the horse alive or dead.

If the racing owners could be persuaded to pay something towards a professional retraining program then graduates could be sold for a higher price and perhaps the overall demand for ex-racehorses would rise to a level where they were uneconomical to kill for meat.

The best of the myriad of small operators involved in recycling ex-racehorses were recruited as “Accredited Retrainers”. The aim was that they could build a business around such status and that Racing Victoria would support them.

Almost from the start it became apparent that cultural issues within the racing and equestrian community were going to make it difficult to achieve the objective of increasing the overall value of an ex-racehorse such that a small army of retrainers could make a living out of it.

Firstly the horses most in demand had to be sane, sound and pretty which eliminated about 80% of outplacement candidates. In equestrian circles the thoroughbred is the “lowest common denominator” and the horse you buy when you can’t afford anything better like a warmblood or an Arabian. When prestige is an important factor in the buyer’s mind having a thoroughbred does not guarantee the highest score.

Secondly most racing owners were not prepared to fund even a small amount to have their horses professionally retrained. Of those who were, many expected to get a slice of the increase in their horse’s value when it was sold.

Third Racing Victoria were paranoid that the purchaser of such a horse would make it legally liable for any problems it may cause. So all responsibility was put back on the retrainer. To make it clear that Racing Victoria was not a party to any contract retrainers were not paid meaning that their only opportunity to make money was to sell the horse.

Fourth given the “degree of difficulty” involved in retraining the average racehorse talented horsemen and women could make a great deal more money for the same effort by working with other breeds like warmbloods. To illustrate: a $500 thoroughbred with the best retraining available might sell for $5,000 with luck. A $10,000 warmblood could easily sell for $30,000 in the same timeframe and would cost no more to maintain.

The Off The Track program today with its $300,000 annual budget would at best be retraining 300 horses a year – a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. The task of finding new homes for these horses is made much harder than it was a decade ago by the steady reduction in equestrian numbers. For instance the membership of peak equestrian body Equestrian Australia has halved in the past 10 years from 27,000 to 14,000. Participation in the Garryowen the prestige equestrian event for thoroughbreds at the Royal Melbourne Show has dropped from 220 ten years ago to 18 this year.

Horse rescue organisations like White Angels have closed their doors in the last year or so beset by the ever increasing cost of feed and the near impossibility of placing their rescues in forever homes. One of their last horses to be rehomed was unraced thoroughbred Junior which came to Horses For Hope (pictured below).

The problem for the racing industry is that for at least the past decade it has been well aware of the looming public backlash but has done little but fiddle around the edges with PR based feelgood strategies. Relying on good hearted individuals to handle the wastage problem for free on the basis of their love of horses was always a false economy.

It is a fact that there is no money to be made out of taking on “wastage” thoroughbreds for an ever declining and increasingly selective equestrian audience. If the perceptions of that market that thoroughbreds are more trouble than they are worth was going to be changed, the opportunity to do so was lost over the last decade.

Junior - Horses For Hope thoroughbred

However just when society has less use for the horse than any time in the last 10,000 years a new opportunity arises. While horsepower as a means of transport has all but disappeared it is in the field of mental health that a new use for horses has emerged.

A technique pioneered in Australia by Colin Emonson from Horses For Hope uses horses that have experienced trauma to help people suffering from mental anguish.

The method, known as narrative therapy, enables the individual to identify with a horse - the pair both benefiting as a result.

Unlike traditional counselling which attempts to resolve an individual’s issues by detailed questioning about their past life to find “the cause” a horse takes someone as they find them.

A traumatised horse is an excellent teacher in this ground based experience. For example if the horse is on edge the participant has to learn self control and calmness in order for the horse to be the same. Equally an anxiety prone person needs to learn to use strength without aggression in order to get the horse to do what is required.

By skilfully guiding the participant through a series of 4 to 10 sessions of hour and a half duration, each with a different horse, their “self narrative” is changed – invariably for the better. A web based system called My Outcomes keeps track of the participant’s progress – the output being available to the participant and their loved ones via a mobile app.

In the 15 years that Horses For Hope has operated participants surveyed report:

  • An increase from 8% of participants taking responsibility for their choices to 61%.
  • An improvement from 53% of participants never or not often enjoying being with family to almost 70% enjoying being with family.
  • A reduction from 85% of participants never or not often being happy with their ability to deal with problems to 7%.
  • Over two thirds of participants never or not often being able to adapt to change reduced to 15%.
  • A reduction from 77% of participants often or almost always getting angry to 15%.
  • A dramatic improvement from over 84% of participants who could not often tell they were getting angry, nor knew how to calm down to over 69% now often being able to.

While we don’t have the same survey reports for the horses, anecdotal evidence suggests that they enjoy the same benefits. The key point being that after many sessions most of the Horses For Hope therapy horses are well adjusted enough to move on to other pursuits.

The difference between the Horses For Hope solution and the one being used by the racing industry is that participants actually pay for their therapy either from their own resources or supporting agencies. Not only do these funds cover the cost of the horses and the therapy provided but they also come out of the ever expanding health budget.

With an epidemic of mental health issues now the target of widespread government and community concern, it seems a good time to consider equine assisted therapy using the Horses For Hope method as a proven effective solution.

Given that the racing industry will not exist for much longer if it fails to address the wastage issue, it could do a lot worse than actively consider how it can participate in trials to demonstrate how an equine therapy program involving ex-racehorses could be rolled out.

In the meantime the recently released Racing Victoria equine welfare plan is full of timelines stating “in three years”. They’ve had a decade to do it. Another three years is way too long.

Bill Saunders
Horses For Hope