Putting the Horse First? - by Dr. Patricia M. Hogan

The American Association of Equine Practitioners recently released its White Paper containing veterinary recommendations for improving the safety and welfare of the Thoroughbred racehorse. It is an admirable effort and contains many constructive suggestions for the racing industry to consider. But in reality, the AAEP is a continuing education organization for veterinarians that relies on voluntary membership and has no ability to enforce these suggestions for policy even within its own membership, let alone within the racing industry as a whole. Elvis Presley put it so well—how about “a little less conversation and a little more action please.”

In case anyone reading this publication has been living under a rock, public perception is king these days. And animal welfare issues are at the forefront of the public’s concerns. As veterinarians involved with racing, we have been woefully unprepared to meet the challenges put forth by the public concerning the welfare of the racehorse. When the issue of horse slaughter was brought to the public stage a few years ago, both the AAEP and the American Veterinary Medical Association aggressively spoke out in favor of the practice without anticipating the tremendous public backlash that would ensue. The AAEP’s strategic move to then officially change the term “slaughter” to “horse processing” in all future discussions on the subject just added fuel to the fire and further contributed to the public’s growing mistrust of veterinarians. Perhaps taking a neutral position on the politics of slaughter and, instead, putting our efforts into demands for revisions of the welfare and humane-care violations surrounding this issue would have been more befitting of veterinarians in the average person’s mind. With half of the annual Thoroughbred foal crop going to slaughter every year, this vocal stance taken by the veterinary community tends to warp the public’s previously treasured “James Herriot” view of veterinarians and has caused great pause and confusion. To this end, we have encountered credibility issues.

We live in an age now where very little is truly discreet. The use of the Internet and visual communication has made the dissemination of information rapid, and often graphic. To some degree, this has hurt racing terribly. When faced with troubling images associated with our sport—whether it be the trials of racehorses shipping from the backstretch to the slaughterhouse, Eight Belles in a heap at the end of the Derby with the winner’s circle celebration commencing just a short distance away, or the reports of trainers and/or veterinarians under investigation for medication violations—often it is just the perception that is the reality to the public. It does not really matter if we have explanations for these situations that may make sense to those of us within the industry. What matters is what appears to be obvious to the average person. We ask the public to embrace our sport, follow the careers of our stars, even join track fan clubs for the very elite performers, and yet we have no plausible explanation for the shocking paradox that exists concerning the lack of care and the eventual demise of the poor performers. It is becoming painfully obvious that the irony has not been lost upon the general public.

The concerns with the overuse of medications, breakdown injuries, the slaughter of racehorses, and the often “tabloid-like” reporting of medication overages, etc., have suddenly thrust the racetrack veterinarian into the role of the villain, or at least an accomplice, in some of these situations. With few exceptions, that is just not the case. But the impression exists because we have not prepared an offense and are merely playing catch-up defense. And because we do not truly understand our opponent: public perception. Veterinarians who work with any of the racetrack retirement programs can tell you that the physical condition of many of those horses “donated” (a clear misuse of the word) render second careers or even adoption as pets next to impossible. Yet, these horses were actually racing often just days prior to entering these programs—how is that able to happen? And is there a veterinary role in this? The public seems to think so.

If we want to be “part of the solution,” then we truly need to examine our role in the problem, and actually put our own house in order. Put some “teeth” into our bite. But that commitment needs to come from within our own circle before we can expect our advice to be heeded by other factions within the racing industry.

If we had been truly living by the mantra of “putting the horse first,” many of the issues we are facing today would simply not exist.

United we stand, divided we fall. That statement has never been more true for horse racing. And for the veterinary community supporting it.

Dr. Patricia Hogan, a veterinary surgeon and AAEP member, operates Hogan Equine in Cream Ridge, N.J. 

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