‘The allegation that racehorses who show little ability on the racetrack have no future off it is simply incorrect’: How retired racehorses are finding new lives

BBC's Panorama painted a grim picture of the fate of failed racehorses, but it doesn't always end badly as Annunciata Elwes reports.

The flip side to the controversy over the recent BBC Panorama programme The Dark Side of Horse Racing — which revealed upsetting scenes from F. Drury & Sons in Swindon, Wiltshire, one of only three licensed equine abattoirs in the UK, of former racehorses being euthanised inhumanely, contrary to regulations — is the programme’s apparent failure to recognise how life for former racehorses has improved significantly over the past few years, according to statistics from charity Retraining of Racehorses (RoR).

RoR was launched in 2000 by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) to improve the welfare of retired racehorses and currently has 9,010 on its books. Working with organisations such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare, RoR promotes and funds long-term sustainable solutions such as rehoming and retraining and stages more than 40 competitions a year in 15 disciplines, including polo, showjumping, dressage and horseball; these events have actually increased demand for former racehorses in the market, with sale prices up since March 2020, as shown on RoR’s Source a Horse website.

‘Over the past two years, RoR has seen a decline in the number of cases where horses are in need of charitable support,’ explains Di Arbuthnot, RoR chief executive. ‘Horses that slip through our net are few and far between — that said, traceability is something all of us [Defra, BHA and so on] are working hard on as ideally we’d like all former racehorses registered with us.’

The BBC investigation, which comes hot on the heels of the furore around an awful photograph of trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse last year, found the lives of more than 4,000 racehorses have come to an end in abattoirs since 2019. Figures that were not included in the programme, adds Mrs Arbuthnot, are the 3,467 retired racehorses that take part in showing events annually, 4,148 in dressage and 2,912 in eventing.

‘In the 15 years since RoR started staging classes and series exclusively for former racehorses, annual participation has risen dramatically,’ she says. ‘In 2019, for example, more Thoroughbreds took part in RoR dressage competitions than ran in steeplechases (4,148 vs 2,965). What’s more, the allegation that racehorses who show little ability on the racetrack have no future off it is simply incorrect.’ She reels off the names of three geldings — Mumford, Rich Man Poor Man and Good Boy Alex — that had not one win between them as racehorses, yet were crowned RoRevent champions within the past month.

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Ahead of an emergency meeting last week with leaders of the British racing industry, a BHA representative stressed that the practices highlighted in the programme, including causing distress to horses at the end of their lives by not following regulations or transporting injured horses to the abattoir all the way from Ireland — both cruel and economically bizarre — were unacceptable, requiring urgent attention, and that it is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to regulate animal welfare. ‘Our sport has set out its wider approach to equine welfare in a strategy published in 2020, which the programme chose not to highlight,’ reads the statement.

The report focuses on lifetime responsibility, aftercare and traceability via digital passports and the BHA estimates there are 14,000 horses in training at any one time. The FSA, which ensures that CCTV is active in every slaughterhouse in England, plans to ‘thoroughly’ investigate the Panorama footage. An FSA review of the Welfare of Animals at Time of Killing regulations, finalised earlier this year, identified ‘a wide range of welfare at slaughter improvements’ that could be made, which Defra is considering.