What happened to horse breeds that aren’t popular anymore?

Horses may quit the racing profession at any point in their lives, whether they are foals, in training, during their racing career, or after they retire. When horses abandon racing early, this is commonly called as ‘wastage’. The primary reason for horses being withdrawn from racing is poor performance, with other reasons including illness, injury or behavioural problems.

The majority of racehorses will only race for 2-3 years, yet their life expectancy is 25-30 years. All racehorses will ultimately stop racing, regardless of the cause or age at which it happens. There is a high level of public expectation that these horses will be appropriately cared for in their post-racing life, not least because they have been bred and used for sport and profit in a multi-billion dollar industry.

Every year, around 13,000 Thoroughbred foals are born in Australia [1]. From an annual high of nearly 18,000 in 1995-2005, foal births have gradually decreased over the last decade. At least 2,000 of these foals will never be registered for racing and only around 2,500 will eventually go into breeding, which means around 8,500 adult Thoroughbreds will exit the Thoroughbred racing industry every year. The number of Standardbred (harness racing) foals born has likewise decreased from more than 10,000 in the late 1980s to less than 4,000 in 2016. Each year, around 1,000 of these foals will never race, 600 will go into breeding, and 2,400 mature Standardbreds will retire from harness racing [2].

We don’t know what happens to these horses since there is no precise or transparent lifetime tracing mechanism in place for racehorses. However, a number of surveys have been conducted in recent years in an attempt to determine their fate: these have reported a range of sometimes contradictory outcomes.

A survey of Thoroughbred and Standardbred trainers in the 2002-03 racing year, funded by the RSPCA, found that the main reason for Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds leaving racing was poor performance (36%, 35%) followed by illness or injury (31%, 27%), breeding (9%, 10%) and unsuitable temperament (6%, 6%) [3]. Thoroughbred horses who were retired from racing were rehomed to other equestrian hobbies, 18% were bred, and 6% were slaughtered. Standardbreds were rehomed at a rate of 9%, bred at a rate of 16%, and slaughtered at a rate of 17%.

A 2013 survey of trainers funded by the Australian Racing Board is reported to have found that 45% of relinquished Thoroughbreds were used for breeding, 31% had been rehomed for other purposes, 14% were returned to their owner, 7% had died, and less than 1% had gone to an abattoir. Regrettably, the entire findings of this investigation were never made public.

A 2014 study, funded by Racing Victoria, tracking the fate of foals born in Victoria in 2005, was able to contact and survey owners for 54% of the 4,115 foals born in that year [4]. Nine years on, 40% of these foals were reported as rehomed, 20% as breeding, 19% as dead, 5% still racing and the fate of 16% was unknown. None of these horses were recorded as having been sold straight for slaughter.

For three reasons, survey findings like this are likely to underestimate the number of horses slaughtered. Firstly, trainers may not wish to admit they have sent horses for slaughter; second, such studies may exclude horses sold interstate to saleyards; and third, they do not take into account those horses that left racing for other reasons but were subsequently sold for slaughter.

A 2008 study of 340 horses entering one of the two export abattoirs which slaughter equines in Australia found that 40% were identifiable as Thoroughbreds and 13% as Standardbreds [5]. Horses were physically checked for brand to ascertain origin and age: 60% were under the age of eight. Around 9,000 horses are currently slaughtered in abattoirs each year and this study suggests that around half of these may be ex-racehorses.

The RSPCA believes that the racing industry should do more to adopt responsible breeding practices, such as reducing the number of racehorses bred, reducing the risk of injury, and providing every horse with a suitable alternative role upon retirement, with provisions made to ensure their long-term welfare.

We also support the mandatory collection and publication of comprehensive life cycle and injury statistics and the development of a national identification and traceability system for racehorses. As a result, precise information on every racehorse’s experience from birth to death will be accessible.

What happens to horses that leave the racing industry?

Related Questions

  • What is the most unpopular horse breed?

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  • What is the least common horse breed?

    The Rarest in the World

    1. Akhal-Teke Horse.
    2. American Cream Draft Horse.
    3. Boulonnais Horse.
    4. Caspian Horse.
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  • What is the oldest breed horse still in existence?

    The Arabian horse is the world’s oldest breed of horse. Archaeological evidence reveals that the Arabian horse has been in the Middle East for over 5000 years. These magnificent horses may now be found all over the globe.

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