Why are thousands of racehorses being shot?

Racing braces itself for backlash as documentary appears to show widespread maltreatment of horses

Racehorse jumping
(Image credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

At least 4,000 racehorses have been slaughtered in Britain and Ireland since the beginning of 2019, a new documentary claims.

The racing community is “bracing itself for a backlash”, says The Telegraph, ahead of the Panorama documentary The Dark Side of Horse Racing airing on BBC1 at 8.30pm this evening.

Covert footage captured by animal rights group Animal Aid over a four-day period at F Drury and Sons, one of the UK’s biggest abattoirs and situated just outside Swindon, appears to show how rules that ought to protect horses from unnecessary cruelty are “regularly ignored”, the BBC reports.

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The broadcaster states that a number of the horses shot at the slaughterhouse include several who “had previous illustrious racing careers, winning thousands of pounds”. “Most” of the horses on camera were from Ireland, The Telegraph reports.

Career-ending injuries

Injuries can end a horse’s racing career, and a broken leg can be a death sentence. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) says that “often the kindest way to help a horse with a broken limb is to put it down” due to the animals’ “complex physiology”.

A broken leg can “cause damage to blood vessels and other tissue” and, having evolved as a prey animal, horses need to stay on their feet most of the time, which can prevent healing. Should an injury prove to be career-ending, it is common practice that horses are sent to an abattoir licensed to slaughter horses.

Slaughterhouses are required to follow government legislation on the humane killing of animals, including horses. The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations states: “No person shall engage in the movement, lairaging, restraint, stunning, slaughter or killing of any animal unless he has the knowledge and skill necessary to perform those tasks humanely and efficiently.”

However, the documentary appears to show clear breaches of these requirements. One regulation states that horses should not be killed in sight of one another, but the broadcaster says that the footage shows 26 incidents of horses being shot together. Another states that slaughtering should ensure a rapid death, “but the footage showed that sometimes the death was far from instant”.

“If you’re going to euthanise a horse, you’ve got to get a bullet in the right place,” Professor Daniel Mills, a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine, tells the programme. Discussing the footage, which appears to show 91 occasions when horses are shot from a distance, Mills said: “If that’s representative of how they’re being killed, then we’ve got a really serious problem.”

The alleged transportation of racehorses over more than 350 miles from Ireland to the Drury abattoir in Swindon could prove to be a further breach of the government regulations, the BBC reports. Dr Hannah Donovan, a veterinary expert, says that travelling such a distance while “potentially carrying an injury is not a humane process”.

Donovan also states that if horses need to be put down, they “could and should be euthanised at home”.

What will happen next?

Animal Aid’s Dene Stansall, a horse racing consultant, said that the sport’s “poor welfare record” as well as “the number of horses dying and being killed in slaughterhouses” may cause members of the public to change their opinion of horse racing. Founded in 1977, Animal Aid campaigns for an outright ban on horse racing and the end of slaughtering animals for food products.

The Panorama documentary will also show what appears to be three horses in the abattoir that were previously trained by Gordon Elliott, although the three times Grand National winning trainer says he did not send any of the animals to F Drury and Sons.

Elliott has been suspended from the sport since March 2021 after a photograph that showed him sitting on a dead horse shocked the racing community. His ban is set to be lifted on 9 September this year, and The Telegraph reports that “the first time Elliott learnt of the three horses’ fate was when Panorama contacted him”.

The BHA has said it will “consider carefully any issues raised” by the documentary, which could lead to a review of the current regulations and practices for killing racehorses.

F Drury & Sons told Panorama: “We take great care to maintain high welfare conditions and do not accept any form of animal abuse. All horses are humanely destroyed and on occasions where issues do occur, we take swift action to review and rectify.”

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