Our Burning Planet


From rock stars to obscurity – searching for lost Thoroughbreds

From rock stars to obscurity – searching for lost Thoroughbreds
Once the main form of transport for hundreds of years, work horses are now on the margins of society. (Photo: Jodi Efune / The Cart Horse Protection Association)

Thoroughbred horses are bred to be specialised athletes. They’re microchipped, have long pedigrees and the National Horse Racing Association says it tracks their life and retirement. But what happens when the paper trail runs out?

There are about 300,000 horses in South Africa that fall into three general groups: racehorses, performance horses and workhorses. Of that number, about 30,000 are registered Thoroughbreds. 

Among them are the rock stars, the glory horses you see thundering around the track with a colourful jockey crouched on their backs. While under the auspices of the racing industry, they live a pampered life.

A Thoroughbred usually races for about six years, but may have a lifespan of anywhere up to 25. Each year an additional 2,000 to 3,000 Thoroughbred foals are microchipped (all foals must be microchipped). The numbers stack this way:

  • 30,000 Thoroughbreds, of which
  • 5,500 in racing and
  • 5,000 in breeding and a further
  • 10,000 registered beyond that,
  • being added to by 2,000 foals a year.
  • This leaves about 10,000 unaccounted for.

These are all purpose-bred racehorses in a declining race industry in which it’s extremely expensive to keep a horse in race or breeding trim.

Is there an excess of Thoroughbreds? And, if there is, where are they going? 

“If you don’t find a home for them,” a top horse owner, who wished not to be named, told me, “you have to bear the cost of giving it a retirement paddock on your farm. Some people do that for their champions, but they won’t do it just for the run-of-the-mill horses.”

A good many are sold or even given to private owners for leisure riding, dressage or show jumping. Probably more than we know about simply get euthanised. For an increasing number, however, this is a better option than the horse ending up at risk.

A dead horse is a heavy problem. If you have a large property and a front-end loader, burial is an option. But a more common option is to truck it to a horse-meat provider. 

There’s a resistance to eating horses and, because of the medications that racehorses are routinely administered, their meat may not be suitable for human consumption. Their destination is generally via specialised abattoirs to lion parks and game farms.

According to owner and racing journalist Robyn Louw, “the fact that many racehorse owners choose to end a horse’s life at the end of its career may be more a comment on the environment outside of racing than it is on the racing industry itself”.

Just how bad can it be that death is better than life “outside”? 

The Oude Molen Stables in Cape Town. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Until fairly recently, moving a Thoroughbred from racing to show jumping or dressage was the normal life path. But that started faltering with the rise of Warmbloods, which are bred for specific disciplines such as jumping and dressage. A Thoroughbred, on the other hand, is a purpose-bred athlete, but having had a career as a racehorse, it requires retraining for its new job. 

Being purpose-bred, Warmbloods or other competition breeds don’t require retraining. According to Peta Hunter, who runs large stables near Cape Town, the difference between a Thoroughbred and a Warmblood is that you can bully a Thoroughbred into submission, but not a Warmblood. “It will fight back, but a Thoroughbred won’t. Warmbloods can only really be ridden by professional riders. 

“But there’s a problem with Thoroughbreds if you want to use them for other purposes: so many are damaged from racing. They’re ridden too young, too hard. They are used for around six years, then they’re pushed out. If by the age of nine they’re fine, you couldn’t find a better horse. 

“But these days, they’re not as robust as they used to be. They battle with soundness due to their early start being ridden and raced. I call them fast-food horses. We don’t have good old-fashioned horses that people can ride any more.”

This was confirmed by a researcher in equine health who, for contractual reasons, asked not to be identified: “Thoroughbreds are being raced from the age of two. By that age, the growth plates of some have not closed and you’ll get leakage damage. To check, you need to X-ray. 

“Good breeders will know that, you can also see from the front legs, but there are owners who are not informed and want to make a quick buck. You get horses being pushed beyond their limit and there are issues. 

“So, when they’re retired, you get horses that look quite nice but you don’t know what’s under the skin and you’re not told why they’re being put out of the stable. You may get a horse which is a Rolls-Royce but you may get a Chinese takeaway. Both can end up in informal racing where there’s absolutely no administration.”

At Oude Molen Stables in Cape Town, horses that might otherwise have been euthanised are given a home and the loving care of Kendre Allies. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Retiring a racehorse requires a stud report, death report or second career report. But horses can easily disappear off the system. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

The retirement process

When you retire a Thoroughbred, you have to submit forms saying this is the second career, this is where it’s going. There must either be a stud report, death report or second career report. But horses can easily disappear off the system. 

According to Louw, only the first rehoming is well monitored. After that, it gets very difficult because subsequent owners may not be members of the National Horseracing Authority (NHA) and therefore are outside the jurisdiction of the racing industry. “It’s a bit like selling a car. You can’t really hold the manufacturer responsible if the third owner down the line has an accident. 

“The NHA doesn’t have jurisdiction over the general public,” she said. “It can only police its members. After that, the horse falls under the general animal welfare system. That involves organisations like the NSPCA and the horse care units – and ultimately the Animal Protection Act, which is outdated and has insufficient muscle.”

The NHA acknowledges the problem of limited traceability. In answer to a question on the destination of rehomed horses, NHA chief executive Vee Moodley said that if there is a willing seller and buyer, the NHA can’t legally interfere. “We do not monitor these transactions as they can vary and happen at any time, which are almost impossible for us to monitor.”

According to Hazel Kayiya, who heads the NHA Stud Book, enforcing traceability is a huge challenge. “The [current] economic climate has resulted in increasing abandonment of horses at breeding farms and training establishments,” she told the International Forum for Aftercare of Horses.

“There are more horses requiring welfare attention than can be accommodated by horse care units and rehoming facilities. This is compounded by reduction in stakes and race fixtures, resulting in owners not being able to afford the luxury of racing as a hobby.”

In rehoming situations, she said, people were not able to continue paying stabling fees, in effect abandoning their horses. It was also almost impossible to trace horses past auction houses.

When a horse doesn’t do well at the yearling sales or a mare is no longer producing winning foals, they’re generally euthanised. But unwanted horses, she said, were also entering the informal racing sector. 

“Rural racing is booming and that’s where we see a lot of Thoroughbreds moving. There’s no regulation to ensure that movement and ownership changes are recorded past initial retirement.”

The NHA recently tried to tighten rehoming regulations. Rule 41.10 states that the owner of a NHA-registered horse is responsible for it for “the rest of its natural life” after retirement unless he euthanises it or transfers it to another owner in another jurisdiction, a breeder or a horse care unit. But in effect you could drive a horse cart through the rule. 

There are people who make a living out of taking retired racehorses, training them up through the basics as a riding horse for three or four months, then selling them. Who they sell them to is nobody’s business. The ink on the paper trail starts to fade. It’s bye bye, pretty pony.

“You’ll find that most people in the horseracing world take accountability for where their retired horses go,” a horse breeder told me, “but none of us feel that once the horse has gone to a second or third home is it fair or reasonable to expect us to keep tabs on it. It’s purely voluntary to track a horse through ownerships, and it’s not easy.”

Rehomed and cared for, you couldn’t find a better horse than a Thoroughbred. But by being raced too young, damage is a possibility. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Well cared for, a horse is a great working partner and source of income. (Photo: The Cart Horse Protection Agency)

Escaping the system

Once Thoroughbreds are outside the tracking system, they’re in the same boat as any other horse. If someone buys it and it turns out it can’t jump as well as they thought, or it’s too much horse for their daughter, they get rid of it with no questions asked of the new owner. Many are sold privately, and a number end up with horse care units in Gauteng, Durban and Port Elizabeth.

“If it comes to us, it isn’t sold on, it’s adopted on,” explained Theresa Hodgkinson, who manages the Highveld Horse Care Unit. “It remains our property. It cannot be bred, cannot be sold on, cannot be given away. If the person who adopts the horse can’t cope with it, or financially falls into trouble, that horse comes back to the unit.”

With the financial problems of the past few years, however, she’s finding more Thoroughbreds being sold than given to the unit. Those they’re getting are not in the best condition. Unfortunately, possession is often nine-tenths of the law and welfare organisations are not always able to follow up. 

“Guys from indigenous racing are buying them,” she said. “These guys have the money and they’re prepared to pay good prices. Their horses are mainly looked after, but some are not. It’s a problem. 

“We rely on donations. We used to do inspections as far up as Kuruman, where there’s big traditional races, and we were funded by Phumelela, but they crashed and those funds have totally dried up.”

According to Carla Hazel of the Eastern Cape Horse Unit, a lot of the Thoroughbreds they confiscated have been passed off or sold to people who are not knowledgeable enough. And it seems most of the “lost” Thoroughbreds are heading into that area, which is a welfare problem.

“Thoroughbreds need lots of TLC, a lot more care. They’re finicky. You can’t just pass them on to someone who’s a first-time horse owner. That’s not going to work. The horse is going to end up suffering. I’m 99.9% sure of that. 

“When horses are retired from racing, many are damaged in one way or another because bad accidents can happen, both with formal or traditional racing. And you can’t just keep Thoroughbreds in a shed and feed them grass, or sell them to someone who doesn’t understand horses. Through ignorance, frustration or lack of concern, they can be badly mistreated.

“Cruelty depends on the owner. You can get it in racing, in cart horses, steeplechase, show jumping and eventing. It’s all about the owner and about horse knowledge.”

Are more Thoroughbreds being sold because of a shrinking industry and Covid? “I’m not sure, but it’s quite possible,” Hazel said. “People need to recoup losses. We’re getting fewer racehorses, so where are they going?”

The answer is into a vast network of ownerships and used for dirt-flat racing, far from the protection or knowledge of the NHA and mostly below the radar of the NSPCA.  DM/OBP

Read Part 3 tomorrow: Traditional horse racing is booming.

Read Part 1 here.


[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9419″]

Absa OBP

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