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February 01, 2021

Safety advancements in equine sports

Veterinarians discuss welfare of equine athletes in various disciplines
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Widespread attention on safety concerns in horse racing has been at the forefront in the equine industry; however, several other equine sports have their own unique concerns related to welfare and safety.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners’ 2020 Virtual Convention & Trade Show, held Dec. 1-18, focused on advancements and welfare concerns during several sessions about safety-related measures made more recently in three-day eventing, jump racing, and rodeo.

Panelists for the “Safety Issues and Efforts in Equine Sport Panel
The panelists for the “Safety Issues and Efforts in Equine Sport Panel” at the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ 2020 Virtual Convention & Trade Show, were (from top left) Drs. Ryan S. Carpenter, Tim Grande, R. Reynolds Cowles, Erin Contino, Richard D. Mitchell, and Douglas G. Corey. They discussed the advancements made in ensuring welfare for equine athletes.

Three-day eventing

Described as an equestrian triathlon, three-day eventing has three phases: dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. The sport is also found at the Olympics, where it is called modern eventing with a shortened but more technical cross-country section.

Dr. Erin Contino, assistant professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, is an active event rider. She said during the session “Safety Efforts in Three-Day Eventing” that one of the major welfare concerns within the sport are fatal horse falls.

“We have occasional horrific falls that can result in rider and horse fatalities,” she said. “No one wants to see this type of thing, but it is important to note that, like many other sports, there is inherent risk.”

In the past six years, reports of horse fatalities in the U.S. during competitions indicate there is about one horse fatality per every 10,000 starts in three-day eventing. Deaths are often attributed to cardiovascular problems or rotational falls.

Rotational falls—when horses somersault—are a potential concern and typically happen when a horse hits a fence between its knees and chest. A rider is 10 times as likely to be injured or killed because of a rotational fall. There is also an increased risk of horse injury and death associated with rotational falls, according to data from the Federation Equestre Internationale.

Get more information about the research done by FEI.

Current research is focused on several areas, including course modification, better course design, added decoration to help with judging depth, more easily broken devices, cooling, air quality, rider education, empowerment of ground juries to protect horse welfare, and increased veterinary preventive care.

“To the best of our ability, changes are being made based on science and research,” Dr. Contino said. “It is impressive considering the small size of the U.S. Eventing Association, 1,200 members, and the amount of investment in research that they’re making to advance this sport. These changes and efforts are not just for public perception but the general welfare of the horse.”

Jump racing and rodeo

Dr. R. Reynolds Cowles, founder and past president of Blue Ridge Equine Clinic in Virginia, spoke during “Safety Efforts in Jump-Racing.”

The sport is a distance horse race that includes required jumping and obstacles. One of the welfare concerns in jump racing is related to fence designs. The hybrid fence is portable, metal, and made with a plastic brush that covers a dense foam roll. The other materials typically used include timber and stone, which are also not forgiving.

“Twenty years ago, there were no safety protocols for jump racing. A group of concerned veterinarians and horsemen began to formulate standards in Virginia after a number of injuries and fatalities,” Dr. Cowles said.

Safety protocols within the sport now include an effort to standardize emergency care, an emphasis on adequate veterinary coverage such as available emergency transport, rider education, pre-race examinations with standardized procedures, course improvement, easy-fix fences, and enforcement of safety standards.

“Change can be difficult,” said Dr. Douglas G. Corey, a veterinarian with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, during the session “Safety in Rodeo.”

Dr. Corey has taken a lead role in crafting many animal welfare guidelines for the PRCA and serves on the PRCA Animal Welfare Committee.

The PRCA has 70 rules related to the protection of livestock, including that a veterinarian must be present at all rodeo competitions, horse flank straps must be fleece or neoprene lined, use of electric prods is limited, all spurs must be dulled, and judges must inspect each animal before competition.

“Injuries are rare in professional rodeo,” Dr. Corey said.

The past five years had an annual average of 355,666 exposures, anytime an animal enters the arena, and of those, there were 364 injuries to animals per year on average, or about one injury per every 1,000 exposures, according to statistics from Dr. Corey.

Racing update

A cluster of horse racing deaths occurred in 2019, which led to several new safety recommendations and the creation of the Thoroughbred Safety Coalition. In addition, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HR 1754) was signed into law as part of an omnibus bill to provide government funding and pandemic aid (see story).

Dr. Ryan S. Carpenter, surgeon and equine medical director at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, said during the “Safety Issues and Efforts in Equine Sport Panel” that there is a cultural shift happening.

“The media is very critical of us, and every horse that is euthanized has a significant impact on our industry,” he said.

Dr. Carpenter suggests that the equine industry speak out about the good things happening within sporting events, particularly on social media.

“The good stories are worth telling,” he said. “We fail in this in horse racing.”