Unregulated horse racing continues to pose risks

Over 100 bush tracks pose a threat of spreading infectious diseases in horses

A persistent and potentially growing concern, according to experts, is the running of unsanctioned, informal horse races.

On Jan. 9, the AVMA House of Delegates approved a new AVMA policy condemning unregulated horse racing (PDF) during its regular winter session.

The policy states that the AVMA condemns unregulated racing of equids because of threats to animal health and welfare, such as infectious disease, administration of illegal substances, and abusive practices.

Veterinarian ausculating a horse
Known health issues associated with unsanctioned horse racing include the spread of equine infectious anemia and equine piroplasmosis in the U.S. equid herd in addition to the use of many illegal substances. Abusive practices toward horses have been documented in these races. There has also been documentation of jockeys suffering terrible injuries at these events.

Cause for concern

“The bush tracking situation of today is very sophisticated,” said Dr. Angela Pelzel-McCluskey, an equine epidemiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Veterinary Services in Fort Collins, Colorado. “They communicate all online. Their fan base is expanding exponentially because of their use of social media to advertise and market their races.”

Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey oversees the federal response to outbreaks of reportable equine diseases nationwide. She said there are over 100 known bush tracks in the United States and hundreds more that haven’t been investigated. There are bush tracks in every state.

A key distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned racing is that there are no rules for horse or rider safety in unsanctioned racing, Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey said. Race surfaces are not maintained, and no protocols are in place to protect the riders and horses from catastrophic breakdown. Injuries are common, and horses are subjected to excessive whipping and electronic shock devices.

And unlike sanctioned racing, there are not track veterinarians on-site at bush tracks to examine every horse, nor is there monitoring of medications or restricted drugs.

“All the horses are medicated with something on race day,” Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey said. “A lot of them (horse handlers) use anabolic steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs that are damaging to the horses long term,” including narcotics.

She explained that the illegal activity goes well beyond what the handlers are doing with the horses, and a lot has been captured on video.

“You can see it on the internet,” she said. “It’s not hidden.”

Outbreaks associated with bush tracks

The USDA has found that clusters of cases of equine infectious anemia and equine piroplasmosis in Quarter Horse racehorses are often associated with unsanctioned racing.

EIA, a viral disease with no vaccination or cure, is the livestock disease most highly tested for in the country. In 2021, there were more than 1.4 million EIA tests conducted (PDF), resulting in detection of 103 positive horses on 54 premises.

“We should really have a very small number of EIA-positive horses over the years,” Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey said. “Instead, it is increasing, and these positives are not from natural transmission.”

Unhygienic practices being used by horse owners and trainers in this high-risk population have contributed to disease spread, including the reuse of needles, syringes, and intravenous administration sets between horses; blood doping; and administration of drug products contaminated by nonsterile handling techniques.

U.S. map: Equine Infectious Anemia Annual Report 2021
Reported numbers of horses and premises testing positive for equine infectious anemia in 2021 (Courtesy of USDA APHIS) [Enlarge]

Veterinarians should also consider that horses participating in unsanctioned racing may be at high risk for equine piroplasmosis, according to the 2013 JAVMA article “Babesia equi–induced anemia in a Quarter Horse and subsequent regulatory response.”

Equine piroplasmosis, which typically spreads via ticks, has also been linked to horses at unregulated racing events. In these cases, investigators have found the disease’s vector was unlicensed handlers using contaminated needles and other equipment to inject or dope the horses.

In 2021, 35,493 domestic U.S. horses were tested for EP (PDF). A total of 36 newly infected horses were identified in seven states during that time. Of these, 31 were Quarter Horse racehorses in which management practices were thought to have caused transmission of blood-borne pathogens, and five horses were suspected or confirmed to have been illegally moved from Mexico.

There is no vaccine for EP, but horses infected with the disease can be enrolled in a USDA-approved treatment program, which is frequently successful at permanently eliminating the infection.

Prevention is key to stopping the spread of both EIA and EP. Guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners on EIA (PDF) state that horse handlers should use a sterile needle, syringe, and IV set for all injections or treatments. Shared equipment such as lip chains, dose syringes, and thermometers should be cleaned of debris and disinfected between equids.

Veterinarian involvement

A 2012 JAVMA article, “Outbreak of equine piroplasmosis in Florida,” stressed the role of veterinarians in private practice and veterinary diagnostic laboratories in recognizing and reporting horses potentially exposed to EP.

“We want veterinarians to be very aware that we have horses in this population that are at high risk for these diseases,” Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey said. “Once identified, they really need to work with these clients to share the information that the horse may have been exposed and provide the proper advice to the client about testing the horse.”

Both EIA and EP are reportable at the state and federal levels, so regulatory authorities should be contacted regarding horses in which these diseases are suspected.

If a horse tests positive at a facility, a regulatory veterinarian will perform an investigation to identify exposed horses, which will be placed under quarantine and tested.

Spreading the word

Dr. Stuart Brown, delegate for the American Association of Equine Practitioners in the AVMA House of Delegates, provided the introduction on the House floor for the resolution to establish the policy on unregulated horse racing. The equine welfare concerns related to unsanctioned racing—both in terms of injury and infectious disease—have been an important issue for the AAEP’s working groups on racing and equine welfare since last fall, Dr. Brown explained.

“The AAEP has several guidelines which provide best practices for regulated horse racing, including biosecurity guidelines, race-day injury management, and medication policies,” Dr. Brown said. “Unsanctioned racing follows none of these recommendations, and the horse is at extreme risk.”

The AAEP board voted on Jan. 22 to endorse the AVMA’s resolution condemning this activity.

While knowledge and awareness about bush tracks have increased, Dr. Pelzel-McCluskey argued that there is a need for law enforcement authorities to address the criminal activity. She also suggested that a law be authored with the help of the equine industry to make unsanctioned racing illegal.

“The solution is what needs to come next, and the industry has to decide what that is,” she said.

A version of this article appears in the April 2023 print issue of JAVMA.