Always putting the horse first

Racecourse vets outline care and procedures when treating injuries

Improvements prompt revision of on-course policy for equine euthanasia

Progress in the care and treatment given to racehorses following an injury on-course, together with the accompanying Health and Safety implications of using a firearm, has led to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) revising its instructions on how horses should be put down. The new instructions, which take effect from 1 February 2015, reflect how veterinary treatment of injuries has evolved in recent years.

BHA Chief Veterinary Officer, Jenny Hall, said: "Opinion on this subject has evolved in recent years and our instructions have moved accordingly. It is now our position that a vet should always use chemical methods of euthanasia unless there are extenuating circumstances, in which case the rationale and circumstances should be explained in a written a report to BHA. We are not ruling out the use of firearms but we are saying injection has to be considered first.”

Simon Knapp is the Racecourse Association's Veterinary Consultant and is employed as the senior racecourse vet at Sandown Park, Kempton Park and Epsom Downs. He describes the current procedures for treating a horse with a potentially serious injury: "Over the years, the quality of racecourse cover, medical and veterinary, has improved dramatically.

"We will be at the scene within 60 seconds of the incident occurring. As soon as we arrive, we get intravenous access by placing a catheter before blood pressure drops and shock takes over, so whatever happens to that horse, we're prepared for the next stage.

"We'll set up 360-degree screening, not because we've got anything to hide, but so we have no distractions and the horse has no distractions. They act as a pacifier. 

"Our aim is to take the horse off the track and move it to the on-course veterinary unit where there is a quiet environment, with diagnostic equipment such as ultrasound and x-ray . X-rays can be emailed, giving access to top orthopaedic specialists who can tell us what's possible.

"The vast majority of injured horses can be moved humanely from the track, but it's a fact of life that a small minority can't, in which case we do what's right by them on the track."

As Rob Van Pelt, a racecourse vet at Brighton, Fontwell, Goodwood and Plumpton, explains, technology has enabled veterinary care to significantly change in recent years and injection is now a very effective and reliable method for putting a horse down, should the circumstances demand it: "In the last ten or 15 years the drugs available have improved dramatically and in Somulose we have a very reliable product. It's a challenging time when you are dealing with an animal going through different physiological changes, and we always administer a sedative first, and that reduces the blood pressure so the drug works better.”

Leading trainer Nicky Henderson is a firm believer in the policy of taking time to assess all of the options available. "There have been two instances this season where a horse of ours has been taken back to the racecourse stables for more detailed examination, but in both cases there was nothing that could be done and neither horse came home despite top-class veterinary advice and facilities.

"When we have to have a horse put down from time to time at home I definitely prefer the injection to the free bullet. It works in seconds, I don't think it's any kinder or quicker to use a bullet, and to me it's a nicer way of doing something we all dread.

"We are very sentimental about our horses and we will do everything possible. We've tried lots of times to save a horse, and Michael Buckley fought for poor old Spirit Son for 18 months. We had the best advice in the world, but in the end we lost the battle.

"On the other hand Fondmort, another very good horse, was saved despite the vets not giving him much chance. It was the fight of a lifetime, over months and months, but we got him through it and he's living at home.

"But that's a rarity and sometimes, even though you can repair a horse, it will have no quality of life. If he is never going to regain soundness and his quality of life will be zero, then euthanasia is the right course."

Rob Van Pelt is confident that the right decisions are being made by racecourse vets: "A three-year study done by Liverpool University about seven years ago analysed all the horses who had been euthanised, and they came to the conclusion all the horses studied, bar none, needed euthanising, or met the guidelines for humane destruction.Fewer horses are euthanised now because of digital radiography, mobile ultrasound units, and the system which allows transportation by horse ambulance to centres of excellence where more in-depth investigation can be undertaken before a decision is made. We've come forward light years."

BHA Chief Veterinary Officer, Jenny Hall, reiterates the point that under no circumstances would the revised instructions compromise a horse's welfare: "We do not believe the changes represent a risk of undermining or compromising horse welfare. We would not be making these changes if that was a possible side effect. The welfare of the horse must always come first and we are absolutely satisfied that chemical euthanasia can be used on the racecourse without compromising horse welfare."