Any discussion on the topic of horse safety should focus in part on removing pieces of the danger puzzle. Having accurate data (see previous post) tells outsiders we care about our horses and should be automatically available. But there are plenty of other points to consider.
The NSA took a great step several years ago with the adoption of cushioned whips – flat racing ought to do the same. Other equine health or safety measures such as pre-race veterinary inspections, equine ambulances, rigorous course maintenance, water at the finish line, misting fans, etc. have aided the quest for safer races and answered public concerns. Keep improving those and close any loopholes that may be there. There’s no good excuse for not having a proper equine ambulance at every NSA stop.
But what else is out there? What’s next on the radar for improvement?
– How about blind water jumps? There are only a few, but they a potential nightmare. It’s a wonderful spectacle to see horses leap a fence with water on the landing side, but it’s not so wonderful to see horses skid through that landing, drop a hind leg into the water or hike their toes in fright while clearing the fence. I don’t mind the water in timber races (horses can see it through the rails) or in varied courses that emphasize jumping. The problem comes when a fence looks pretty much the same as a normal hurdle but has water hiding on the landing side. It just worries me – especially with inexperienced horses. I don’t want to answer a question about why a horse got hurt at that fence with water, when none of the other fences have water. At the very least, national standards should be written and enforced regarding depth, construction and such for these fences. And horsemen, what do you think?
– The cushioned whips were a great step, but stewards ought to take note of jockeys who overuse the whip in a race. Don’t go overboard with fines and such – I like the jockeys – but film study or educational sessions couldn’t hurt. I see some races where the whips get overused. And what about whipless training flat races? Could that happen? Just a thought.
– Old horses. The NSA does not have an age limit for horses though most seem to stop racing at a sensible age. But how old is too old? Feeling So Pretty competes at 14. Bug River was trying for a Maryland Hunt Cup start at 15. Back in time, major winners were often in their teens but it seems less common today, though Ninepins won a Grade I hurdle stakes at 13 and Young Dubliner set a course record in the Maryland Hunt Cup at that age. Cancottage went one better and won the New Jersey Hunt Cup at 14. Still, there ought to be a cutoff. Pick an age and stick to it. Fifteen sounds old, maybe too old. Sixteen definitely sounds too old.
– Next topic, running rails – or lack thereof. Temporary fences restrain fans and mark the race course at many NSA meets. My worry meter spikes when I see horses and people sharing the same fence – one side serving as a tailgating boundary, the other as a race-course boundary. And I really get nervous when I see the fans leaning over the fence for a better look as the horses are speeding around the turn. Though many courses have gone to double fences (with an alley of space separating the fans and the horses), it still happens and shouts potential problem for horses and people.
So there you have it, one man’s horse safety concerns. None will instantly make steeplechasing safer, but addressing a few might help answer some questions.