Irish racing consider ‘horse purse’ concept to ensure proper end of life care

Disturbing evidence revealed in Panorama programme: The Dark Side of Horse Racing

A system where money could be guaranteed to make sure thoroughbreds don’t end up in a “paupers grave situation” is being examined by Irish racing’s ruling body.

The ‘horse purse’ concept involves a sum of up to €500 being linked to individual equine passports to ensure proper end of life care for thoroughbreds if necessary.

It comes on the back of disturbing evidence contained in Monday's BBC Panorama programme, The Dark Side of Horse Racing, which examined welfare standards and how horses were euthanised at an abattoir in England.

Some of the methods shown in the programme were described on Tuesday as "bizarre" by Horse Racing Ireland's (HRI) director of equine welfare and bloodstock, John Osborne.


The programme also claimed almost 4,000 racehorses were euthanised through 2019 and 2020 in Britain and Ireland, with most of them having been owned and trained here.

Although Panorama's focus was on one English abattoir in Swindon, and the methods employed there, the majority of horses were euthanised in Ireland.

In response to Dail questions in March, the Minister for Agriculture, Food & Marine, Charlie McConalogue, revealed that just over 12,000 thoroughbreds were slaughtered at facilities approved by his department in the period 2016 to 2020.

A total of 2,952 took place in 2016 although the rate had almost halved to 1,549 by 2020. Nevertheless the average over the five years was 2,414. Department of Agriculture officials said on Tuesday that best practice is carried out at abattoirs here.

Recorded figures of thoroughbreds slaughtered in Britain in 2019 and 2020 added up to 610 horses.

Inevitably the BBC investigation renewed focus on the question of what happens to racehorses after their racing career is finished.

John Osborne conceded the culture of re-homing and re-tasking thoroughbreds still isn’t as strong in Ireland as in other countries.

He added that although matters have improved in recent years the scale of a task in trying to cater for an estimated 2,000 horses that stop racing each year is huge.

"The market isn't as strong in Ireland for that kind of leisure horse as it is in Britain or in Germany. "If you talk to people in the charity sector, all of them find it easier to place Irish horses on the continent than locally because we don't have as many people who want to take on a thoroughbred for leisure purposes," Osborne said.

“We also have a very extensive sport horse production and sometimes sport horses have attributes that are more sought after than thoroughbreds.

“Repurposing a thoroughbred is challenging. A 500 kilo thoroughbred takes a bit of minding and managing. The best of riders get run away with by some of them. It’s not for every rider to take on a thoroughbred. It’s not going to work for all,” he added.

A number of organisations are involved in re-training and re-homing ex-racehorses and Osborne pointed out that hundreds of animals do get successfully moved to other disciplines such as polo and eventing.

However the economics of keeping horses, as well as the resources required by such large numbers, are a challenge.

“I worked it out that you’d need something like 700,000 acres to farm the retired racehorses in Ireland,” Osborne commented.

He pointed to how last year British racing gave £1.4 million to organisations there that re-home ex-racehorses although it averaged out at paying for just over 200 horses in a racing pool of up to 12,000 animals.

"By their own admission the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) welfare report says it costs £27 a day for the livery costs of keeping a thoroughbred. There's no getting away from how it costs four five or six thousand a year to keep a horse in the style to which it was bred and accustomed," he said.

Osborne, who is also a member of the Irish Thoroughbred Welfare Council set up last year, outlined one financial step being examined by HRI that could be financed by the sector itself.

Horse purse

“We describe it as the horse-purse. Every (equine) passport has a sum of money attached to it. An approved charity partner can unlock this horse purse of several hundred so that no horse dies in poverty and can’t properly be dealt with at its end of life.

“So you don’t end up with the choice people seem to make between will I deal with the horses’ end of life issues at a cost to myself, or will I take the money from the processing industry instead.

“If we can create a system where each passport has a sum of money attached to it, that took that decision out of people’s minds, you might end up, particularly with charities, that they could unlock that money.

“Everybody would be happy that no horse was going to end up in a paupers grave situation.

“A certain amount of money per foal crop would achieve that objective. It’s substantial but not out of reach,” he said.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column