The Role Of The Nha Vets In Ensuring The Welfare Of The Horse On Racedays

The NHA regards the welfare of racehorses as a key aspect of its regulatory function and since 1987 it has employed full-time Veterinary Surgeons. On racedays they are complemented by other veterinarians who are in private practice but who are specifically licenced by The NHA for this purpose.

In South Africa, most racehorses are trained in large training facilities, which are located some distance away from our racecourses. It is at these and other training establishments where the process of ensuring the welfare of the horse on racedays starts.

The NHA’s Veterinary Surgeons are also licenced as Stipendiary Stewards  –  which gives them additional powers, such as the right to visit, search and inspect any place where the training, racing or breeding of horses takes place.

Thus, our Veterinary Surgeons regularly visit training establishments, watch horses being trained, check stables, monitor the availability and quality of feed, look at veterinary treatment registers and also inspect individual horses. Finally, they talk to trainers and their employees about their horses. In this way they build up part of the knowledge they require for ensuring the welfare of horses on racedays.

The NHA’s data base is, however, equally as important as these visits. We maintain a comprehensive record of every race run under our Rules, which include the reports drawn up after every race by the Stipendiary Stewards and the Veterinary Surgeons. So, before a race is run, a printout is available on each horse - including its veterinary record. The Veterinary Surgeons are thus primed as to what they need to look for. Our data base has other uses - such as compiling data on veterinary problems and on serious and catastrophic breakdowns on each racecourse. This assists The NHA in ensuring that Southern African racetracks are safe and as user friendly as possible for our racehorses.

Our Rules, however, go further in that Owners, Trainers and Riders are required to report to the Stipendiary Stewards and the Veterinary Surgeons on anything that may affect or have affected a horse during a race, or have any bearing on the past or future running of a horse.

The onus is thus placed on these people to report problems to our Veterinary Surgeons.

On a raceday, our Veterinary Surgeons aim at a comprehensive level of cover, a high standard of veterinary support and rapid response (ideally within 30 seconds) to any problem or incident. In our experience, we can achieve these objectives in the most cost effective way on a raceday with a team of two Veterinary Surgeons.

Broadly speaking, we try to ensure that, from the time the horses are being saddled in the saddling enclosure until they are back in the enclosure and unsaddled, they are being watched by at least one member of the veterinary team.

Having prepared themselves, the veterinary surgeons know which horses they wish to inspect before the race. They may decide to inspect other horses if they receive a report from a trainer or a jockey or see something which indicates that this is necessary.

After watching and inspecting the horses in the saddling enclosure and seeing them come into the parade ring, the team splits up. One member will remain in the parade ring while his colleague moves to his car on the inside of the track. He will normally wait in front of the grandstand to watch the horses come out onto the track and, as required by our Rules, canter past the stand. Then, he will drive to the start to monitor the horses when they arrive, at which time the Jockeys will report to him on anything untoward which they may have noticed about the horse while riding to the start.

At any time up until the start, a horse may be withdrawn from a race by a Veterinary Surgeon. This may, for example, be necessary if a horse displays a veterinary problem or lameness en route to the start or if a horse injures itself in the starting stalls.

While the field moves to the start, the first member of the veterinary team will have gone to the finish line area to enable him to watch the race and be readily available to assist his colleague in the event of an emergency. As the race starts, the Veterinary Surgeon at the start gets in his car, accompanied by two handlers, and follows the field to the finish.

The Veterinary Surgeons then move to the winning boxes and the saddling area where they receive reports from the Jockeys and can inspect the horses. The Stipendiary Stewards, who will have carefully watched the race, will also advise them by radio of anything they saw which needs following up by the veterinary team. This would include any misuse of the whip.

If the veterinary surgeons detect that any horse has a veterinary problem they have the authority to suspend it. Because they can dictate the terms and conditions of the suspension, our Veterinary Surgeons can, in practice, specify what treatment they want the horse to undergo and may, in the event of a disagreement, require it to be assessed by a Veterinary Surgeon of their choice. This could, for example, include an evaluation by the Equine Research Centre of the Faculty of Veterinary Science of the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort or perhaps even more extensive treatment at a veterinary hospital or the hospital at the Faculty. Certainly, before a suspension is lifted, the Veterinary Surgeon will want to be confident that the horse can safely return to racing.

The Veterinary Surgeons can also decide whether they want a specimen to be taken from a horse because, like other members of the International Federation, The NHA is a signatory to Article Six and takes at least one specimen in every race. They also carry out “Out of Competition” testing, where specimens are collected from horses at any time other than on a raceday.

While our focus is on being proactive and preventing problems, our Veterinary Surgeons are geared to react quickly to any incident. If a horse is injured during the race or breaks down, the Veterinary Surgeon and the handlers following the race by car can react immediately. Each vehicle contains full medical and emergency kits. Our Veterinary Surgeons carry 9mm pistols so that, if it is necessary to euthanase a horse, they can do so quickly and humanely. Specimens are taken in all such cases and post mortems will be conducted where appropriate. Each racetrack is equipped with at least two locally designed horse ambulances which, although relatively simple, have proved to be very effective. If needed, a Veterinary Surgeon can, using his hand held radio, call for the ambulances or whatever other assistance he requires.

The Veterinary Surgeons are also able to suspend a horse when it shows repeated signs of post race lameness, epistaxis (i.e. bleeding), any combination of symptoms such as possible heart or respiratory problems and so on. In almost all such cases the Veterinary Surgeon will specify the conditions for allowing the horse back onto the track. Where those conditions include a gallop in front of a Veterinary Surgeon, a specimen will be taken to ensure that the horse was not on medication at the time of the gallop.

In short, our Veterinary Surgeons seek to prevent problems by being proactive rather than reactive, to only permit fit horses to race, to respond rapidly and effectively when needed and to identify and attend to all veterinary problems displayed by horses during race meetings. Put another way, the outcome we seek is to maintain the lowest possible injury and breakdown incidence and the highest possible welfare level. Not surprisingly, our approach is consistent with the Welfare Guidelines drawn up by the International Group of Specialist Racing Veterinarians. To anyone who would question whether all this is necessary the answer would be that we do this because we want to protect the horses that make this wonderful sport possible.