Protecting racehorses, and planning for their second careers

By: Tom LaMarra

Posted: Feb. 9, 2018

Dr. Patty Hogan covered a lot of ground during a presentation at Laurel Park Feb. 6, but it all came back to one primary point for horsemen: Know when it’s time to retire a racehorse so it can move on to a second career.

Hogan, who operates Hogan Equine at Fair Winds Farm in central New Jersey, was invited to speak to Maryland horsemen by Beyond The Wire, an aftercare program launched in May 2017 by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and owners of racehorses, Maryland Jockey Club, Maryland Horse Breeders Association, and jockeys. One of the goals of Beyond The Wire is to educate owners and trainers on matters relevant to aftercare.

Hogan, who works with Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds and other breeds, said she has been involved in aftercare for about 20 years, and her passion for assisting retired racehorses remains strong. She also acknowledged that, like the typical horseman, she’s a business owner who understands the financial challenges of keeping horses in training. Thus, she discussed preventative measures that can protect racehorses.

Hogan set the stage by noting how society’s views on horses have changed, and she said the racing industry must be aware of it, especially in an environment of intense social media attention.

“People don’t realize how highly cared for these animals are,” Hogan said. “But today many view horses as companions or pets, so we have to know what people are thinking outside of (the racing industry). There is a new demographic—people believe welfare issues are critical. And the racing fan cares about these horses.”

Hogan used the Greyhound racing industry as an example. Dog racing was proactive in implementing and advertising adoption programs for retired racers, but intense pressure from animal rights’ groups still led to many states banning the sport.

“It really would behoove us to learn from other industries,” she said. “Any sport that uses animals is going to be highly criticized. We need to know who our adversaries are. If we don’t change the model it’s going to be changed by others.”

Hogan urged attendees to avoid what she called “One Last Race Syndrome”—continuing to race horses with chronic physical issues. In regard to why horses suffer serious leg injuries in races, she said what people may hear on the track—the horse stepped in a hole, took a bad step, was over-medicated, or the surface was in poor condition—could be factors but are incorrect.

“Unequivocally, horses break legs because of stress fractures,” she said.

Conformation, training regimens and the pressures of year-round racing can all take their toll on a racehorse, Hogan said. She also cited subchondral bone disease, which is a progression of “bone bruising,” as a factor.

Hogan said it’s very important for trainers to work closely with veterinarians and make sure that when X-rays are taken, they are comprehensive so a potential problem isn’t missed. “Vets need to take all views of a bone to give the proper diagnosis,” she said.

Hogan also said removing bone chips from joints diminishes arthritis, so “removal of simple chips can prolong both the life of that joint and the career of a horse. Lower-joint problems to me are the most frustrating for trainers because they need more of a ‘stop’ than upper-joint issues.”

Use of diagnostic tools such as radiographs, bone scans, MRIs and robotic imaging should be part of the process, Hogan said.

“The most important person to help with this problem is you,” she said. “You and your vet are the primary people to figure this out. By addressing physical issues, horses’ careers can be prolonged, breakdown rates can decline, and horses can have an increased chance of second careers.

“You don’t have to give these horses away; people will buy these horses (for second careers). It’s very important to make timely decisions (about when to retire a horse), because there are owners for these horses that will allow them to move on. Use the resources available to protect your horse and to protect yourself.”

More information on Beyond The Wire is available here.

(Photo of Dr. Patty Hogan at Laurel Park by Jessica Hammond)