Opinion: The Betting Industry and Animal Welfare

The proliferation of betting shops in our high streets and the associated issue of the amounts gambled on high stakes gaming machines have been the subject of intense political debate recently.

The welfare of animals in the betting industry, I am thinking in particular of racehorses, receives a lot less interest.

I have always been a very strong supporter of the rights of animals, but having developed a keen interest in horseracing a few years ago, I started to examine much more closely the treatment of the non-human participants in what is a multi-billion pound industry.

Horseracing is an international sport, with the top competitors going long distances to chase big prizes.

Two of the big welfare issues are the use of the whip and races that involve jumping over obstacles.

In the case of the former, there are restrictions placed on the amount of times a jockey can use the whip.

Any infringement results in a ban for the jockey, the length of which depends on the severity of the offence.

These rules were introduced with the involvement of the RSPCA.

There are a small number of races where the whip is not used, these are known as hands and heels races.

The question is should the use of the whip be banned entirely?

Having listened to the arguments for and against many times, I would say ‘yes’.

The only argument in favour of its continued use is that it can be crucial in getting that extra bit from the horse in a close finish.

If no jockey had a whip then they would all have to use a different method, i.e. hands and heels.

Turning to the issue of jumping, (a form of racing which is not practised worldwide, but is very popular in the UK and France), the welfare issues are much bigger.

Jump racing over fences does result in regular falls and when this leads to injuries such as broken legs the unfortunate horse is destroyed.

Estimates vary, but it is fairly safe to say that over 100 horses die in this manner in the UK each year.

Field sizes are a factor in this, particularly in ‘big’ races like the Grand National, where 40 horses race long distances over punishing obstacles, at speed.

I don’t bet on or watch races over fences, my personal stance on the issue, but I know my small protest will not affect the industry one iota.

So should it (jump racing) be banned?

The humanitarian position is clearly ‘yes’, but the political implications of arguing to ban a practice that is enjoyed by millions and generates a lot of money, are obvious.

Liberals are well known for tackling controversial issues head on. Those I have outlined here should be debated as part of a Lib Dem policy on animal welfare in sport.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • Jenny Barnes 26th May '15 - 10:25am

    Race horses are bred to have light, slender bones, which makes them more prone to breakage. Also makes them faster ofc. Just like professional racing cycles – good for one stage on the tour de france and that’s it.

  • Graham Neale 26th May '15 - 10:45am

    The industry is simply a mechanism for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich.

  • David, this is an excellent post. I think we share a common interest here, having contributed myself to a discussion on animal rights/ welfare with my first post on LDV:


    I echo all your thoughts here on work to improve the welfare of animals within entertainment/ sport. 100 horse casualties per year is completely unacceptable.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on ‘hands and heel’ races? Does this involve using spurs to dig into the horse’s ribs? And, if so, is it also a little abusive? A question as opposed to judgement as I really don’t know.

    I agree that liberals should be at the forefront of discussions on animal welfare. Surely our quest for equality and fairness for all should extend to those we share this earth with? You mention that criticism of horse racing practice might make for unpopular policy and I can see your concerns there. That said, I did read an article in the Independent this weekend about the increasing concern over animal rights throughout the UK, with a figure citing current RSPCA donations weighing in at 190 million annually. Plus, I think the last 5 years may have taught lib dems the importance of sticking to their principles in terms of retaining integrity.

    It brings up a wider issue for me, in the sense that while Lib Dems have a solid record to date on animal welfare achievements, there are currently no working groups within the party to forward the interests of such. It’s something I’ve contacted head office about to see how to move towards setting such up. I’m wondering if you would be interested in working together on such, see if we can make any headway on raising the flag? If so, hit my avatar for a link to my website where you can send me an e-mail via the contact form. Would be great to hear from you.

    Anyway, again, thanks for posting this. Great read!

  • Fiona Dawson 26th May '15 - 1:39pm

    Hi David

    Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more with this. The real issue in racing is not the use of the whip or racing over jumps. Horses are very competitive and love to race and yes, also to jump. I’m not suggesting horses should be whipped, however to a horse that’s not dissimilar to a bite from another horse; watch horses establishing a pecking order in the field and they frequently bite or kick each other. They have very thick skins.

    Racehorses are some of the best cared for animals you will find anywhere and there are far worse cruelties within equestrianism. Come to our local market and watch the poor neglected ponies shuffling round the auction ring waiting to be bought by the meat man and tell me that’s not worse than breaking a leg whilst at peak fitness doing what you love.

    The real thing we should be concerned about within racing is what happens to all the racehorses at the end of their (generally relatively short) careers who are unsuitable to rehome – and there are many. Many of them do go on to do other jobs – polo, eventing, hunting or just hacking. However many do not. Thoroughbreds make terrible pets and field companions and ending up in the wrong homes is pretty disastrous for them. There are some excellent charities who focus on rehoming racehorses but there are still plenty who end up suffering through neglect or being wrongly homed.

    This is where I would focus a welfare campaign.

  • Kelly-Marie Blundell 27th May '15 - 6:15am

    To add to the lists of cruelty in horse racing…
    A horse’s skeleton isn’t fully formed until they are three years old. Yet race horses start at 1 year (why they’re called ‘fillies’ and ‘colts’). This makes them even more prone to skeletal damage including breakages.

    When I was 16 I put a bet on Grand National. The horse I bet on died. Now every year I make a donation to League Against Cruel Sports. Racing animals, devestating to their welfare, for the benefit of human entertainment is cruel and wrong.

  • David Warren 27th May '15 - 10:41am

    Thanks for all the comments guys.

    I tried to focus on what I believe are two of the major welfare issues in horseracing, the debate has raised others which is welcome.

    Do I think the proposal I make would be unpopular with the public Yes and No.

    Banning the use of the whip would meet with some opposition from within the industry but in my view the wider population would barely notice the change.

    Banning racing over jumps is much more controversial, given the publicity given to races like the Grand National.

    As liberals do I think we should pursue these changes as part of our policy YES I do.

  • I think campaigning to ban a popular pursuit is a waste of time, as we know anything banned is driven underground and so unregulated. However, getting rid of the whip is completely plausible, as you say the wider public would barely notice the change and probably be quite supportive.

    I believe the trick with animal welfare is small incremental steps. I’d like everyone to see it from my view today, but that’s not the nature of successful social change, so I’d rather have a dozen small steps than a big, controversial policy.

  • Fiona Dawson 30th May '15 - 1:54pm

    If you genuinely want to make a difference to equine welfare (which I would wholly support) you would be better off getting behind some of the campaigns of the British Horse Society, who campaign for all horses across all disciplines in the UK, not just racing.

    For example their ‘Think Before You Breed’ campaign aims to stop overproduction of poor quality horses http://www.bhs.org.uk/welfare-and-care/our-campaigns/think-before-you-breed. It’s the lower end of the market who genuinely suffer – the indiscriminately bred ponies, not high value extremely well cared for racehorses.

    Or you could get behind World Horse Welfare who are campaigning to stop the illegal live export of horses http://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/live-export-FAQs. Live export of horses is truly terrible and they suffer dreadfully.

    In the wider context of all the branches of equestrianism in the UK I really do think that a racehorse getting a slap down the neck with a soft whip is the least of any horses’s worries.

    Have any of you actually seen a racing whip? Over half the whip is foam-filled and soft https://www.gibsonsaddlers.com/product/whip-national-hunt-standard-3551wp/. They’re really not a major cause for concern in my opinion.

    I think it’s easy to target racing because it’s in the public eye, but it’s incredibly highly regulated and as I have said before of all the horses in the country high value racehorses in training are some of the ones I would worry least about.

    I do appreciate that everyone’s intentions are genuine and come from a place of wanting to improve the lot of horses which is great. As someone who spends a lot of time with horses and is professionally qualified in this area it’s a subject dear to my heart. However I do think these type of campaigns are misplaced. If we spent this amount of time worrying about child poverty or homelessness I’d be a lot more on board.

  • @Fiona Dawson
    We already do spend a lot longer worrying about child poverty or homelessness, take a look around the site further, both of these topics are being actively discussed to a greater degree than this one. Does this mean you’re a lot more on board? 🙂

  • Fiona Dawson 30th May '15 - 4:38pm


    Not really…. but thanks. I will investigate further. I’m still new to all this – one of the 14,000!

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