The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has received funding to study the impact of early-life health and management on later-life health, performance and economics of Thoroughbred breeding. This will be the first time in a UK field setting that either the effects of early-life exposures on later-life milestones and race performance or the economics of breeding practices will be comprehensively evaluated in Thoroughbreds, helping improve athletic performance and strengthen stud farm sustainability.
While existing figures suggest there has been little change in the number of horses entering training, appearing on a racetrack or winning prize money over the last twenty years, there is limited UK evidence to explain why some horses fail to achieve these milestones or where they go when they leave the industry. It is timely to address these knowledge gaps, particularly around the costs of disease and injury, given the current economic climate in which an increasing number of Thoroughbred breeders are unprofitable.
With childhood experiences proven to alter a person’s susceptibility to disease and injury in later-life, the RVC research team, led by post-doctoral research fellow and veterinary surgeon, Rebecca Mouncey, and funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Racing Foundation, will explore whether this is mirrored in Thoroughbreds.
The team plans to further utilise and expand an ongoing Thoroughbred birth cohort study by collecting sales, training and racing data and evaluating financial information. To date, the study has demonstrated that musculoskeletal disease and injury, particularly developmental orthopaedic disease, are the most common health conditions in young Thoroughbreds and that stud farm management practices affect rates of musculoskeletal disease and injury.
The team believe that early-life experiences can alter the development of bones, joints and tendons, influencing susceptibility to injury and disease. The team now aim to discover whether these experiences can also impact future athletic ability, racing performance and profitability of Thoroughbreds.
Conducting the research, the team will analyse information from a group of young Thoroughbreds, born in 2019 and 2020. These equines have been followed since birth as part of the ongoing study set up during Rebecca’s PhD, which recorded their breeding and veterinary history, the turn-out and exercise they received, any episodes of illness or injury and routine procedures such as farriery. Using these exposures, alongside financial data and evaluating sales, training and racing outcomes, the team will use statistical and economic modelling to:
- Describe the proportions of horses that enter training and race, including reasons and destinations of any that do not
- Evaluate the effects of early-life health and exercise on horses’ training and racing performance
- Calculate costs of production and evaluate stud farm profitability
- Assess the financial impact of early-life disease and injury
This study will build on the solid foundation of RVC research from the Thoroughbred birth cohort, providing a unique and invaluable opportunity to increase our understanding of the longer-term consequences of early-life exposures.
Findings will provide a new understanding of the financial viability of current practices which will help inform farm-level management and economic decision making to help ensure the sustainability of stud farms, retain Thoroughbreds in the industry and maximise equines’ athletic potential. The findings will also contribute to current industry priorities and associated ‘data gaps’ and inform strategies aimed to promote performance and sustainability.
Rebecca Mouncey, veterinary surgeon and post-doctoral researcher at the RVC, said: “I am delighted to have been awarded this fellowship, which will allow us to continue and expand the birth cohort study launched during my PhD. Musculoskeletal disease and injury remain the greatest barrier to Thoroughbreds being retained within the industry and realising their maximum athletic potential and is likely to have important economic consequences, particularly in the current financial climate. Our study will provide vital and directly applicable information at both horse- and farm-level, evaluating the influence of early-life management and health on production costs, profitability and racing performance in Thoroughbreds.
“Findings will enable optimisation of stud farm practices with the aim of modulating foals’ development towards greater resistance to musculoskeletal injury and disease and provide novel economic decision-making tools to formulate cost-effective strategies that improve Thoroughbred health, welfare and financial sustainability. Importantly, the work also aligns with several key priorities outlined in the Horse Welfare Board’s strategy for the welfare of horses bred for racing.”