Ponies 'die in scientific research' for race horses

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The Independent Online

Racing Reporter

The horse racing industry regularly funds scientific research which results in the death and suffering of Welsh mountain ponies, animal rights protesters will allege in a report to be published next week.

Animal Aid, citing scientific reports in veterinary journals, will argue that live horses, usually ponies bred for research purposes, were used in experiments to develop vaccines against equine influenza and equine herpes virus. The ponies are also used to study the effects of exercise on surgically induced injuries.

Among the contributors who fund the experiments are Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the world's leading racehorse owner, and the Horserace Betting Levy Board, which administers the pounds 50m raised each year from tax on bets placed in betting shops.

Andrew Tyler, Animal Aid's director, has written to Sheikh Maktoum asking him if he is "fully aware that funds provided by yourself would be used to cause the unnecessary deaths of horses".

A statement issued yesterday by the Sheikh's Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket said: "Sheikh Mohammed has made donations to a number of research projects and is satisfied that their aim has been to improve the health and welfare of the entire equine species."

Sheikh Maktoum is an honorary vice-president of the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket where several of the studies were carried out. His financial assistance is acknowledged by the authors of a report into the progress of equine herpes virus-1 (EHV-1) in the respiratory tract of ponies.

Twelve ponies and two seven-month-old foals were infected with the virus and killed between 12 hours and 13 days later to recover tissue samples.

The Animal Health Trust denies it is responsible for "unnecessary" deaths, as Animal Aid claims. "Since 1994 we've had an ethics committee which includes a JP and a member of the RSPCA and any work we want to do will be put in front of them," Phil Spiby, the AHT's spokesman, said yesterday. "Wherever possible we will use alternative methods such as cell cultures, or look at the broader picture through epidemiology. At present, there are no terminal studies taking place."

Many of the experiments are designed to develop or refine vaccines for strains of EHV and equine flu, both potentially fatal diseases in horses. Equine flu regularly appears in new forms which render previous vaccines useless. As a result the development of vaccines, the use of which is mandatory in British racing stables, is an ongoing process. The final test for any new treatment is a "challenge" study, in which vaccinated horses are exposed to the virus in question.

While some of the experiments carried out on healthy horses for the benefit of the industry may be justified on medical grounds, studies into problems of purely economic concern are a particular embarrassment, not least because the Levy Board does not allocate any of its substantial budget for the welfare of retired racehorses.

Tendon injuries are a frequent source of expense and frustration throughout the industry, often ending a horse's career or forcing it to spend a year recovering. In a study at Bristol University, funded by the Levy Board, to investigate the effects of exercise on healing, injuries were surgically introduced into the limbs of healthy ponies, which were killed for tissue analysis 11 weeks later.

"Diseases like equine flu can be very serious in an unvaccinated population," Mr Spiby said. "Two years ago there was an outbreak in China which killed 50,000 horses. That could never happen in Britain because of the number of vaccinated horses."

Some trainers, however, dispute the the value of the vaccines. Josh Gifford, who trained Aldaniti, the 1981 Grand National winner, is a long-standing critic of the policy of mandatory vaccination.

"It's an absolute waste of time," he says. "The horses still have flu, but it crushes it and it sticks inside them. They look well but you've got to do blood tests and scope them to see if there's any muck down there."