Discussions about climate change have been rife around the world in recent years. That’s with good cause, too. One study from 2017 predicts that after 2030, every other year will produce record-hot summers. That could definitely become normal in countries like Canada and the USA, not to mention all Asia.
It is these rising temperatures that climate change activists want governments to tackle. Some companies around the world are already trying for it and they are attempting to cut their carbon emissions and make their processes greener. Others seem reticent to make any changes.
What do rising temperatures mean for the horse racing industry, though? Will there come a point when the summer months become too hot for races to occur? Heat affects not only the horses involved but the ground they’re running on. These could both be contributing factors to more and more races suffering cancellations.
Is it likely that events won’t take place in summer in the future? Plus, how do countries like those in the Middle East cope with this at the moment? After all, locations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have very hot summers already. We’re going to be looking at all these questions and more today.
Heatwaves and Heavy Rains Lead to Cancellations
It’s no secret that the horse racing industry must mitigate the risk of climate change. That has to take place across the sector, according to a report by the racing industry. This would see a review of infrastructure at racecourses in preparation for extreme weather events. Worcester Racecourse has suffered flooding from storms several times since 2007. Yet those floods are often preceded by very hot summers. This dries out the ground, meaning that less water gets soaked up during heavy downpours.
This type of activity can have a significant impact on the races themselves, as well as the horses. Heat stroke and heat stress are both common problems faced by horses. That is especially true when they have to race in overwhelming summer conditions. Moderate rainfall is ideal, meaning that the ground is soft enough to run on, yet not overly so.
Trainers should already track horses for overheating and dehydration during summer. It’s a crucial part of their job. One equine specialist says that anything over 32 degrees Celsius can be dangerous for a horse. That is even truer if there is high relative humidity in the air, too. Yet in 2022, temperatures rose above 40C in the UK for the first time on record. The day that happened saw 638 more deaths than normal, according to official figures. If that’s enough to knock a human being out, then horses aren’t safe either.
Horses, like any living creature, get hotter when they run. Running under hot summer temperatures is very likely to be fatal. In July, 2022, horse racing chiefs had to keep a close eye on the UK’s heatwave. Predictions suggested temperatures would reach 35C in Windsor. A racing fixture was due to take place only a couple of days later. Indeed, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) took steps to cancel that event, as well as four more. Fixtures at Beverley and Windsor ended up cancelled to begin with. Cancellations at Chelmsford, Southwell and Wolverhampton followed.
Many labelled the move by the BHA as unprecedented. Some said that it wasn’t a necessary move, noting horses as being quite resilient to heat. That much is provable by the fact that horses already race in much hotter climates than the UK’s. Locations like Hong Kong and the Middle East hold their own racing events in such. How is this possible, though?
Horses Very Much Able to Acclimatise…or Are They?
Research conducted in the past has led to the idea that horses are able to acclimatise to hotter temperatures. That research occurred before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Eventers in the Games had to go through a steeplechase phase at that time. The primary aim of the research was to identify strategies for ensuring horse welfare.
Information suggests that if you send a horse to compete in a hot climate, it should go a couple of weeks early. Doing so gives it a chance to become accustomed to the heat of that country. Humans are much the same. If you go on holiday to a hot country, you may take a day or two, or even more, to become acclimatised. Horses, like us, are more likely to suffer at the hands of a one-off hot day following a cool period.
You can look back to Cheltenham races in April of 2018 as an example. After a cool spring period, one of the hottest days in years for April at 25C occurred. Several horses at the event showed signs of heat stress in the afternoon. This led to the abandonment of a long-distance chase.
“Horses are well-adapted to lose the body heat they generate,” said Sally Taylor. The BHA veterinary officer at the time noted that it can be “supplemented with cold water”. That’s why you often see horses having buckets of water thrown over them following a race.
Yet the RSPCA Australia has its own stance on horses racing in very hot weather. It says that it places them at significant risk of dehydration and heat stress. Australia has very intense summers. Yet there are no rules in place banning horse racing in the country above a specific temperature.
Reverting back to the abandoned race at Cheltenham in 2018, a horse died from heat stress. After crossing the line in an opening race, Dame Rose collapsed and died. Runners Banjo Girl and Angels Antics also suffered from post-race heat stress. Tara Mist also appeared to experience heat stress in the following race. It was only after this that the event organisers cancelled remaining races.
During a race, horses exert a considerable amount of energy. This increases their body temperature due to that heat generated via working muscles. That then leads to fatigue in the runners. If the air temperature is high, the risk of heat stress increases as well. Horses can also suffer colic and kidney failure as a result. On very hot days, most animals will suffer adverse effects in one way or another. Dog owners are always informed not to take their pets out for walks during hot parts of the day. Why would a horse be any different in this respect?
What About the UAE and Other Hot Countries?
It would be sensible to wonder what happens in locations like the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What do all the horses do in the country’s overwhelming heat. There, it often reaches a sweltering 50C. It is, of course, noted that races don’t tend to occur during these baking hot days.
The UAE has one of the shortest racing seasons in the world. In fact, it only lasts five months, running from the end of October to the end of March. Outside of that season, many horses travel to Europe and elsewhere. Climates tend to be cooler, in general, outside of the Middle East for the horses.
This is not the case for all the horses, though. Many of them remain in the UAE and persevere through the increased heat. The country tackles this with air-conditioned stables, though. As a result, the horses often emerge from the summer with more of a winter coat. Some of the trainers based in the UAE also have paddocks and swimming pools for the horses. Yet the idea on the off-season is to give the horses a complete break. Other than general exercise for an hour or so each day, most horses steer clear of the hot weather.
Heat and humidity were both concerns for horses in the lead up to the Olympics in 2008. The Games that year actually took place in Beijing. Yet the capital of China was unable to guarantee a disease-free zone for horses on the mainland. Thus, the former British colony stepped up to the plate for the event.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong brought high humidity and overwhelming heat. Races and equestrian events never took place in August for those reasons. Yet the Olympics were already pencilled in for that month. New facilities had to be set up, such as mobile horse-cooling units. Air-conditioned stables were also erected. Only the Swiss dressage team pulled out of the Olympics, citing the heat and humidity as their reason.
The Games in Athens in 2004, Atlanta in 1996 and Barcelona in 1992 had the same issues. All were very hot on occasion. Thus, Hong Kong chose to hold their equestrian events early in the morning or evening. This helped to reduce stress levels for the horses.
The Hot Summers Affecting Colder Climates
The heat isn’t only affecting races and horses during summer, either. The White Turf race in St Moritz is also at risk from global heating. In February of 2022, The Guardian reported on the exclusive event and its trials.
St Moritz is a location for the rich and famous to descend upon. One of the reasons they do is for a horse race with a difference – it takes place on ice! Yet there could even be an issue for this race soon. The White Turf race is under threat thanks to the frozen lake it takes place on melting. St. Moritz began its life as a ski resort, crafted by Britons. It is a popular place for extreme snow sports and has been for several years. The White Turf event has been running for 114 years as of 2022. Spectators, musicians, caterers, horses and more gather at the event.
In February of 2022, 7,000 people attended the event. Yet organisers had a moment of horror as water managed to push up under the ice. That put the races in jeopardy straight away. The melting lake due to climate change has meant the limitation of attractions over a certain weight.
The year before, the ice under the VIP tent began to crack, leaving organisers horrified again. This led to the tent being disassembled and moved to thicker ice. The race in 2022 was also shortened because of the thinness of the ice in certain parts of the lake. Visitors have started joking that the White Turf event will one day become a swimming race. It’s very much a possibility as well, considering that the winters are getting warmer.
What This Means for Horse Racing
Because countries like Hong Kong and the UAE do have off-seasons, it may become the norm elsewhere. If the heat continues to rise during summer in the UK, then horse racing may not occur in those months. That could be the best decision made by the BHA. It works in other hot countries, so why would it not in the UK as well?
It is key to note that a lot of money for horse racing comes from sports betting. At the same time, a lot of those funds go to the government in taxes. Reducing the number of races taking place throughout the year would have an impact. The government doesn’t like losing out on money if it doesn’t have to. Thus, it may be the case that there are certain efforts made to restructure.
Whatever the case may be, climate change is having an effect on the industry. Racecourses cannot continue operating with arid ground or flooded tracks. Horses can’t compete in overwhelming heat either, despite how well they may be able to adapt. It could come to a time where summer is very much too hot for horse races to take place.