Disease Du Jour: Regulatory Veterinary Medicine for Horses 

In this episode, Dr. Alina Vale discussed regulatory veterinary medicine and equine welfare assessments at racetracks and equestrian facilities.
Dr. Alina Vale, regulatory veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board
Dr. Alina Vale is an official veterinarian with the California Horse Racing Board. | Katie Jones

In this episode, Alina Vale, DVM, MS, joined us to discuss regulatory veterinary medicine and equine welfare assessments at racetracks and equestrian facilities. She talked about her background working as a regulatory veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board and explained the procedures in place at racetracks to improve safety and welfare for the horses. She also talked about her current work in establishing assessment protocols for other areas of the equine industry. 

What Is a Regulatory Veterinarian’s Role?  

Historically, the regulatory racetrack veterinarian’s job was to perform hands-on evaluations the morning of the race, monitor horses while racing, and complete post-race drug tests. In 2019, when public concern about fatalities at the Santa Anita Racetrack escalated, the regulatory veterinarian’s role expanded, especially in California.  

Vale was working as a monitoring veterinarian in California during the summer of 2019, when the state implemented increased safety measures to protect horses at the track. The California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) established an entry panel for racehorses, which comprised regulatory veterinarians and stewards who would scrutinize each horse’s medical, training, and racing records. Vale would watch horses’ morning training sessions leading up to race day, which provided additional opportunities to observe horses for potential red flags.  

The CHRB increased out-of-competition drug testing and the number of regulatory veterinarians observing horses during warmups and races. Regulatory veterinarians also gained the ability to require advanced diagnostic imaging if they have any concerns prior to allowing the horse to perform high-speed training or racing.  

Racehorse Fatality Review Program 

California has had a necropsy program in place for more than 30 years, but in recent years, the CHRB developed a formal fatality review program and made it a regulation. This has been Vale’s focus for several years.  

“I look at the horse’s medical records, training records, racing records, and of course that postmortem necropsy exam,” she said. “And then I meet with the trainer and speak with their attending veterinarian.” Vale tries to give the trainer a safe place to reflect on and potentially identify any red flags in the horse’s history. During the postmortem exam, she can sometimes find preexisting lesions or changes in the bone that indicate stress remodeling or stress fractures that weren’t obvious to the trainer and attending veterinarian.  

“We can learn, develop an understanding of these injuries, and hopefully work together to prevent future injuries,” she said.  

Additional Protocols to Protect Racehorses 

Alina Vale, the regulatory veterinarian, monitoring a racehorse during training
Regulatory and attending veterinarians evaluate racehorses on a regular basis and closely monitor their training sessions leading up to races. | Katie Jones

Vale said in addition to the regulatory veterinarian’s role changing since 2019, the attending veterinarian’s role has changed in many jurisdictions. “Whereas previously some racehorse trainers might have only used their private veterinarian to examine a horse that was having a problem, now the [attending] veterinarian is examining every horse on the track on a regular basis,” she said. “This time investment is significant but worthwhile as they can diagnose minor injuries before they become major injuries.” 

While there is an inherent risk in racing horses at speed, and catastrophic injuries and fatalities still occur, “we are trying to learn as much as we can from every tragic situation,” Vale said. 

National and International Protocol Standardization 

While California has implemented important safety regulations across the state, Vale said efforts are being made to standardize welfare across the country and even internationally. In 2020, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) was developed, implementing the first national, uniform set of integrity and safety rules for Thoroughbred racehorses and racetrack facilities.  

“To HISA, safety in racing means three things,” Vale said. “Are there any substances in a horse that shouldn’t be there? That’s the anti-doping and medication control program. Second, is the racetrack surface in optimal condition? And third, are the horses fit to run? That falls in the veterinary protocols and also data collection and analysis.” 

Vale said working with colleagues in other countries is also very important. She is part of an international subcommittee working to harmonize racehorse injury and fatality reporting. “Ideally, we’ll be able to compare injuries in different jurisdictions, find correlations that maybe point us toward associations that we can use to prevent certain types of injuries,” she said.  

Areas for Further Improvement 

One area in which Vale believes welfare can still be improved for racehorses is further limiting the use of whips. “I personally do not believe that the riding crop or whip should be used to encourage a fatigued horse to run faster, and that differs from many other opinions in the racing industry right now,” she said.  

Vale sees many horses with very subtle preexisting lesions that don’t always show up as obvious lameness. Sometimes, the only sign the horse shows is fatigue or decreased performance. “I think we should respect that and not push that individual horse past its limit,” she said.  

While HISA has strict regulations on how the whip can be used, Vale hopes they will be limited even further in the future.  

Equine Industry Assessment Protocols 

While regulations are very important for the equine industry, Vale recognizes that forcing a trainer, facility, or organization to make changes is very different from them wanting to make the changes.  

“So, I’ve been brainstorming the idea of a humane or welfare certification,” Vale said, comparing the idea to the “cage-free eggs” or “pasture-raised beef” labels you see at the grocery store. “Consumers have the opportunity to vote with their pocketbook to choose brands that resonate with their values. And I am a passionate proponent of the humane use of horses and would love to help like-minded individuals and groups spread their good work through an equine welfare assessment program.” 

Similar programs already exist, such as the Humane Hollywood program, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.  

“This isn’t a novel idea of having an equine welfare assessment program that trainers or facilities or organizations could opt into versus being forced to make these changes,” she said. “I’m excited to see where this endeavor leads.” 

Additional Resources 

CHRB  

HISA 

About Dr. Alina Vale 

Dr. Alina Vale
Dr. Alina Vale | Katie Jones

Alina Vale, DVM, MS, attended veterinary school at the University of California, Davis, and earned a master’s degree in veterinary forensic medicine from the University of Florida. As an official veterinarian with the California Horse Racing Board, she investigates equine fatalities and conducts postmortem examination reviews. A passionate proponent of the humane use of horses, Vale previously chaired the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Welfare & Public Policy Advisory Council as well as the Equine Abuse & Neglect Subcommittee. 

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