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Help for horses

Tuesday, 6 November 2018   (0 Comments)
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VetScript Editor's pick: November 2018

Ten New Zealand-made, state-of-the-art equine ambulances are being rolled out around the country. Matt Philp reports.


It was a forlorn sight at Flemington, Australia, last November when New Zealand horse Gingernuts, the second favourite for that day’s $2 million Emirates Stakes, injured himself while cantering to the starting gate. Footage shows the chestnut Thoroughbred being led off the track, his left foreleg heavily bandaged, and into a horse ambulance, the floor of which is sitting at ground level.

It’s that last detail that impresses Peter Gillespie, a Dunedin-based equine veterinarian and Trustee of the New Zealand Horse Ambulance Trust (NZHAT). The trust was established in 2016 to fund, procure, operate and maintain a fleet of horse ambulances in New Zealand, the first of which was scheduled to be finished late last month.

Another four are under contract, and the goal is to have 10 stationed around the country.

Peter has pursued the vision of a dedicated horse ambulance fleet for the past eight years, dismayed by a situation at race meetings where the best an injured horse can hope for at New Zealand’s premier tracks is a rudimentary horse float. “The rules of racing dictate that an ambulance or appropriate vehicle be on site during a race meeting, but they don’t define what constitutes an ambulance in terms of capabilities,” he says.

In the case of unsurvivable injuries, horses tend to be euthanased on the track. “It’s a highly emotional event when you have to deal with a catastrophic injury during race-day. And if the horse has to be euthanased on the track, generally there are no appropriate means of removing the body, other than on tractor forks or a tray,” says Peter, who points out that typically this happens in front of a grandstand full of the general public, including young children.

New Zealand lags far behind other international racing jurisdictions on this, he adds. “These ambulances will make a big difference in those situations, and they will also give us a way to transport injured horses to a veterinary clinic or equine referral hospital for further assessment.”

It’s been quite a saga getting to this point. Initially, the executive committee of the NZVA’s special interest branch for equine veterinarians, the New Zealand Equine Veterinary Association (NZEVA), attempted to secure funding from the Department of Internal Affairs’ Racing Safety Development Fund for the project. The bid was knocked back because the association wasn’t an affiliated racing club, so didn’t qualify.

Peter then approached New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) and Harness Racing New Zealand. At the suggestion of Martin Burns, NZTR’s General Manager of Racing and Equine Welfare, the three organisations plus the Racing Integrity Unit established NZHAT.

The trust has since managed to raise $350,000 for the first tranche of ambulances, including more than $50,000 from the Racing Safety Development Fund (as a charitable trust, this time NZHAT satisfied the funding criteria). Other funding sources include Cambridge Equine Hospital, New Zealand Bloodstock, the New Zealand Racing Board’s Racing Welfare Fund, horse world figures such as Valachi Downs stud owner Kevin Hickman and veteran breeder Charlie Roberts, and the Rodmore and Salient Trusts from the Waikato region.

Retired equine veterinarian Bill Bishop, who also represents the NZEVA as a Trustee, and NZEVA member Paul Fraser have been instrumental in attracting private sector support, adds Peter.

The price of the ambulances has climbed since 2012, when the association was quoted $63,000 plus GST per ambulance; it’s now closer to $80,000. “But the specs have gone up significantly,” says Peter. “In the past year, I’ve visited Randwick and Flemington, two premier race-tracks in Australia, and the ambulances we’re getting are streets ahead of what is operational at those venues.”

The ambulances, which are essentially heavily modified horse floats, are being manufactured by Dunedin-based transport engineering specialists TL MacLean. Peter says he and Managing Director Barry Armour collaborated closely during the design and construction process.

“Barry came up with the basic engineering design, and Bill Bishop and I worked on the floorplan, how the horses would enter and exit the ambulance safely, and how they would be restrained during transit. We talked to veterinarians here and in Australia and got an understanding of what worked and what didn’t.”

Perhaps the two most important features of the ambulances are that they can be lowered to ground level while still attached to a tow vehicle, and the walk in-walk out configuration. As Peter points out, “a horse with a fractured leg finds it very difficult to walk up a slope or backwards”. Barry’s idea was to use a hydraulic system for the lowering and raising, rather than the air suspension commonly used in horse ambulances overseas. “It’s all done by a push of a button,” says Barry.

In terms of materials, the frame is steel, with aluminium composite panelling, padding over plywood on the walls, and a poured rubber floor that ensures a non-slip surface. Each ambulance will be equipped with a toboggan-like ‘recovery slide’ that can be connected to a winch for loading euthanased animals.

There are other innovations. The on-board crush, for example, can be assembled around an injured horse, then folded out of the way to allow the horse to be walked off safely. When the floor needs to be clear for the recovery slide, the crush is folded out of the way.

TL MacLean has also used a two-piece fibreglass roof, and incorporated retractable screens that pull out from the rear of the ambulance to shield procedures from the view of the public.

“We’ve basically redesigned the entire horse float,” says Barry.

Onboard each ambulance there will be Kimzey leg splints and other essential equipment, donated by the NZEVA.

Drugs and disposables will be supplied by the race-day or event veterinarian, and will not be stored in the ambulances. Signage noting this will be displayed on the doors. Lastly, each ambulance will be fitted with a camera connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone in the tow vehicle, allowing a horse to be monitored during transport.

How will they be operated, and by whom? Peter says the trust has written an operational manual, but ultimately it will be up to the New Zealand Racing Integrity Unit (an independent organisation that is tasked with managing integrity issues relating to Thoroughbred, harness and Greyhound racing) to organise how the ambulances get from meet to meet and who operates them on race-day.

It’s envisaged that there will be an ambulance response team of eight, with personnel drawn from the ‘crash crew’ at harness meets or the ‘starting crew’ at Thoroughbred meets.
The trust plans to run training days for team members when an ambulance is introduced to a region. Importantly, the veterinarian will be the one in charge on race-days, directing when a horse is ready to be loaded, and how it can be loaded.

“Everything hinges on the welfare of the horse in these situations,” Peter says.

As for location, six from the mooted 10-ambulance fleet will be deployed to Auckland, Waikato and Central Districts, and four to Canterbury, Otago and Southland. In each case, they will be based at a particular region’s major racecourse, but will be available for meets at other regional tracks. So far the trust hasn’t been able to convince Equestrian Sports New Zealand to appoint a trustee, but Peter hopes that will change.

“We see this as being so much more than a racing project. The trust’s goal is to have these ambulances available for use at all major equestrian events, hence the goal of a fleet of 10 deployed around the country. The only stipulation is that there be an officially appointed equine veterinarian present. That will ensure that injured horses are appropriately supported and, if necessary, sedated prior to transport.”

He concedes that the fleet could be stretched during the height of racing season.

“Thoroughbred race meetings will have priority over harness meetings if two regional meetings coincide. That’s because of the higher incidence of raceday injuries at Thoroughbred meetings.”

Whatever the case, it’s going to be a vast improvement on the current situation for everyone involved on racedays – especially the horses.

After years of working to realise the ambulance fleet vision, Peter is looking forward to seeing the first one unveiled later this month during Cup Week at Riccarton, with the second ambulance lined up for the Ellerslie meeting on Boxing Day. Is there anything planned to celebrate finally getting this project over the line? You bet. “We’re hoping that the Minister of Racing Winston Peters will crack a bottle of Champagne over the ‘bow’ at Cup Week.