Welfare of horses a priority for Columbia woman


For the Republic-Times

Nancy McLean of Columbia works in equine science concerning standards of care for horses at home and abroad. 

Nancy McLean, who lives a peaceful existence on her Columbia-based farm, was initially skeptical that her work would make a good story. 

However, the researcher’s experience encompasses a complex world of sport and politics that are interconnected through the horses McLean feels so deeply for. 

As a child, McLean always wanted a horse. However, her parents realized the immense commitment having a horse would entail, and dissuaded the young girl since they could not adequately care for one. 

While McLean was never able to have a horse of her own, she kept dreaming of being able to work with the animals that had been the highlight of her childhood.

After working at the St. Louis Zoo for 20 years, McLean’s life was forever changed. 

“I kept running into people (who owned horses) and finally one said ‘hey, why don’t you come work for me?’ Oh, my god, it changed my life. Within three months, I was galloping race horses.” 

After retiring from the zoo, McLean received her Master’s in equine science from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where she continues to work with leaders in the field concerning standards of care for horses at home and abroad. 

As a United States resident, she provides unique context and information for various European organizations and has been a valuable asset to equine research as a whole. 

Her most recent contributions regarding the use of “bute,” otherwise known as the painkiller phenylbutazone, have led to widespread conversations within the horse racing community, as well involving politicians in the highest positions of government. 

McLean wanted to make a point that horses like to work.

“They (thoroughbreds) like to run, they have a great work ethic, they’re competitive,” she said. 

They enjoy being able to push themselves physically, and horse racing is one of the avenues in which horses can do so, while ensuring they are taken care of. However, there are instances in which standards of care are neglected in favor of increased performance on the track. 

Hence, where the use of bute is implemented. The drug is often given to horses on race day in order to mask the feeling of discomfort from soreness and other training-related pain, so they can run faster and harder. 

McLean stated that while there is a place for bute in training, “there are methods that reduce discomfort for the horse, but it’s to the point where horses aren’t listening to their own pain receptors, to not run as hard. That is the problem, it’s masking the pain.” 

When horses run too hard under the influence of bute, the likelihood for injury – worse yet, a breakdown – increases exponentially.

“There are a lot of breakdowns in horses that are given race-day medication,” McLean said. “You can’t keep masking a problem and continuing to race a horse, eventually something has to give.” 

And it does. In her expert-witness testimony for U.S. Congress, McLean cited research from Teresita Zambruno’s 2017 thesis which found that “59 percent (of horses on bute) are more likely to be fatally injured than horses not racing on bute,” as well as the U.S. having an “85 percent higher equine fatality rate, during racing, than the UK and a 49 percent higher equine death rate than Japan.”

The bill McLean provided research for is HR1754, more aptly known as the Horseracing Integrity Act. Both herself and supporters of the Water Hay Oats Alliance spent over a decade lobbying and advocating for anti-drug legislation that would ensure that practices like race day drug administration would be banned from horse racing. 

Under the Horseracing Integrity Act, a committee would be established for horse racing that would oversee standards of care, and would be likened to other sport associations such as the NFL.

Interestingly, the bill also enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Congressmen Paul Tonko (D-NY) and Andy Barr (R-KY), and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) joined together to ensure the bill’s passage. 

The bill was eventually signed in 2020, but was only able to do so by being “tacked on” to a COVID-19 relief bill. While it is technically law, it has come under fire by various parties who sued on the basis of the law being unconstitutional. 

One such party is the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a trade association made up of horse owners and trainers.

The association argues that there is a “better way” to ensure horse welfare, but supporters such as McLean refute that if there are such avenues, then they should be proposed – such alternatives have not. She urges plaintiffs of the lawsuits that “we can be proud of what we do, but we have to do it correctly.” 

“Most trainers love their horses,” McLean said. “No trainer wants to go through a breakdown, because it is just awful.” 

Despite the opposition the bill has faced, McLean remains convinced universal legislation protecting horses is necessary for their health and well-being. If the lawsuits are dismissed, the bill will officially go into effect in January 2022.

Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, issued a statement crediting passage of the bill.

“This passage signifies the beginning of a new era in the storied history of the horse racing industry,” he said. “The landmark legislation will establish a uniform approach to better protect horses and jockeys, and to bolster the strength and fairness of the sport.”

For McLean, her priority continues to be the health and welfare of the horses, with science being the cornerstone. 

“Not just one research paper should be listened to, but when you have a tier of evidence, that’s when it’s time to listen up,” she said. 

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