Veterinarian, Welfare Advocate Looks Back In New Memoir ‘My Friend, The Horse’

Equine welfare and the global monitoring of horse diseases are critical areas of concern in the horse world. But 35 years ago, when Irish veterinarian Dr. Alex Atock began his first job in regulatory veterinary medicine as a racing official, he would not have guessed that one day his lifelong affection for horses would impact how horse sports are conducted worldwide, and that his stalwart advocacy for their welfare would improve their treatment near and far.

As a pioneer of international equine health regulation and welfare for organizations such as the Federation Equestre Internationale, World Horse Welfare, the Irish Turf Club and the UAE Equestrian and Racing Federation, Alex Atock initiated programs and wrote policies still endorsed and followed by regulatory veterinarians and stewards around the world.

Atock’s role made him the top-ranking advocate for the horse on the global stage. His assignments from his employers and the racing or veterinary associations he served ranged from determining how disease outbreaks affect the movement of horses around the world, and how traveling horses may put others at risk, to affecting improvement of conditions for the sport of endurance in the United Arab Emirates, establishing the first horse inspections at international equestrian events, strategizing the welfare effects of summer heat at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and many welfare and safety aspects of sports conduct that are now taken for granted.

Now retired, Atock has put away his passport, and picked up a pen.

Atock’s professional memoir, ‘My Friend the Horse’, is published at a time when horse sports and racing are under both public and internal pressure to protect horses, while making sports more accessible or spectator-friendly. Many matters related to medication and welfare of horses remain to be resolved, and Atock’s insight into how some current issues began or were addressed in the past is important for the record of sport.

Equally compelling are his views and experiences in the monitoring and control of equine disease, which affects how, when and if racing and competition horses can move between countries and, eventually, be allowed to return back home.

This charmingly-offhanded account of equestrian sport history through the eyes of an advocacy-minded veterinarian probably understates the impact of decisions made and actions taken on his watch, such as the FEI’s inauguration of horse inspections at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, followed by inspections at the World Jumping Championship in Dublin in 1982. The resulting furor turned many against the FEI and Alex Atock. Fast forward to today, when mandatory horse inspections are popular with spectators, and are even spectacles of fashion on the eventing scene.

Two chapters discuss the medication testing processes in racing and equestrian sports and controversies that surround them. Of particular interest for Atock is the use of phenylbutazone (“bute”) and the evolution of regulating it both in Irish racing and in international equestrian sports.

Alex Atock assisted the FEI in facing problems like “rollkur” in dressage, cross-country jumping injury and death in eventing, and over-strenuous travel and competition schedules for show jumpers. His book voices his personal concerns about endurance in the Middle East, and lists some of the paradoxes facing the regulation of that sport.

In a day when so many have strong opinions on what constitutes equine welfare on the track or in sport, this book pulls back the curtain to reveal how, when, and why decisions were made in the past to ensure that the horse is protected.

“The regulators of the sport can never be complacent,” Atock wrote in 1994. “The root metaphor must be the symbiotic unity of man and horse, mutually interdependent, rising to heights which neither could achieve alone.”

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