Horse racing is a highly controversial topic in the equestrian and animal rights community. The industry’s debated practices have sparked protests worldwide, calling for fundamental changes to how racehorses are treated. In a world where the well-being of animals is increasingly important, the question arose, is horse racing cruel?
Horse racing is on the borderline between humane and cruel. While some racehorses are fortunate enough to live enjoyable lives, many endure unnecessary pain and suffering throughout their careers.
Most horse racing governing bodies and stakeholders argue that racehorses are treated fairly and live luxurious lives. On their website, British Horse Racing explains how trainers and jockeys can develop strong bonds with the animals through working with them.
In contrast, the general public, welfare organizations and scientists stand against most aspects of horse racing. One of the loudest opposing voices is the American nonprofit corporation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
In their fight against cruelty in horse racing, PETA emphasizes the high death toll of horses and how the animals are often forced to run even when they are physically or mentally unfit.
Do Racehorses Suffer?
Every day, there are articles and opinions published about the quality of life racehorses lead. Many professionals involved in their breeding and training, like Larry Smith, argue that the horses generally have good lives. Others say that racehorses are pushed to their limits, abused and exploited for profit every day.
While not all racehorses suffer, incidents of suffering are inevitable in the racing industry. Galloping at high speeds is an intense exercise that carries a high risk of injury, trauma and death.
Many equestrians and welfare activists oppose the common practice of riding racehorses at the age of one. This is to prepare horses for racing as two-year-olds the following year. In other equestrian sports and leisure riding, horses normally start ridden work at three to four.
Some professionals argue that Thoroughbred horses most popular for racing reach maturity at an earlier age. While this is true for the horse’s height, its skeleton won’t be fully mature until the horse is 6 to 9 years old, according to a study in the Practical Anatomy and Propaedeutic of the Horse.
Other practices that may cause suffering in racehorses include using a whip, housing horses in stables with limited turnout, and feeding them high amounts of concentrate feed. In their article about horse racing, World Animal Protection mentioned a study conducted in Victoria, Australia, that found a horse fatality rate of 1/1,000 horse starts.
The Dark Side Of Horse Racing
Behind the glory and high life we see on the surface, horse racing has a darker side that is little talked about in public. It’s important to raise awareness of welfare issues affecting the horses to initiate change in the near future.
Doping refers to the use of prohibited drugs to enhance the performance of horses during a race. It is unfair to other participants and poses significant risks to the horse’s health. Doping has been a long-standing issue in horse racing as some trainers still administer illegal drugs despite significant penalties.
Many drugs work by masking pain to keep the horse running, which removes the body’s natural protection against injury. Others can cause adverse side effects that may be life-threatening to the horse. While random testing is now routinely done at every race track, stricter regulations and penalties are needed to prevent the use of illegal drugs.
To complicate matters, many controversial medications are still legal in the racing industry. A prime example is furosemide (Lasix), which is given 4 hours before racing to prevent pulmonary bleeding. This artificially allows horses suffering from EIPH (Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage) to race, which is why it’s banned in most parts of the world.
Unnatural Living Conditions
At a high-end training facility, the life of racehorses may appear luxurious at first, but this is far from the truth. In the wild, horses roam wide-open spaces as part of a herd and graze 16 to 18 hours a day. In contrast, racehorses live in individual stalls with limited access to fields due to the possibility of injuring themselves.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but this is common practice throughout the racing industry. As a result of confinement, many horses develop so-called “stereotypical behaviors” such as crib-biting, weaving or stall walking. These are abnormal, repetitive behaviors that stem from stress and frustration and can damage the horse.
Due to their high energy requirements, racehorses are given large amounts of concentrate feed. As their natural diet consists of high fiber forage, consuming too much concentrate causes ulcers to develop in the stomach. Countless studies have found a prevalence of gastric ulcers as high as 90% in racehorses.
Racing of Immature Horses
As mentioned above, racehorses start training under saddle when they are only a year old. Sadly, yearlings are not mature enough to undertake such high-intensity work and many won’t make it to their first race.
According to the RSPCA, there is scientific evidence that flat racing greatly increases the risk of injury and lameness in young racehorses. A counterargument is that immature bones need conditioning to reduce the risk of injury later in the horse’s life, but this should only involve light work.
Horse racing is an extreme sport and fatal injuries are not unheard of. In 2018, The New York Times reported that approximately 10 racehorses died each week at US racetracks that year. While flat racing is dangerous enough, the death toll of jump racing is even higher.
Unfortunately, it’s common for horses to trip or fall during a race. At high speeds, a misstep can have catastrophic consequences for both horse and jockey. Injuries that cause distress and pain to the animal and have a slim recovery chance result in immediate euthanasia on site.
Racehorses may also collapse unexpectedly during a race due to heart failure or EIPH. Sadly, it’s difficult to tell how far you can push a horse before overexertion happens, and this is a risk every jockey must take.
The fate of ex-racehorses
As the RSPCA pointed out, to increase the chances of finding a winner, breeders must produce a high number of racehorses every year. However, only a portion of them will have racing careers, as youngsters who are too slow to race are eliminated as “wastage”.
According to Forbes, over 10,000 racehorses are shipped out of the United States and sold for meat each year. This devastating number includes yearlings, unsuccessful runners and even winners that don’t make it as a breeding animal.
This really shows what the racing industry thinks of the horses that bring in billions of dollars. Take the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, who even won the title of Horse of the Year in 1987. After failing to become a profitable stud, the horse likely ended up at a Japanese slaughterhouse, BloodHorse reports.
With that being said, some racehorses are lucky enough to find loving homes after their racing careers have finished. There are countless rehoming programs dedicated to taking in and retraining ex-racehorses so they can have a second chance in life. However, as these shelters rely on donations to save horses, they can’t give a happy ending to every racehorse.
Painful Racing Aids
The use of whips in horse racing is already highly controversial, but other racing aids can inflict pain on horses. Some trainers use tongue ties to prevent the horse from putting its tongue over the bit or choking on it during a race. These are usually nylon or elastic straps that tie the tongue to the lower jaw to keep it in place.
Using tongue ties is a common and unregulated practice to enhance the horse’s performance further. Those against it claim that it can cause pain and distress to horses and bruising, swelling, lacerations, and difficulty swallowing.
Spurs are also legal in horse racing, although jockeys rarely wear them as their heels hardly contact the horse’s side. One particular device that gave an electric shock to the horse has already been eliminated from horse racing. Despite it being a crime, some jockeys still use the “jigger” to jump the horse out of the starting gate.
Do Horses Like Racing?
Some practices in horse racing might be questionable, but do horses like the actual act of racing? Many trainers and jockeys claim that they do, given that it’s a natural activity and racehorses often continue running without a rider.
It is possible that some horses like racing and winning. Similar to people, horses have personalities and some will be more competitive than others.
British Horse Racing argues that if a horse doesn’t want to race, it won’t. There are instances where horses refuse to go into the starting gate or run with the others when the gate opens. However, it’s also true that sometimes several handlers are needed to get a horse into the starting gate, which suggests the animal is compelled to race against its will.
Do They Whip Horses In Racing?
Jockeys whip horses in racing to encourage better performance and increase the chances of winning. There are regulations on how many times a jockey can whip a horse during a race in many countries.
The usage of whips in horse racing is currently a hot topic, with many organizations pushing for their complete elimination from racing. The RSPCA argues that the effect of whips on the horses’ performance is minuscule next to the effects of genetics, training, and the jockey’s skill.
An Australian study conducted by Dr. Kirrilly Thompson and Paul McGreevy supports that statement. The study compares races with and without whips and found no difference in race times and rider safety.
Should horse racing put a permanent ban on the use of whips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
How Many Times Are Jockeys Allowed To Whip?
There is a limit to how many times jockeys are allowed to whip a horse during a race in Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, and Germany. In the United Kingdom, jockeys can whip a horse with hands off the reins 7 times in a flat race and 8 times in a jump race.
On the other hand, no limit exists on the number of strikes on the shoulder in horse racing. Most of the United States is yet to introduce a specific limit to the number of whips. However, if a jockey’s behavior appears abusive, the committee will review the race tape and issue a penalty.
6 Ways Horse Racing Could Improve
Horse racing doesn’t have to be a lost cause. There are several ways the industry can improve and make the sport acceptable to the general public.
1. Regulation by an independent body
As described by the RSPCA, horse racing has always made its own rules and defined what is acceptable and what isn’t. This can cause problems with monitoring and adequately enforcing rules. There is an urgent need for independent inspectors to detect when the horses’ welfare is being compromised.
2. Ban on the use of harmful devices and medication
Banning whips, spurs, tongue ties and other pain-inflicting equipment would go a long way towards improving the welfare of racehorses. Veterinarians also need to be on board with not prescribing pain-masking medication to horses.
3. Ban on two-year-old races
It’s needless to say that racing immature horses is unacceptable and should be eliminated from the racing industry. Allowing an extra year to mature would increase the working life of racehorses and significantly reduce suffering. Veterinary examinations should also become mandatory before a young horse’s training commences.
4. Legal welfare standards
According to the RSPCA, there are no legal welfare standards for horses in the racing industry. In contrast, other fields where horses are used such as farming and research have specific welfare regulations. The government needs to issue legal welfare standards for racehorses to put an end to harmful practices.
5. A clearly outlined path for retired racehorses
The dreadful fate that awaits most ex-racehorses is simply unacceptable. The racing industry needs to take responsibility and provide an alternative life for horses unfit for racing. The number of racehorses bred every year also needs to reduce to increase animal welfare in the industry.
The RSPCA has called for more overall transparency in the racing industry. Statistics of injuries, deaths and each racehorse’s life cycle need to be collected and made publicly available. This would spur the racing industry on to improve the welfare of its horses.
Advantages of Horse Racing
Despite its welfare issues and controversial practices, horse racing offers some key advantages to today’s society. We cannot ignore the major economic contributions of this sector since horse racing is at the center of a multi-billion dollar industry.
According to the American Horse Council Foundation, out of the four main equine industry sectors (racing, leisure, competition and working horses), horse racing had contributed the most to the economy in 2017. The industry also created 472,000 jobs that year in the United States alone.
Race tracks also bring tourism to otherwise little-known areas, benefiting small communities. While this is not always the case, some retired racehorses do go on to live comfortable lives as breeding, leisure, or sports horses.
Horse racing is far from perfect, but it’s an important part of tradition and modern society. Thanks to animal rights activists and welfare organizations, horse racing rules are constantly being challenged and improved. Hopefully, this will result in the life of racehorses changing for the better soon.
Also read: 10 Most Famous Horse Racing Tracks in the World.