The Sport of Kings: Horse Racing has to Shape up or Ship Out
Thousands of horses are dying each year on the track and off it, we need to start a conversation about why.
Last week, Kings Temptation — a nine-year-old racehorse ridden by Bryan Carver — became the first fatality at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The death was tragic and avoidable, but unfortunately not unusual. According to the British Horseracing Authority, around 200 horses are fatally injured on British tracks each year, and at least 100 more are slaughtered.
The situation is even worse across the pond, with over 900 thoroughbred racehorses euthanised at U.S. racetracks in 2020. When these statistics are added to the hundreds more horses that die in their stalls from causes such as colic, laminitis, or simply “unknown”; the high-profile doping scandals and exposés into animal cruelty allegations including the recent George Elliot scandal, it is clear that animal welfare issues need to be in the spotlight.
It might be known as the “sport of kings”, surrounded by glamour, wealth and thrilling competition. But broken backs, necks and legs; snapped ligaments, pulmonary haemorrhages, and cardiovascular collapse are commonplace in the racing industries worldwide. And for those horses who make it through to retirement, very few spend their final days grazing in pastures. For the thousands of British horses that are too old, too slow, or even have the wrong temperament, their end is brutal: a bullet through the temple or a metal bolt into the brain. Then, they’re ground into pet food or loaded into freezer lorries to be sold as gourmet meat in France.
The British horseracing industry is worth an estimated £4bn per year, and there are currently 14,000 horses training in the U.K. That’s a lot of horses for those coveted spots on the racecourse. And while it’s unpleasant to consider the facts, they shoudn’t be glossed over. The controversies can be surmised into four groups: drug use and doping, whips, injuries, and welfare outside of the track. Let’s take a look.
Drug Use and Doping
Animal welfare advocates have accused trainers of making an already dangerous sport worse by using performance-enhancing substances and painkillers to enable horses to run faster and power through any pain they might be in. Once such drug is Furosemide, popularly known as Lasix. It is usually prescribed to treat bleeding in the lungs, however it also causes urination and therefore, weight loss. Lighter horses run faster, and Lasix has been demonstrated to make horses run three to five lengths faster. In short, it is a performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a medication.
Most animal activists are calling for such drugs to be banned, but others in the industry believe that better self-regulation is key. Having an independent, self-regulatory body as we have in many other professional sports could be the key to combat drug abuse. An outright ban could result in horses being denied life-saving treatment just so that they can continue racing, and therefore having a list of which substances are and are not permitted, or a ban of specific medications within a certain time frame before racing could solve these problems.
The use of whips is one of the most visibly contentious welfare issues in the horseracing world. In one camp are those who believe that the device is a necessary safety measure for controlling the horse. And in the other, that it simply hurts the horse in the name of entertainment and gambling, without any meaningful gains.
Britain is considered to be one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to whip regulation in racing. Since at least the 2011 whip use review, it became mandatory for whips used in British racing to be foam-padded and energy-absorbing, with evidence indicating that these do not inflict pain or injury.
The rules also mean that the whips can only be used seven times in a flat race or eight in a jump race before the ride is reviewed, and strict penalties are in place as a deterrent against misuse, with jockeys risking penalties ranging from fines to suspensions.
Despite this, whip welts — the consequence of damage caused to body tissues when struck by an object travelling at high speed — are still found on horses, including the 2019 Melbourne Cup winner. The jockey was determined to have not breached any whip rules, but a veterinary pathologist reviewed the raised marks and concluded that they were most likely caused by trauma.
But, if the whips are safe, how did this happen? In 2012, the University of Sydney released a study that discovered that the padded whip’s unpadded section made contact with the horse on 64% of impacts, demonstrating that these measures do not necessarily safeguard a horse from pain. Whip welts are not life-threatening. But while whipping a horse seven times in the last 100 metres of a race is okay, if you did the same on a bridal path, you’d be facing an animal cruelty charge.
Horse racing, like all sports, has risks. But unlike humans, horses cannot consent to the damage done to their bodies, mental health and quality of life. One of the most common illnesses in athletic horses are gastric ulcers due to their diet, exercise, housing and unnecessary stress. Then, there are exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhages (EIPH) which can occur during strenuous exercises such as racing. When horses gallop, they have a high cardiac output, creating high pressure in the capillaries, causing them to rupture and release blood into the lungs.
Another common racing (and training) injury to horses are muscle tears, which occur especially in their hind limbs, and bone injuries such as fractures and breaks, with often result in immediate euthanasia.
Horses’ lower limbs have very little soft tissue protecting the bone. So often, when a fracture occurs, the bone penetrates the skin. Living tissue, like skin, needs blood and so an open fracture can result in loss of blood supply to the rest of the horse’s leg. Even if there was a remote possibility that the bone might heal, it is generally not a good idea to wait and see, due to the potential to develop laminitis.
Laminitis (also known as founder) is a common inflammation of the laminae in a horse’s foot. These are soft tissue structures that attach the pedal bone to the hoof wall, and damaging them results in extreme pain and leads to instability in the hoof. One way of solving it is amputation, but a horse cannot survive on its own without all four legs, so euthanasia is considered the most humane option once the injury is sustained.
Welfare Outside of the Track
Hundreds of thousands of British jobs are tied to thoroughbred horse racing. Successful horses are exceptionally well cared for — physically — with millions spent on their health and welfare. However, a racehorse’s diet is different from a natural diet, potentially leading to gastric ulcers.
Additionally, there are also concerns about the socialisation of horses. Horses are herd animals and need to interact with various ages and genders in a strict social hierarchy for a happy social life. However, racehorses usually end up in stables around lots of other young horses with no leadership or herd mentality, which can cause their mental health to deteriorate.
So, we’ve covered horses that are racing, but what happens to those that don’t make the grade?
Mystery shrouds what happens to the 4,000 British racehorses that are “retired” each year, or the hundreds of thousands that are not good enough to make the starting post. Some are retained for sports like hunting or eventing, and others are used for breeding, but the physical make-up of racehorses means that they are not suitable for the typical countryside hack kind of riders, and there aren’t enough stables to house the growing population.
This means that the overwhelming majority end up in knackeries (which sell meat as animal food) and abattoirs (exports meat for human consumption) in process known as wastage. Studies are currently hard to come by, but the Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket attempted to track 1,022 thoroughbred foals born in 1999. It was discovered that only 347 were ever entered in a race in the U.K., fewer than 200 were still training by the time they were four years old, and more than 100 had been destroyed or died by the same age. The rest were untraceable and likely deceased.
Wastage is a problem that the industry tries to gloss over. Most thoroughbreds born to race are killed before their fifth birthday, and it was reported in 2004 that the U.K. exported 1,576 tonnes of horsemeat to France — much of this would be from retired horses or those that weren’t good enough to race.
Horses have an average lifespan of three decades, so why are so many dying while they’re still juvenile? The public’s interest in horse racing is waning and the conversation around animal welfare is constantly changing and horse racing now conflicts with our society’s expectations about animal welfare. If the industry expects to survive, the sport has to find ways to emerge from a culture that sacrifices the health and lives of horses for the sake of money. There is no such thing as being “slightly abused” or “somewhat crooked”, so if there is going to be a space for the industry going forward, reforms must be made or — not only will it not survive, it also won’t deserve to.