Horse Racing

Horse Racing

This week in class we covered horse racing—looking at flat, jumps, harness, and endurance racing. When discussing horse racing it is not uncommon for concerns of safety and horse welfare to arise. Like any activity—from stock trading to figure skating—you will find the good, the bad and the ugly. Many pursue their work with integrity and concern for the humans and animals they work with. However, there are also many who use illegal, or legal but unethical practices in the sport. Racing supporters would like to think that these bad examples are a small fraction of the whole, but there have been enough instances of abuse and poor practice for the industry to need to address these issues on a large, very public scale in past years.

One concern is the non-therapeutic use of pharmaceuticals which was brought to the public’s attention in 2012 by the New York Times. The Times describes the over use of drugs in horse racing and the under regulation of these violations. Drugging an injured horse (e.g., one with stress fractures or tendon strains) so that it does not feel pain and then asking it to race leads to further, often fatal, injuries. The Times stated, “on average, 24 horses die each week at racetracks across America” often due to these fatal leg injuries.[i] In 2014 documentation gained by an undercover agent from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) showed just this type of misuse of drugs in the racing industry.[ii] The barn in question was that of trainer Steve Asmussen whose 32-year career has seen earnings of $299 million and 8,349 firsts.[iii] To find such abuse at this high level of the industry in the barn of a successful trainer tells us a lot about the lack of regulation in the industry.

Another key concern is the prevalence of leg injury. Much research has been done to determine the cause, the cure, and how to prevent such injuries. Horses, unlike many other mammals, have low rates of survival when a leg is compromised. A tragic example, is 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, who broke his leg in the Preakness Stakes, developed complications, and was unable to be saved. These cases are not uncommon—Santa Anita Park in California suspended racing indefinitely last week due to, “21 horse [fatalities] suffered in racing or training at [the park] … since December 26” 2018.[iv] Even horses who do not experience a dramatic mid-race break exhibit leg strain. A 2018 study in Australia states, “microscopic fractures were found in the front leg bones of nearly all euthanized racehorses—including those not put down for catastrophic breakdowns.” These microscopic fractures can lead to injury, but “researchers conclude that rest from intense race training may allow for some repair of the microscopic damage.”[v] Recognizing injuries early and providing proper treatment is paramount.

Similarly concerning are the sudden deaths where a horse drops dead in his tracks. The Canadian province of Ontario keeps a Racehorse Death Registry describing mortality rates after race-intensity exercise. Each breed holds a different risk factor with Thoroughbreds being the most likely to be affected by exercise-associated mortality (2.27 deaths / 1,000 race starts), then Quarter Horses (1.49/1,000), and finally Standardbreds (0.28/1,000).[vi] To get to the bottom of this, Dr. Peter Physick-Sheard, an equine cardiovascular expert, uses heart rate monitors to gauge vital signs in both Standardbred and Thoroughbred racehorses during racing and workouts. He, “discovered that 18 percent of [Standardbreds] showed complex ventricular arrhythmias in early recovery from their workout, which is when many sudden deaths occur … Thoroughbreds had the same ventricular arrhythmias as Standardbreds, though less frequently. Interestingly, Thoroughbred racehorses have a higher rate of sudden death.”[vii] Physick-Sheard explained in a lecture at Ontario Veterinary College, that in the majority of cases these irregular heart rates do not cause long term effects, but occasionally they will result in sudden death.[viii] Research is ongoing to discover just why instances of sudden death are so common in race horses, but Physick-Sheard hypothesizes that one factor may be extremely selective breeding for speed. With inbred characteristics of speed come a litany of other genetic predispositions that may lead to increased instances of certain conditions.

So, is horse racing cruel? I looked up the definition of the word cruel to ensure I knew the exact meaning of the word and did not misuse it. The first definition appearing for the word cruel is, “willfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it.” My research shows that there are those in the racing world who know their horses are in pain, yet use drugs, or other methods to patch up the horses long enough to get more mileage out of them. These trainers are willfully causing additional pain or suffering to already injured horses. The second definition is, “causing pain or suffering.” Whether those in the racing industry willfully cause pain or suffering or if it is simply a byproduct of the sport (e.g., leg injury or sudden death) it still falls under the definition of the word cruel.

 Examples of well treated horses flood the high end of the Thoroughbred race industry. In his 2015 article, “Living Like a King: The Pampered Life of a Racehorse”, John Scheinman shares example after example of well treated horses experiencing spa treatments as part of their training recovery and receiving the best of everything (feeds, housing, training). He states that good treatment often stems from genuine affection for the animals, and that “most exceptions [take] place at the bottom rungs of the game.” This is encouraging to hear, but does not tell the full story as high-level trainers have been exposed in the past for abusive methods–not all abuse takes place at the lower levels of racing. Even when treatment of horses is at its best the inherent risks still exist in the sport. In a perfect world, we would not see fatal injury and sudden deaths, but this world is not perfect, so what steps will we take to make the horse’s lives better?

[i] The New York Times Death and Disarray at America’s Racetracks

[ii] The New York Times PETA Accuses Two Trainers of Cruelty to Horses

[iii] Equibase Steven M. Asmussen

[iv] The New York Times Racing Halted at Santa Anita After Horse Deaths

[v] Paulick Report Study Suggests Race Training Too Hard for Equine Legs

[vi] NCBI Ontario Racehorse Death Registry

[vii] Paulick Report Abnormal Heart Rhythms May Be To Blame For Sudden Deaths In Racehorses

[viii] Ontario Veterinary College Sudden Death in the Racehorse

Header image credit: Noah Silliman (via

Fédération Équestre Internationale

Fédération Équestre Internationale

Harness or Driving Competition

Harness or Driving Competition