Horse races are an ancient sport that has evolved from a primitive contest of speed and endurance into an immense public entertainment business with sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment and enormous sums of money involved. But the sport’s basic concept is still the same: The horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner. And despite claims that horses love to race and are born to run, the truth is that the majority of racehorses die at the track.
The death rate of Thoroughbred racehorses is one of the highest of all sports. Thousands of racehorses, many of them in their prime, have been killed on the track over the years—but the true number is probably much higher because horse racing’s long-running lack of transparency and accountability means that a great deal of the death toll is never even recorded.
When a horse is injured or killed on the track, it is often because it was forced to race past its limits. Horses have no choice but to obey the whip and race, even when they are exhausted or have sustained serious injuries. As a result of this unnatural activity, they suffer devastating injuries, including broken legs, fractured bones, pulmonary hemorrhage, shattered spines and ruptured ligaments. Some are euthanized as a result of heart failure or a spinal injury. Many others are discarded or sold at auction or end up in slaughterhouses abroad.
Breeding 1,000-pound thoroughbreds for a sport that requires them to be driven at breakneck speeds causes many of their problems. These animals have massive torsos and spindly legs, which are especially vulnerable to breakdowns. Most racehorses are bred to race at age two and are forced into intensive training at that early stage. They don’t reach full maturity—that is, the growth plates in their spine and neck have fused—until they are about six years old.
In the most prestigious races—known as conditions races or handicap races—racehorses are assigned a set amount of weight to carry in order to render them as evenly matched as possible. There are also sex allowances that give females and younger horses lighter weight than males. Besides the weight racehorses must carry, their performance can be influenced by their position relative to the inside barrier and other factors such as gender, age and prior racing experience.
Ownership turnover is rapid in the racehorse industry, with most horses being bought and sold—sometimes multiple times—during their careers. In addition, some races—called claiming races—are open to any owner who wants to enter them. As a result, racehorses are sometimes callously sold just after they have won their races.
Increasing awareness of the dark side of horse racing has fueled improvements in racehorse welfare, but more needs to be done. Animal Aid calls for an independent body with sole responsibility for racehorse welfare, a ban on the use of the whip and transparency about on-track deaths (currently running at around 200 per year). You can help by signing our petition calling for these reforms.