Horse racing is a sport in which horses are pushed to run as fast as possible while spectators watch. While the sport has evolved in many ways since its early days, it still carries with it a series of harmful traditions that must be ended for the health and safety of horses.
National racing bodies have developed rulebooks that govern how races should be conducted. Some rules differ significantly between countries, but most adhere to a similar core. Most require horses to compete in certain categories based on their age, sex, and birthplace, as well as the abilities of riders. Individual flat races are usually divided into sprints and longer distances known as routes (in the United States) or stays (in Europe). Speed is critical for success in sprint races, while stamina is vital for long-distance events.
In order to race, a horse must be ridden by an appropriately licensed jockey. Some horses are ridden using a whip, while others are “hand ridden,” which means the jockey merely brushes his or her hand up and down the horse’s neck, rather than applying the full force of a whip. Most jockeys wear protective gear, including helmets and body protectors, to reduce injuries.
As a result of the extreme physical stress that racing puts on horses, catastrophic breakdowns and deaths occur frequently. These deaths have a profound impact on the public, and they call into question the integrity of the sport. The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit in 2008 prompted a nationwide reckoning with horse racing’s ethics and integrity. The death of Secretariat in 2011 reverberated even more intensely.
In addition to the physical toll that racing takes on horses, it can also cause mental distress. Psychiatric problems have been linked to racing and are exacerbated by the high-pressure environment of competition and the high levels of adrenaline.
The majority of thoroughbreds are bred to race, which often requires them to be pushed past their limits. They are often drugged with a cocktail of legal and illegal substances, intended to mask injuries and artificially enhance performance. As a result, many horses will bleed from their lungs, which is known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). This is most common in short races such as sprints.
In the United States, many racehorses will retire from racing and be sent to stud farms, where they become breeding stock for future generations of horses. However, if a horse is not successful as a stallion, it will likely be killed. Despite the best efforts of the racehorse advocacy movement, there is currently no industry-sponsored wraparound aftercare solution for retired racehorses. Instead, if they are not rescued by the many private nonprofit rescue groups that network, fundraise, and work tirelessly to save them, most will be sold for slaughter. In the United States, this process is often illegal and gruesome. In some cases, slaughterhouses will charge arbitrary, outrageous ransoms. This is hell for these animals, and it must stop.