Last updated: June 5, 2021
Recently there has been a rash of horse deaths on the major horse racing tracks in the United States. The news of the racehorse deaths made me wonder, are racehorse deaths on the rise?
Racehorse deaths aren’t on the rise in the United States but quite the opposite. In the U.S., in 2019, 441 Thoroughbred racehorses died, more than 300 fewer deaths than just a decade ago, and the rate of deaths per thousand races dropped from 1.94 in 2009 to 1.53 in 2019.
|Statistical Summary from 2009 to 2018
The above table illustrates a decrease in the percentage of deaths suffered by horses entered in races. There are a lot of reasons a racehorse could die in a race, and some are not obvious.
Racehorses are put to death they suffer a leg injury.
Breakdowns during a race: Limb injuries
The most common catastrophic limb injury occurs in the animal’s front fetlock. The fetlock is a joint near the bottom of the leg. The fetlock shatters if it’s stressed by continuing to race or train while damaged.
Limb related deaths or catastrophic leg injuries during a race are caused by overworking a horse, masking a horse’s pain, or running a horse with an injury.
Most racehorses die during a race because of limb injuries, respiratory disease, digestive disorders, and multiorgan system failures. Of these deaths, more than 80 percent are related to limb injuries.
Racehorses continue to incur expenses regardless if they are racing. Paying costs for horses that aren’t racing isn’t acceptable to many racehorse owners. Click this link to learn more about horse euthanization.
Overwork causes catastrophic racehorse injuries.
A horses’ body experiences repetitive use wear in their muscles and joints as they train and compete. This repeated wear leads to catastrophe for racehorses, more than 85% of catastrophic injuries result from preexisting conditions in a musculoskeletal-related fatality.
Racehorses that are overworked often develop “Plantar Osteochondral Disease (POD). During the life of an animal, cells remodel and rebuild muscle, ligaments, and bones.
When horses run, they put an extreme amount of pressure on their leg bones, tendons, and ligaments even more so during a race. Plantar osteochondral disease occurs when the process of bone remodeling can’t keep up with the stress exerted on the lower cannon bones.
POD can be treated effectively by giving a horse 60 days of rest and then returning him to training slowly. This method provides a horse with the best chance to return to a successful racing career.
Horses are often raced before they recover from an injury.
But horses are generally not allowed time to recover fully and are entered into a race too soon. A University of Liverpool study examined post-mortem racehorses and found that over 60 percent of horses that suffered catastrophic leg injuries during a race had POD before running.
So what do these owners do with a horse that isn’t healthy enough to race? Frequently they run the horse anyway. Racehorses are bred for speed, not durability. It is breeding a horse for speed, which results in animals with longer, thinner legs that are more prone to injuries.
In an attempt to identify the causes of catastrophic limb injuries in racehorses, studies have been conducted across the globe. One such study can be accessed here. Equine Research Institute of the Japan Racing Association.
Horses are raced when they’re not fit.
A common factor found in multiple studies: horses that breakdown during a race had not been exercised vigorously in the weeks before their race. Which seems to be the opposite of overworking, but it’s not, it all relates.
Reduced workouts invariably lead to the questions, why wouldn’t these horses be worked hard, and how does it relate to a catastrophic injury? Speculation is the horse has an injury, probably POD or a similar ailment and he has not fully healed.
A trainer knows that putting a horse through a strenuous work often leads to an aggravation of the preexisting injury resulting in more downtime for the horse. So the trainer doesn’t work the horse, or work the horse lightly.
The reduction in training theory is borne out in a recent study. In the study, the researchers found horses that suffered catastrophic injuries in races had trained and raced less in the two months before their injury.
The lack of training and racing suggested to the researcher that the horses were not able to maintain high-exercise intensity without becoming lame.
Pain masking drugs leads to racehorse deaths
Pain masking drug use enables horses to run injured, often resulting in catastrophic limb injuries.
Pain in horses serves the same purposes that it does for humans. It is a warning that something is causing or may cause damage, and you should probably do something about it.
Horses have an instinct to protect themselves. This instinct makes them slow down and take it easy when they are in pain. The introduction of masking drugs removes the pain and their intuition, and they quit protecting themselves.
Pain causes horses to slow their pace.
Drugs used to mask pain are Class 4 NSAID’s (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) such as corticosteroids and Lasix. These drugs have been in everyday use on tracks since the 1970s.
Lasix is also used to prevent bleeding in the lungs, which is a common problem in racehorses. The overuse of drugs leads to catastrophic injury of racehorses.
Corticosteroids are used to relieve pain in running horses.
Corticosteroids are used to relieve pain through the reduction of inflammation. Common corticosteroids used on racehorses:
- Bute-Bute is used to control pain through the reduction of inflammation in the joints of the injured horses. The medication is introduced directly into the affected joints. Overuse leads to cartilage damage and chronic arthritis. They also suppress the immune system and suppress the horse’s natural healing process. Constant use can also lead to founder and laminitis.
- Banamine– should be given via IV but is often injected intra-muscularly. It is used to relieve stomach pain in a horse, but can also be used to mask general pain in horses. Injecting horses in the muscles can lead to long term muscle damage.
Horses are regularly trained under the influence of masking drugs. Fatal musculoskeletal injuries result from repetitive overuse on injured limbs. If the horse’s body were allowed to heal correctly, many of the fatalities would not occur.
But rather than allowing a horse to properly heal they are being drugged and then raced and trained on weakened bones and joints. In the horse racing industry horses are given drugs to mask the pain caused by an injury.
Pain masking drugs allows horses to run through injuries.
The masking drug does not make a horse run faster, but it does enable mobility. A horse that feels no pain will run hard and not protect its injured self. Without the drug, they likely wouldn’t run.
In 2008 Dr. Sue Stover, a professor at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Davis, presented her research results into equine injury.
She stated that catastrophic injuries are the result of repetitive loading over time; rarely, she said, does a catastrophic breakdown occur from one incident.
Horses more intently trained (higher speed, greater distance) will be at greater risk of injury. If these injuries aren’t given a chance to heal, the risk for catastrophic breakdown goes up. Forbes Magazine.
A horse’s broken leg typically can’t heal.
Racehorses are heavy-bodied animals with spindly legs. When a horse suffers a broken leg during a race, they usually shatter the bone. A shattered leg bone can’t be put back together sufficiently to provide support for the horse’s substantial bodyweight.
Another concern in dealing with horses that have suffered broke legs is rehabilitation. A horse that has suffered a broken leg would be required to stay off of the injured leg for an extended period to allow the leg to heal. Keeping a horse off of their legs would cause health issues for the horse and would be almost impossible to accomplish.
In horse racing, the forelegs are the most often injured legs of the horse. These legs bear the majority of horse weight and have a minimal amount of soft tissue in the lower leg. Because there is so little soft tissue, the bone often breaks through the skin.
Horses that break a leg suffer extreme pain.
Breaking the bone disrupts blood circulation leading to many associated problems for the horse. If a horse were to recover sufficiently to stand after breaking a leg, it would likely live in extreme pain and develop laminitis or some other related disease.
When a horse breaks a leg during a race, a veterinarian will examine the animal and make a diagnosis and recommendation. Not all breaks are a cause to put a horse down.
Steps are being taken to reduce racehorse deaths.
Racehorse deaths have recently made the headlines with the rash of fatalities occurring at Santa Anita Park. If you haven’t read about this, you can click on the link to an NPR story on the subject. But even before the Santa Anita deaths steps were being taken to help lower the instances of deaths on tracks in the United States.
Equine Injury Database (EID) compiles data to help reduce racehorse deaths.
The Jockey Club began compiling data and making it available to the public in a database named the Equine Injury Database. The goal is to identify causes of racehorse deaths through reporting and transparency.
The Jockey club has provided statistics for the last ten years: for the number of deaths per track, including horses that die within 72 hours of racing. Information provided includes the surface of the track, age, and sex of the horse, and the number of starts. Through the information gathered, much has already been learned about horse health and safety.
Since the EID’s began tracking racehorse deaths, 109 racetracks have provided data. In 2019, approximately 98% of tracks are expected to contribute to the EID. Since its inception, there has been a 16% drop in the rate of racehorse deaths.
The Horseracing Integrity Act is a step to stop racehorse abuse.
The Horseracing Integrity Act was introduced in March 2019. This bill seeks to establish “a uniform anti-doping and medication control program to be developed and enforced by an independent Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority.” The law goes so far as to eliminate the use of all race-day medication.
The Jockey Club and many other horse racing groups support the bill, while the American Quarter Horse Association(AQHA) opposes the bill. The AQHA does not agree with the necessity of banning Lasix from race day use.
Racehorse health and safety is moving in the right direction. Let’s hope the progress continues. To learn about adopting a retired racehorse click here.
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Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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