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Are Racehorses Abused? Horse Racing Cruelty in the Spotlight

Last updated: October 18, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Horse racing often provokes conflicting narratives. On one hand, we hear heart-wrenching tales from the media about the alleged abuse and mistreatment of racehorses. On the other, advocates of horse racing describe their animals as pampered royalty, living lives of luxury. What, then, is the truth behind the treatment of these athletic equines?

The reality is nuanced. Some racehorses indeed live like kings, while others endure less fortunate circumstances. Much of their treatment hinges on their perceived earnings potential and the training methods employed by their handlers.

In the business of horse racing, horses are often seen as commodities. Their value lies in their performance, which requires rigorous maintenance to keep them at the top of their game. This intensive upkeep can sometimes mirror a royal treatment, but is it consistent across the board? Or are there darker sides to this glamorous world, hidden away from the cheering crowds and gleaming trophies?

As we delve deeper, we’ll uncover the realities of horse racing and seek to answer two critical questions: Are racehorses abused? And, is horse racing inherently cruel?”

The Beauty of Horse Racing

Horse racing holds a unique place in our society. It’s more than just a sport—it’s a rich tapestry woven with history, culture, athleticism and a deep bond between human and horse. In this section, we will explore the aspects of horse racing that often captivate spectators and participants alike.

A Historical and Cultural Phenomenon

Horse racing’s roots extend deep into human history. Civilizations dating back to ancient Greece, Rome, and even Babylon have documented instances of horse races. This timeless sport has evolved alongside us, becoming an integral part of cultures worldwide.

In the United States, horse racing, particularly the Triple Crown races—The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes—has been a cultural mainstay since the late 1800s. Across the pond, events like the Grand National in the UK and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France draw international attention.

The Athletic Marvels of the Track

Central to the allure of horse racing are the athletes themselves—the racehorses. Bred for speed and endurance, these horses are the epitome of raw, natural power and grace. Their intense training routines refine their innate abilities, transforming them into elite athletes capable of reaching speeds up to 40 mph.

Watching a racehorse in action is truly a spectacle. The thundering of hooves, the fluidity of their movements, and their sheer determination create a breathtaking display of athleticism. It’s these majestic creatures, their spirit, and their prowess that make the sport so mesmerizing.

Yet, it’s essential to understand that behind the beauty and thrill of horse racing, there are critical issues that need to be addressed—issues that concern the very well-being of these extraordinary animals. As we proceed, we’ll uncover some of the sport’s darker aspects, ones that often remain hidden behind the grandstand’s excitement.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

Are Racehorses Abused? An Insider’s Perspective

The question of abuse in horse racing is a controversial one. As someone who has been closely involved with horse racing for over 25 years, I want to provide an honest, balanced view of this issue. While it’s essential to address the darker aspects of horse racing, it’s equally vital to acknowledge the care and dedication many individuals in the industry have toward these magnificent animals.

Controversial Practices in Horse Racing

There are several practices within horse racing that have sparked concern and criticism. For instance, the use of performance-enhancing drugs can push horses beyond their natural limits, leading to strain, injuries, and even death.

The racing of young horses is another point of contention. Racehorses often begin their careers at just two years old while their bodies are still growing and developing. This can lead to long-term health issues and increased injury risk.

Moreover, the handling and treatment of horses off the track can vary significantly. While some live in comfortable stables with ample space and care, others might endure subpar conditions with little consideration for their mental well-being.

In my quarter of a century around this sport, I have observed the immense physical demands placed on these animals. Overtraining is an issue that crops up occasionally. It involves pushing a horse beyond its physical limits in a bid to enhance performance. However, overtraining can lead to chronic fatigue and an increased risk of serious injuries.

Understanding these practices and their potential for abuse is crucial as we strive to answer these central questions: Are racehorses abused? Is horse racing cruel? As we continue, we will delve deeper into these issues, exploring the realities faced by many racehorses in the industry.

The Specter of Overtraining and Drug Misuse

Misuse of performance-enhancing drugs is another concern in horse racing, albeit a less frequent one in my experience. These substances, meant for treating illnesses or injuries, can sometimes be used unethically to mask pain or enhance performance. This misuse can jeopardize a horse’s health, potentially leading to drug dependency or fatal reactions.

The Reality of Injuries and Living Conditions

Injuries in horse racing are unfortunately common, given the intense physical demands of the sport and the hard surfaces of many racetracks. This does not imply abuse, but it underlines the inherent risks of the sport. Measures are often in place to mitigate these risks, but it’s an ongoing challenge the industry must continually address.

Regarding living conditions, I have found that most racehorses are well-cared for and are not subject to substandard conditions. They are typically housed in clean, comfortable stalls and provided with high-quality feed. Nonetheless, there have been rare instances where I’ve heard stories of neglect, and such cases must be exposed and dealt with swiftly to uphold the welfare of the horses.

Striking a Balance Between Love of Sport and Animal Welfare

From my perspective, most trainers, jockeys, and owners genuinely care for their horses and want to see them in good health and high spirits. Instances of abuse, while heartbreaking and inexcusable, do not represent the entirety of horse racing.

It’s crucial for the public to understand that the majority of racehorses receive diligent care, attention, and even affection from their human counterparts. However, that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the concerning aspects of the industry.

We must strive to improve, ensure accountability, and continually prioritize the welfare of the horses that give the sport its heart. The balance between our love for the sport and our commitment to animal welfare must always tilt towards the latter.

Picture of a racehorse being led to the track for a race.
Racehorse being led to the track for a race.

Performance-Enhancing Drugs: A Hidden Threat in Horse Racing

In the competitive realm of horse racing, performance-enhancing drugs pose a serious concern for the welfare of racehorses. These substances, while intended to improve performance, can lead to severe short-term and long-term adverse effects on the horses. In this section, we examine the various drugs frequently used in the racing industry, their effects, and the controversy surrounding their usage.

The Allure of Drugs in the Racing World

Racehorses are often administered a cocktail of drugs before a race to help them perform better. However, these substances often lead to significant health complications. Concerned about this practice, The Jockey Club, the governing authority of thoroughbred racing, has warned the racing industry about the potential detrimental consequences of continued drug use.

The Club has taken measures to curb drug misuse, implementing regulations that ban the use of non-approved drugs on race day. Violations of these rules can lead to the revocation of a trainer’s license and forfeiture of the horse’s winnings.

The Lasix Controversy: Medication or Performance Enhancer?

Lasix, a medication used to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, is one of the most popular drugs given to racehorses. While it has legitimate medical uses, Lasix is often administered unnecessarily. Trainers believe that Lasix, due to its diuretic properties, makes a horse lighter and faster.

However, this indiscriminate usage ignores the potential risks and side effects of the drug, leading to a contentious debate within the industry.

“Bute”: Masking Pain and Ignoring the Underlying Issues

Phenylbutazone, commonly known as “Bute,” is another substance frequently used in horse racing. This nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) can provide health benefits when used correctly, such as pain relief and reduced inflammation.

However, it is often misused by trainers to mask pain in injured horses, enabling them to race when they should be resting and recovering. The misuse of “Bute” not only has potential long-term negative effects on a horse’s physical health but also significantly heightens the risk of severe injuries.

Thyroxine Misuse: Tampering with Metabolism

Another prevalent issue in horse racing is the misuse of Thyroxine, a thyroid medication designed to treat hypothyroidism, a rare condition in horses. Trainers often administer Thyroxine to healthy horses, believing that boosting their metabolism will improve their fitness, muscle mass, strength, and speed. However, the long-term effects of this practice remain uncertain, making it a risky gamble on the horses’ health.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing represents a complex and significant problem that jeopardizes the welfare of racehorses. Stricter regulations, robust testing mechanisms, and ethical responsibility from all industry stakeholders are vital to addressing this issue.

Picture of a horse running

The Hierarchy in Horse Racing: From Pampered Athletes to Neglected Commodities

Horse racing, much like other professional sports, has a hierarchy. The difference in facilities and care between the lower tiers and the top echelons can be staggering, and it often echoes the disparity between a double-A baseball team and a Major League team like the New York Yankees.

Top-tier Horses: The Equine Superstars

At top-tier facilities, which can be likened to the ‘New York Yankees’ of the horse racing world, horses receive a level of care that can rival the treatment given to human athletes. They live in spacious, well-ventilated stalls equipped with windows and fans, and their diets are meticulously designed to meet their individual needs.

These facilities often feature state-of-the-art equipment and veterinary practices. Horses may be exposed to short-wave infrared light to boost blood circulation and cellular metabolism or enjoy the benefits of a therapy stall with a vibrating floor to soothe sore muscles. They may also have access to cold water spas with treadmills or hyperbaric oxygen chambers to promote healing.

When these equine superstars fly to races, they travel in first-class equine air transport facilities, complete with roomy stalls, ample hay, and accompaniment from grooms and veterinarians.

A Glimpse of the Darker Side

Despite the luxurious treatment some horses receive, it’s crucial to remember that not all racehorses experience this level of care. Some are subjected to mistreatment and abuse, driven by the industry’s relentless pursuit of victory.

These horses are often overworked, drugged, whipped, or even shocked during races. Such practices were documented by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in an undercover operation that exposed the darker underbelly of the sport.

These findings underline the unfortunate reality that, for some individuals in the industry, racehorses are mere commodities whose sole value lies in their ability to win races. This stark contrast in treatment further fuels the debate about cruelty in horse racing, pushing us to question how we can balance the sport’s thrill with the welfare of these animals.

As we continue exploring the realities of horse racing, we must not lose sight of the fact that behind every race, there is a horse whose welfare should always be our primary concern.

gray filly sheila edited

Is Horse Racing Cruel? A Deep Dive into the Debate

The question “Is horse racing cruel?” is one that sparks intense debate, with valid arguments on both sides. Many factors contribute to this debate, including the stress experienced by the horses, their living and racing conditions, and the nature of the industry itself.

Let’s analyze these factors and consider differing viewpoints, including those who assert that the industry is moving towards positive change and better horse welfare.

Stress and Unnatural Conditions: A Case for Cruelty?

One argument against horse racing stems from the unnatural living and racing conditions the horses are subjected to. Horses are naturally herd animals, intended to graze and roam freely in large spaces. In contrast, racehorses often live in stalls and have rigorous training and racing schedules, which can be a source of stress.

Racing itself also puts physical stress on a horse’s body. Horses can experience a range of injuries, from minor wounds to more serious, sometimes even fatal, musculoskeletal injuries. This high risk has led many to argue that the sport is inherently cruel, as it subjects horses to unnatural and potentially harmful conditions.

Positive Changes and Improving Welfare: A Case for the Defense

On the other side of the debate are those who argue that horse racing isn’t inherently cruel but that it’s the abusive practices within the industry that are the problem. These individuals often point to the significant strides being made in improving horse welfare in the industry.

For instance, changes to racing rules, advances in veterinary medicine, improved track surfaces, and better training methods are all helping to reduce injury rates. Additionally, many within the industry are advocating for stricter drug policies and greater transparency about a horse’s medical history to further safeguard their well-being. These improvements show an industry striving to do better by its equine stars.

Individual Abuse Versus Systemic Issues

There is also a crucial distinction to be made between individual instances of abuse and systemic issues within the industry. While every case of horse abuse is tragic and unacceptable, it’s important to recognize that these do not necessarily indicate an industry-wide problem.

Systemic issues, on the other hand, are ingrained within the structure of the industry and require collective efforts to address. Some believe that certain elements of horse racing, such as the young age at which horses start training, could be considered systemic issues contributing to the perception of cruelty.

In conclusion, whether horse racing is inherently cruel remains a complex question with no straightforward answer. What is certain, however, is the necessity for continued improvements, strict enforcement of ethical practices, and a steadfast commitment to ensuring the well-being of the horses at the heart of the sport.

Understanding Racehorse Mortality: A Critical Analysis

The question of mortality in the world of horse racing is a significant concern. With recent incidents such as the unfortunate deaths at the Santa Anita racetrack, where forty horses died in a span of a little over a year, it’s critical to explore the overall mortality rates in the industry.

According to The Jockey Club, the governing body of thoroughbred racing, there were 441 reported fatal breakdowns in the United States in 2019. When calculated per 1,000 racing starts, this figure equates to 1.53 fatalities, marking the lowest death rate since this data has been recorded.

Each year, The Jockey Club publishes an extensive report on racehorse injuries and deaths in the Equine Injury Database. This comprehensive collection of data is gathered from various reporting tracks across the nation, providing a valuable resource for understanding the prevalence and causes of equine injuries and deaths.

On the other hand, the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reports that approximately 24 racehorses suffer fatal breakdowns each week in the US. It’s important to note the disparity between the figures provided by The Jockey Club and PETA.

The reason behind this disparity is unclear, but it may reflect differences in data collection or reporting practices. While strides have been made in reducing mortality rates in horse racing, the number of fatalities still presents a significant issue. Further actions must be taken to ensure the safety and well-being of these equine athletes.

Picture of a horse laying down in a stall. Some people think horse racing is abuse.

Implementing Measures to Prevent Racehorse Abuse and Cruelty

The recent spate of deaths at the Kentucky Derby has heightened public interest in the issue of racehorse abuse and the troubling rates of death on racetracks. This raises a pertinent question: what measures are being implemented to protect horses from maltreatment and reduce fatality rates?

At present, there isn’t a single governing body overseeing the horse racing industry. However, significant steps have been taken towards curbing abuse and preventable deaths. These include initiatives like The Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database and the introduction of The Horseracing Integrity Act in Congress.

The Role of the Equine Injury Database (EID)

The Jockey Club has pioneered the use of the Equine Injury Database, a comprehensive resource that aggregates data about racehorse injuries and fatalities. This database aims to identify the causes behind these tragic events and formulate effective remedies.

As of 2019, 109 racetracks contribute information to the EID, covering approximately 98% of all racetracks. Since its inception, the EID has contributed to a 16% decrease in racehorse deaths, underlining the vital role data plays in safeguarding these animals.

The Horseracing Integrity Act: A Step Towards More Transparency

Introduced in March 2019, The Horseracing Integrity Act aims to establish a “uniform anti-doping and medication control program” under the management of an independent Horseracing Anti-Doping and Medication Control Authority. The bill’s primary intent is to curb racehorse abuse by eliminating the use of all race-day medication.

While these measures are noteworthy, it is clear that a unified, national regulatory body could be the key to resolving some of the systemic issues within the horse racing industry.

From a personal perspective, having spent many years around racehorses, I can attest that the majority are treated with immense care and respect. I’ve seen grooms tend to these animals with affection and attentiveness that rivals the care some parents give their children.

That being said, it’s evident that there are individuals in this industry who do not uphold these standards. For a sobering example, one only needs to view the undercover footage taken by PETA, where horses were subjected to inexcusable treatment. While these cases are not the norm, they are enough to demonstrate the need for continued vigilance and reform in the industry.

Below is a YouTube video that exposes some unethical behavior in horse racing.


Why does a horse have to be killed when they break a leg?

Why does blood come from a horse’s nose after it races?

The primary reason horses bleed from their noses after they race is because pressure builds in their lungs, causing capillaries to burst. The blood from the burst capillaries is forced out of their nose.

Do horses know when they win a race?

It’s difficult to know for sure if horses know they won a race. People have opinions on both sides, but how does one know for sure? One way to make an educated guess is to pay close attention to the horse’s actions immediately after winning a race.

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Miles Henry