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Horse Racing: Ethics and Controversy Explored

Last updated: March 18, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Horse racing, a sport steeped in tradition and history, finds itself at a critical juncture, grappling with ethical dilemmas that challenge its very essence. As the thunderous applause fills the air during iconic races like ‘The Kentucky Derby’ or ‘The Breeder’s Cup,’ a parallel narrative unfolds—one that scrutinizes the sport for its darker facets, including corruption, drug misuse, and concerns over animal welfare.

Picture of two racehorses racing down a dirt track.

The Heart of the Debate

At the core of the controversy is the ethical treatment of the horses that power this multi-billion-dollar industry. Critics argue that the sport, marred by instances of animal cruelty and neglect, struggles to justify its existence in a society increasingly attuned to the rights and welfare of animals.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs, the risk of catastrophic injuries on the track, and the uncertain fate of retired racehorses fuel a debate that transcends the boundaries of the sport, questioning our moral compass when it comes to entertainment derived from animal athleticism.

Picture of horses racing on a muddy track.

The Upside: Care, Conditioning, and Connection

Horse racing offers several benefits for the horses involved. Rigorous training regimes ensure that racehorses are in peak physical condition, promoting muscle strength and cardiovascular health. This level of care extends beyond the track, with racehorses receiving attention from some of the best veterinarians and equine health specialists in the industry.

Racehorse facilities often feature state-of-the-art amenities, from comfortable stables to advanced rehabilitation centers, ensuring these athletes receive top-tier care. Moreover, the bond that forms between horses and their handlers is profound and characterized by mutual respect and deep affection.

The economic impact of horse racing cannot be overlooked. It supports a wide range of professions within the equine industry, from trainers and jockeys to groomers and veterinarians, contributing to the overall well-being of countless horses by ensuring they receive the best possible care.

The Downside: Risks and Ethical Concerns

Despite the benefits, horse racing has risks and ethical dilemmas. The physical demands of racing can lead to injuries, and while safety measures are continually improving, the risk of accidents on the track remains a concern.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing is a contentious issue, raising questions about the long-term health effects on the animals. Ethical concerns also extend to breeding practices, with the potential for overbreeding and the challenges faced by horses that are no longer competitive.

Practices such as whipping and tongue-tying have been scrutinized for their impact on horse welfare, prompting calls for reform and more humane treatment of racing horses.

Picture of racehorses.

Do horses like horse racing?

We cannot and should not assume that horses don’t like racing. After all, in the wild, you will see a horse running, jumping, and prancing. It is also a well-known fact that even if a horse – for some reason becomes riderless during a race – it will continue racing.

Here are reasons why horses like to race:

They love the challenge.

As I mentioned earlier, horse racing gives a horse purpose, and every living being on this planet needs one. Horses love the challenges that racing provides.

They love the bonds they form with their jockeys, owners, grooms, and trainers.

Racehorses spend hours each day training with humans. They love the physical touch, strokes, and grooming. They do not hesitate to show their humans that they want to jump and race, and these cues are evident to everyone who knows and works with horses. In short, no evidence shows that racehorses are unwilling participants in races.

There is a reason why there are so many thoroughbred horses.

The very fact that the thoroughbred horse breed exists tells us something. There are nearly 500,000 thoroughbred racehorses all over the globe. Without horse racing, this breed would have probably died out. The sport provides a far superior lifestyle to racehorses than those in the wild.

A horse will tell you if it does not want to race!

Finally, we mustn’t forget that horses will find a way of indicating if they don’t like something. A jockey has experienced its mount plant its feet firmly on the ground all too often, refusing to move! So don’t worry; no horse in a race is there against its will. In most cases, horses are happy and willing participants in the sport.

Do horses want to win?

Horses may or may not understand the concept of winning and losing. In the wild, male and female horses run and jump during sexual pursuits, or two males might run and chase each other to ‘outdo’ each other. In that sense, maybe a wild horse does understand what it means to win.

However, nothing about human horseracing is natural. And that is why the winning part could be complex for a horse to understand. A horse definitely understands how its jockey/handler will behave with it after the race is over.

It will also understand the appreciation of people it receives upon winning. Experts have even documented changes in the hormone levels of a winning horse, which might indicate that it understands ‘winning’ to some extent.

Horses are not people, and they certainly don’t think like them. However, a horse definitely forms a close bond with its jockey during training, and that is why it learns to appreciate how important a race may be for its handler.

Based on these aspects, perhaps a horse wants to win. That is also why some horses continue running even if their jockey has fallen off. We will never really know what goes on in a horse’s mind.

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Conclusion: Is Horse Racing Good or Bad for Horses?

The debate over horse racing’s ethics is not black and white. It demands a nuanced understanding of the issues at hand, recognizing the need for continuous improvement in how we care for and honor the horses at the sport’s heart.

As we move forward, the challenge lies in reconciling the thrill of the race with the imperative of compassion, ensuring that the legacy of horse racing is defined not by controversy but by a commitment to the dignity and well-being of every horse that steps onto the track.

Your Voice Matters

As we navigate this complex debate, we invite you to share your thoughts and experiences. Whether you’re a seasoned equestrian, a casual fan, or an advocate for animal rights, your perspective is valuable in shaping the future of horse racing.

Together, let’s explore the path toward a sport that respects horse racing’s heritage and the ethical treatment of its equine stars.

References and Citations

  1. Jockey Club.
  2. Equine Injury Database – International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.
  3. Thanks to PETA Probe, Horses Used in N.Y. Racing Have More Protections: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
  4. U.S. Regulations concerning the Treatment of Horses. The Horseracing Integrity Act
  5. How to Recognize Signs of Horse Abuse: What is Horse Abuse