From cradle to grave, racehorses live tortured, terrifying, brutal, and completely thankless lives. Above all else, horse racing is a business. It’s not for the love of the sport, and certainly not for the love of the horse. It’s for the love of money.
Table Of Contents
- The Mothers of Racehorses: Repeated Pregnancies, Premature Death
- What Happens to the Foals of Nurse Mares? Parallels to the Dairy Industry
- What Happens to Racehorse Foals Who "Don't Make the Cut"
- The Short & Torturous “Career” of a Racehorse
- Dangerous Drug Use in Horse Racing: Perform at All Costs
- The Use of Whips in Horse Racing
- The Use of Bits in Horse Racing
- The Psychological Toll of Isolation
- A Thankless End: From the Race Track to the Grave
- In Closing...
Above all else, horse racing is a business—and a multi-billion dollar one at that. It’s not for the love of the sport, and certainly not for the love of the horse—it’s for the love of money.
Not everyone can agree on the ethics of horse riding itself—including many vegans. But horse racing takes the commodification of horses to a whole other level that should give even the most staunch non-vegan pause.
With money as the priority, horses are treated as no more than cash machines. This so-called sport is rife with cruelty on so many levels, and I’ll do my best to touch on as many of them as possible.
The cruelty of horse racing begins long before the track. Racehorses are genetically manipulated and bred to run as fast as possible. Their lives begin at a stud farm where mother horses are kept pregnant for 90 percent of their shortened lives.
This relentless cycle of pregnancies is maintained through the use of drugs like prostaglandins and the alteration of their environment in order to manipulate their natural cycles.
Once born, potential racehorses are ripped from their mothers, who are immediately impregnated again until they can no longer produce foals and are sent to slaughter.
Having been separated from their mothers, these newborn foals need sustenance and are nursed by “nurse mares”—horses with “lower” pedigrees who are impregnated simply to produce milk for the “racehorse foals.”
The role of nurse mares is to provide sustenance to the potential racehorse foals, allowing their own mother to be impregnated again sooner than if she was allowed to nurse her own child.
In order to produce milk, nurse mares must give birth themselves. The children of nurse mares, however, are of no use to the industry—they are a “means to an end” to produce milk for the potential champions.
It’s illegal to send foals under six months to slaughter, so many nurse mare foals are brutally clubbed or simply left to starve to death. They are then skinned to produce high-end leather products—termed “cordovan leather”—and their meat is often sold for human consumption.
In 2009, a report from the Jockey Club stated that approximately 49,817 mares were bred that year (in the United States). This means that approximately 49,817 “byproduct” nurse foals were needlessly slaughtered.
This horrific cycle of forced pregnancies, stolen children, and premature death closely mirrors the dairy industry, wherein mother cows have their calves taken at birth and slaughtered for veal so that humans may consume their milk.
Just because a foal is bred to be a racehorse does not save them from a similar fate as the nurse mare foals. Out of the hundreds of thousands of potential racehorses bred in multiple countries every year, only 5%–40% will go on to race.
The foals who didn’t “make the cut” are either sent to slaughter for human consumption or pet food, re-entered into the breeding industry, or sold for lower-tier racing—which has even fewer regulations and safeguards.
The consumption of horse meat has long been taboo in many societies. Even regular consumers of other animal products balk at the idea of eating horses. However, what many people don’t realize is that horse slaughter is simply the back end of horse racing.
Horses not deemed fit enough for racing are discarded as “industry waste.” This parallels the egg industry, wherein male chicks (who are of no use to the industry) are “disposed of” by being ground up alive,
For those horses who do make the cut to race, it’s just the beginning of a tortured existence.
Racehorses typically begin rigorous training when they are around 1.5 years old, long before their bodies are fully developed and their skeletons mature.
According to the text Practical Anatomy and Propaedeutic of the Horse, the length of time for complete growth of the epiphyseal plates, or cartilage, is not until they are (on average) between 6–9 years old.
The extreme training demands put on these vulnerable young horses leads to a tragic preponderance of fractures and breakdowns, leaving them finished by four to six years of age.
These injuries, more often than not, seal a horse’s fate as they are deemed too expensive and troublesome to treat.
On average, twenty-four horses die per week on racetracks across the United States, with numbers in Australia as high as sixty-eight per day or 25,000 a year.
The injuries aren’t all external breaks. The demands of racing cause a large proportion of horses to bleed into their lungs and windpipe, called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. A University of Melbourne Study found that 50% of racehorses had blood in their windpipe and 90% had blood deeper in the lungs.
The high concentrate diets of grains racehorses are fed also leads to gastric ulcers. A study in the Equine Veterinary Journal found ulcers present in 89% of horses examined, with many of them developing deep, bleeding ulcers within just eight weeks of starting their training.
When not tossed aside as too expensive to treat, injured horses are pushed to keep racing with the aid of dangerous drugs. Pain medication can mask injury, allowing wounded horses to run harder, further endangering their lives. As many as 90% of horses that break down have pre-existing injuries.
Journalist Max Watman elaborates on the self-perpetuating cycle of breeding, drugging, and injury:
Thoroughbreds are bred for flashy speed and to look good in the sales ring so they can be sold at auction. [So, t]he animal itself has become more fragile.
To keep the horses going, they are filled full of the diuretic Lasix (to stop bleeding in the lungs) and phenylbutazone, to reduce joint inflammation, and Corticosteroids, which reduce pain and inflammation.
Then they run as fast and hard as they can.— Max Watman, “So Far, So Good for Barbaro.” New York Sun, May 21, 2006.
Injured horses aren’t the only ones drugged, however. Former public relations manager for Churchill Downs, Alex Straus, says, “there are trainers pumping horses full of illegal drugs every day. With so much money on the line, people will do anything to make their horses run faster.”
Horses are drugged with a range of substances, from illegal to simply bizarre:
- chemicals that are made to bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter,
- cobra venom,
- blood doping agents,
- thyroid medications,
- stimulants, and
- cancer drugs, among others.
In addition to being chemically pushed to perform, horses are brutally whipped during races in what is probably the most public and socially endorsed form of animal abuse today.
The racing industry assures that whips must be padded and that, when used properly, whips only “stimulate” a horse, but do not cause pain.
However, according to a study by professor and veterinarian Dr. Paul McGreevy, the padding failed to protect horses in 64% of strikes, and 83% of whip impacts showed visible indentation of the skin.
Additionally, 75% of strikes hit the horse’s flank, which is in contravention to the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing, and Wagering.
McGreevy also found that 70% of strikes were delivered “backhand” and were thus not counted under the rules limiting the number of strikes. In many countries, the number of strikes is only limited until the final 100 meters—at which point horses may be whipped ceaselessly.
This piece of ballistic plastic consistent with a horse’s flesh, shows the impact of a standard single whip strike. Dr. McGreevy himself took this further and did a thermographic study of his own leg after delivering a standard blow to his thigh. The white areas in the image show inflammation thirty minutes after the single blow.
Whip proponents argue that horses are much larger animals than us, and thus have “thicker skin” and a higher pain tolerance. There is nothing to support this claim. McGreevy rightfully points out that horses can feel even a fly land on their skin, which triggers a characteristic shake called the “panniculus reflex.”
It is rather naïve to assume being beaten repeatedly with a blunt object is a pain-free experience.
Racehorses are also subjected to the use of metal bits. It’s important to note that bits used in racing are even more severe than those used for other equine sports.
“Horse whisperer” Frank Bell states that, “racehorses have bits in their mouths pretty much their whole lives…a lot of jockeys actually balance on the horse’s mouth so often [its mouth is] destroyed.”
For more in-depth about the harm of bits, see “Horse Riding Cruelty: Effects of the Bit.”
When off the track, racehorses in training are stabled for the majority of the day. While this is the most practical way to “store” a horse, this isolation robs them of vital social and environmental stimulation.
Stabled horses can developed neurotic behaviors such as crib-biting (also known as cribbing), which is when a horse bites on fences or other fixed objects. They also display other stress-induced repetitive behaviors, like swaying back and forth and self-mutilation.
After all of this pain and suffering, you’d think that racehorses would be rewarded in the end, especially the champions. But these animals are treated as disposable commodities, regardless of their achievements.
When a horse is no longer able to perform, or their performance is no longer deemed adequate, they tossed aside like garbage.
Those who break down on the track are euthanized on the spot and sent off to rendering plants for pet food and byproducts. Or they are simply dumped in a junkyard. After racehorse Teller All Gone broke his front leg during a race, his body was just left lying near an old toilet.
Those who don’t die or are killed on the track are sometimes “downgraded” to lower-level racing—like jump racing—which caries up to twenty times more fatalities than flat races, and has far less regulations and standards.
The final destination for most failed racing horses is slaughter, where captive bolts are often sloppily and ineffectively used, prolonging the painful and terrifying death of these long-abused animals.
Even champions who won their owners hundreds of thousands of dollars are sold for a pittance. In the United States, these horses face the additional horror being transported to Canada. They endure the multiple-day-long journey all without any food, water, or temperature regulation.
From cradle to grave, racehorses live tortured, terrifying, brutal, and completely thankless lives.
This is what happens when money is placed above the lives of sentient beings. This is the true face of the so-called “sport of kings.”
I hope this video and article help shed light on the brutality of horse racing and all forms of using animals for entertainment.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Now go live vegan, and I’ll see you soon.
— Emily Moran Barwick
In the video, I refer to the “panniculus reflex” as the “menniculus reflex”. The article above has been edited to reflect the correct term.