The Horse racing Industry – Gambling with Animals’ Lives
“And they’re off!” yells the announcer’s voice over a loudspeaker from his glass booth perched high above the field as horses and riders burst from the starting gate. He fires off thoroughbreds’ names and positions at rapid-fire speed to keep pace with the racing animals and heighten spectators’ excitement as they anxiously root for the numbered horses they’ve bet money on. Down on the track, seven or more racehorses run closely together with all their might at up to 45 miles per hour. The jockeys crouched on the horses’ backs whack their necks, shoulders and hindquarters with leather riding crops as much as 30 times in a single race, trying to move their struggling mounts into first place. Horses may be “neck and neck” during the race, but in the end only one is declared the winner.
Bettors sometimes have thousands of dollars riding on a single horse, so tensions run high in this “sport” that forces animals to run for the purpose of “entertainment” and profit. Yet it never fails that whenever money is made from the use of living creatures, exploitation and cruelty follow. This is certainly the case in the competitive world of horse racing. “The undeniable and inescapable problem with the thoroughbred industry is that thousands of foals must be produced in order to develop a few dozen good racers,” notes veterinarian Holly Cheever. “The excess often meet with inhumane ends and similarly, when race horses are no longer money-earning winners, they too often end up neglected, abandoned, and starving at the hands of uncaring owners, with their final end being the slaughterhouse.”
Drugs, Money and Death
People who purchase racehorses may shell out millions for a thoroughbred from a winning bloodline. With such vast sums often staked on a single animal, many racehorse “owners” will do whatever it takes to win and earn back their money, but it is the animals that ultimately pay the price. Horses are pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs to make them run faster, numb their response to pain and counteract the inherently harmful effects of chronic overexertion. Some of these drugs are legal, and each state has its own regulations, but the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium has said that there are probably thousands of illegal drugs that testing labs never even detect. Veterinarians providing treatment for racehorses must often contend with “owners” and trainers who are more concerned about getting a horse onto the track for a race than with the animal’s health and safety.
Thoroughbreds used for racing commonly suffer from a host of dangerous afflictions. “(Horse) racing and animal suffering are inextricably linked,” claims Dr. Tim O'Brien. “Horses, which are often raced when less than two years old, endure massively high incidences of stomach ulceration, lung hemorrhaging (even during low-intensity exercise) and bone weakness (sometimes weakening by over 40% during the course of a race).” One group of researchers found that all of the racehorses in their study sample suffered from gastric ulcers, and another study published in the Equine Veterinary Journal showed that 95% of racehorses had lung hemorrhages after racing. The fact that these serious health problems are virtually unknown in non-racing horses is evidence that the rigors of training and racing are unnatural for these animals.
Racing on a crowded track that can be as hard as concrete at breakneck speed is already an inherently dangerous activity for animals that weigh in at around 1,000 pounds and yet have ankles that are about the same size as a human’s. Because thoroughbreds have been selectively bred over the course of many centuries for a single and very specific purpose – to run as fast as possible – their bodies are fragile and easily damaged by even the slightest misstep. Broken leg bones are a common occurrence in horse racing, and drugs that mask pain only increase the chances of serious injury because a horse may keep running on a limb that has already been damaged. This can cause the bone to actually poke through the skin, leading to infection and extreme pain.
Studies indicate that approximately 800 thoroughbreds die every year in North America from injuries incurred during racing. This figure would be even higher if horses that died in the course of training were factored in. Because most racehorse "owners" see these animals purely as economic investments, they choose to simply have injured thoroughbreds put down to spare themselves the expense of veterinary services. Some are even killed right on the track immediately following an injury behind a curtain that shields the crowd from having to witness this disturbing end. The least sympathetic investors recover some of their losses by selling injured horses to slaughterhouses. According to the National Horse Protection Coalition (NHPC), as many as 100,000 horses are slaughtered each year in the U.S. and exported for human consumption to European countries. The NHPC estimates that 16% of these are thoroughbred racehorses. These horses are killed just as cattle are – with a shot to the head from a captive bolt pistol and a knife blade across the throat. Their flesh is then exported to foreign countries overseas for human consumption or turned into “pet” food.
Risky Business: Surgery and Survival
A few “owners” keep injured thoroughbreds alive in the hope that they can race again, but they usually don't allow enough time for horses' damaged limbs to fully heal, leading to pain and physical trauma. Others are used as studs to breed more racehorses, continuing this vicious cycle of abuse. Even if a horse does survive, treatment can be very difficult and painful. The risk of open wounds getting infected is very high because horses have only limited circulation in their legs. Their blood vessels are often damaged in racing accidents, creating perfect conditions for bacteria to set in. Low blood flow also makes it difficult to treat horses with antibiotics. Because horses are big, veterinarians typically must administer huge doses of antibiotics and other medications if they are to have any effect at all. However, overuse of drugs causes problems of its own, some of them life-threatening.
Horses often remain in danger even after surgery because they don't like to be restrained. After waking from anesthesia, they may break the leg again and even another undamaged one by thrashing about in a panic. Horses need all four of their legs to live – many even sleep standing up – so having one leg out of commission is a serious health threat. A horse that leans on a wounded leg after surgery may develop laminitis, in which the hooves on the other three legs slowly and painfully detach from the bone.
No Voice, No Choice
Unlike humans who willingly compete in dangerous sports, horses are not able to choose whether to participate in racing: they are forced to. The multi-billion dollar racing industry victimizes racehorses by endangering their welfare and literally gambling with their lives. Horse racing can therefore never be an acceptable form of "entertainment" to those who truly care about the welfare of animals by nature.