The horse racing industry presents itself as the “sport of kings”, with horses being treated like “royalty”, but this is far from true. Over the last few years, the industry has been in the spotlight due to the mistreatment of the horses. A racehorse is denied their natural behaviours but also places the horses at risk of injury and death. The following article dives into the facts about horses, how the industry operates, and the major welfare issues.
Horses are often only seen for the extrinsic values people place on them – how fast they can run, how much they can pull, how submissive they are. Looking at animals from this perspective completely strips them of their intrinsic value – their own rights and purpose. Despite being domesticated over 5,000 years ago, we are still learning about how horses think, behave, and their differing personalities.
Horses are intelligent!
Horses have a complex nervous system, which is proof of intelligence. Various studies have shown that they not only have instinct, but also excellent memory, can make valid judgements, can learn, and work problems out themselves, like opening stables and freeing themselves .
They are very communicative animals, with highly developed social skills and try to cooperate rather than dominate . Horses can also communicate with humans through body language and can also tell if a human is happy or angry, and respond accordingly [3, 2].
They live in herds and form close friendships.
Horses are social animals who live within a herd. Studies have found that they feel most comfortable when they are in visual contact with other horses. They are very rarely alone . Within these herds, they form strong pair-bonding relationships that can last a lifetime. These bonds can be based on family ties, however, are more commonly formed on individual preferences . Their herds are complex and constantly changing. When separated, they will feel a deep loss .
Just because they run, does not mean they should be raced.
Horses are prey animals and enact the ‘flight’ response when in a frightening situation. The main reason a horse would have to push themselves to the limit is to escape predators or danger (fire, flood) .
They are all unique.
Horses are all unique and have different personalities – just like us! They can be curious, social, aloof, or more fearful, or confident and challenging .
The racing industry is a billion-dollar industry, founded on the exploitation and suffering of animals . Despite being used for thousands of years, horses still need to be “broken”, before they can be exploited. While it is an international issue, this article will focus specifically on the Australian industry.
Types of Races
There are three types of racing – flat, jumps, and harness. Flat and jumps use thoroughbreds, while harness uses standardbreds.
Flat races are held on turf or synthetic tracks and horses are raced from 1,000m to 3,200m .
During a jumps race, horses have to jump over obstacles at high speeds. Horses eyes are placed laterally which restricts their vision forward and their ability to judge the distance and position of an obstacle at speed. They also have an inflexible spine making it difficult for them to compensate for jumping errors. Horses can jump because they may need to in the wild, however, it doesn’t mean they “love” to jump. Jumps races are also three times longer than the average flat race, meaning horses are pushed to their limits for 5,500m and they must clear 33 obstacles .
Jumps racing is banned in NSW and Tasmania.
Harness racing is where horses must run at a specific gait while pulling a two-wheeled cart and driver.
Mares and Studs
Successful racehorses may be sold to stud farms to become breeders, hoping that they will pass on their characteristics to their foals. The racing industry treats mares as breeding machines, in the hopes of producing the next elite racer . In the wild, a mare would have a foal once every two years, despite reaching fertility just weeks after birth. Breeder mares, however, are artificially impregnated to almost instantly .
All thoroughbred racehorses in the Australian Stud Book must be freeze branded . Freeze branding uses liquid nitrogen at temperatures of minus 196 degrees C or dry ice of temperatures of minus 78.5 degrees C, to destroy the skin and hair pigment . While not deemed as painful as hot-iron branding, it still causes some pain to the horses.
Every year, thousands of horses sustain an injury or develop a health issue on Australian tracks. These can range from abnormal respiratory noises, exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhaging (bleeding in the lungs), cardiac arrhythmia, abrasions, lacerations, speedy cuts, muscle and shin soreness, lameness, thumps, tying up, or were slow to recover .
Jumps racing adds an additional risk of injuries due to the hurdles. Horses commonly misjudge the height or width, leading to falls [x]. According to the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, jumps racing is 20% more dangerous than flat racing . The Australian Jumps Racing Association says the fall rate in 2019 was 2.57% . These horses can suffer from neck and head injuries, as well as broken legs and fractures.
Some of these injuries can be catastrophic meaning the horse died as a result or was euthanised on the track. During the 2019-2020 season, 116 horses have died or been euthanised. An analysis of the races by the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses over the years, has found that one horse dies every three days on Australian racetracks [19 PDF]. While the industry claims that this is a low percentage, it does not take away from the fact that hundreds of horses are dying as a direct result of racing.
‘Breaking’ and Training
All horses have to be “broken” in, which basically means breaking their spirits so that they obey everything the person teaches them and can be ridden . Horses are considered mature at three to five years of age . Despite this, the racing industry races them at just 2 years old . This means yearlings begin the training regime at less than 2 years of age. This places enormous stress on the horses’ immature skeletal frame and can lead to early breakdowns, lower limb ailments, fractures, pulled ligaments, and strained tendons . More research is needed to determine the long term effects of training and racing young horses.
On top of this, a horse wouldn’t naturally run at high speeds for long distances, as a result, some trainers use devices and methods forcing the horses to comply .
Being a prey animal, a horse has a natural response to escape from something threatening or that could cause pain. The racing industry plays on this response and their fears. Horses can legally be whipped during training and racing, their purpose is to trigger the horse to push themselves further and also “control” the horse – ie, the sting of the whip will make them run faster. The industry claims they do not hurt, however, is untrue. While horses do have resilient skin, it does not mean it isn’t sensitive. If a fly lands on a horse’s back, their skin twitches and they are quick to wipe them away with their tails. This is because their skin is as sensitive as our fingertips . Whips have proven to cause bruising and inflammation.
“The really interesting part is that right up in the epidermis, which is the top layer and that’s where the pain-sensing C fibres are, in the human specimen that’s thicker than the horses. So by the old argument of horse’s skin is thicker and they feel it less, actually, you could argue human’s skin is thicker.”Dr Lydia Tong, a University of Sydney veterinary pathologist and forensics researcher 
A frame-by-frame analysis of 15 races in 2011 found that “eighty-three per cent of the time there was a visible indentation [caused by a whip]… seventy per cent of the time the abdomen was struck, the flank was struck. This evidence also showed the unpadded shaft of the whip making contact in 64 per cent of cases. Now that’s important because the section between the padded and unpadded sections has a hard knot, so we know that 64 per cent of the time, that knot is hitting the horse,” Professor McGreevy said .
Despite this, during the final 100m of a race, a horse can be struck an unlimited amount of times .
Some horses have an elastic strap or nylon stocking tied around their tongue and lower jaw, to prevent their tongues from moving while racing. The industry claims that it is for the horses’ wellbeing, as it prevents the horse from choking or swallowing their tongues, and prevents them from getting their tongue over the uncomfortable bit .
To put it on, a worker grabs the tongue and twists the tie around the base in a figure of eight and then around the bottom jaw – it can be done as tightly as the handler decides. There is no time limit to how long it can be left on. Horses with tongue-ties exhibit signs of pain, anxiety, distress, difficulty swallowing, cuts and lacerations, bruising, and swelling. It restricts blood flow and can cause permanent tissue damage .
A wild horse will travel around 30 kilometres (sometimes much more) in a day, going from feed to water in the ‘home-range’. Being on the move helps keep blood and lymphatic fluid moving around the body while wearing down their hooves . This is a stark contrast to the life of a racehorse, who spends up to 22 hours per day in a stable, unable to socialise with others. The only time they are out is when they are training. The stables also deny them from developing their own herd and prevent bonds as horses are regularly moved and sold .
As mentioned early, horses are intelligent, social animals who live in herds. In the wild, a horse would never put themselves into a small space – the stables and starting box – where they could not escape – it goes against their nature of being able to flee quickly [19 PDF]. A horse will remain still to socialise or be vigilant, otherwise, they are almost constantly moving. In the racing industry, their movements are restricted and this confinement can impinge on both their physical and mental health [19 PDF]. Some common signs of physiological and psychological stress in racehorses are repetitive yawning, tooth grinding, biting and chewing, “bad” behaviour (rearing, bucking, bolting, cold backed, pawning, pulling, tail wringing), colic, trembling and shaking, high pulse and respiration, and sweating .
If you have ever watched the races or seen the horses in the stables, you may notice that some of them exhibit signs of stress. The Stewards reports commonly state horses are refusing to load, kick-out, buck, throw their head, strike, bite, or try to escape – research shows that they do this when they feel trapped and are scared .
Horses eat small amounts of low energy, high fibre food continuously – eating for 12-16 hours throughout the day and night. They should never be fed ‘meals’ of concentrated foods like they do in the racing industry. If they are being fed meals, they can suffer from poor gut functioning, colic, and gastric ulcers. High energy feed can cause obesity and laminitis, which are very serious conditions [33, 34].
Retirement, Rehoming, and Wastage
The average racing “career” of a racehorse is less than 3 years, meaning most thoroughbreds are retired at just 6 to 7 years old. The racing industry admits that many will retire much earlier at 4 or 5 years old . If left to their own devices, a horse can live for 20, with some having lived for over 40!
Wastage refers to those who leave the industry and foals who never make it to the track . The latter occurs for two reasons, one there is an oversupply of foals and two, not every horse will be a successful racer. It is estimated that 300 out of every 1,000 foals will start in a race. This means for every 13,000 thoroughbred foals born, around 9,000 will be considered useless and many will end up at the ‘doggers’ . While there has been a reduction in the number of foals being born each year, there were 12,898 foals born in 2017/2018 and almost 14,000 in 2019 .
Three recent exposes have shown that hundreds of ex-racehorses and standardbreds are being killed across Australia. You can view the ABC’s 730 Report here, Farm Transparency Project exposé here, or the most recent two exposés below.
Importing Live Horses
The Australian government allows for horses to be brought in from select countries . In the last 9 years, 17,724 horses were sent on live export ships . These means horses are also victims of the live export trade and gamblers and race attendees are supporting this industry. It also means that racing supporters are unaware of the conditions the breeding horses are kept in, and the way in which the horses were trained, as they do not have the same animal welfare standards as Australia.
What Can I Do?
It is evident that the racing industry puts profits over the horses’ wellbeing. It denies them their natural instincts, and causes physical and mental suffering, while also places them at risk of sustaining an injury on the track. If the industry truly loved their horse, they would not risk their lives for money.
If you love horses, please make the decision to never bet on their lives or support the industry. Take the pledge to never bet on an animals life, here.
You can also help by sharing this information with your friends and family.