The truth about horseracing is that it is a form of animal abuse in which horses are forced to run in fear with a human harassing them on their backs.

The name already tells you something. 

When you have a type of animal “use” that in English has become a single word (where the animal’s name has been “kidnapped” by the name of the “use”), you know such activity must have been a type of abuse going on for a long time. We have cockfighting, bullfighting, foxhunting, and beekeeping as some examples of this lexicographic phenomenon. Another one is horseracing. Unfortunately, horses have been forced to race for millennia, and the single word often used (not always) puts it in the same category as the other abusive “bloodsports”. 

Horseracing is a cruel activity disguised as a “sport” that causes great suffering to millions of horses and has no acceptable justification in the 21st century. It is a cruel form of animal abuse that causes suffering and death shamefully tolerated by mainstream society. This article will explain why it should be abolished, and not just reformed to reduce the suffering it causes.

Horse Racing Comes from Horse Riding

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It may not be apparent to anyone who opposes horseracing that such activity would have never developed in the form of animal abuse we find today had horses not been ridden in the first place.

Horses are herd ungulates who evolved over the last 55 million years to live with many other horses in open spaces, not with humans in stables. They are herbivores who are the natural prey of predators such as wolves and have evolved a series of defence mechanisms to avoid capture. Some of these involve running as fast as they can, kicking backwards to expel the incoming attacker, or jumping up and down to dislodge any predator already on them.

Sometime around 5,000 years ago, humans in central Asia began capturing wild horses and jumping on their backs. The natural instinctive reaction to having people on their backs would be to get rid of them as their lives might be at stake. Even after all these years of domestication producing many breeds of horses created with artificial selection from the now-extinct original wild horse, that defensive instinct is still there. All horses still need to be broken in to tolerate humans on their backs, as otherwise, they would throw them out — which is what “bronco-style” rodeos exploit.

The process of breaking in horses is aimed at eliminating the natural response to predators by repeating “predatory simulations” until the horse realises these “predators” (the humans) only bite if you turn left when they want to go right or stay still when they want you to move forward at the precise speed ordered. And the “bites” do physically occur with the use of all sorts of devices (including whips and spurs). Therefore, breaking horses in is not only a bad thing because the final result is a horse who has lost some of its “integrity”, but it is also wrong as it causes distress to the horse while it is done. 

Those who train horses today may not use the exact same methods used in the past and they may say what they do now is no longer breaking the horse, but a gentler and subtle “training “— or even euphemistically calling it “schooling” — but the objective and negative effect is the same.

Riding horses often harms them. Horses suffer specific diseases from having the weight of a person on their back — which their bodies have never evolved to accept. The weight of a person on a horse for a long time will compromise circulation by closing the blood flow in the back, which over time can cause tissue damage, often starting close to the bone. Kissing Spines Syndrome is also a problem caused by riding, where the spines of the horse’s vertebrae start to touch each other and sometimes fuse.

Ridden horses sometimes collapse from exhaustion if forced to run too much or under the wrong conditions, or they may fall and break their limbs, which often leads to their euthanasia. In natural situations, horses running without riders may be able to avoid accidents that could cause them injury as they will not be forced to go on difficult terrains or over dangerous obstacles. Breaking in the horses may also compromise their instincts for prudence and caution.

All these problems occur with horse riding, but when you only look at horseracing, which is just another form of extreme horse riding that has been happening for millennia ( there is evidence that horseracing was already happening in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Babylon, Syria, Arabia, and Egypt), the problems worsen, because horses are forced to their physical limits both in “training” and during the races. 

In horseracing, violence is used to force the horses to “perform” better than other horses. The instinct of horses to flee predators by running as far as they can under the safety of their herd is what the jockeys exploit. The horses are not really racing against each other (they do not really care about who wins the race), but they are trying to escape from a predator who is biting them hard. That is what the use of the whip by the jockey is all about, and it is used on the posterior side of the horse to make the horse run in the opposite direction. Unfortunately for the horses, the predator is no going away because it happens to be strapped on their backs, so the horses keep running faster and faster well beyond their physical limits. Horseracing is a nightmare in the horse’s mind (as it would be for a person to be running from a violent abuser but never being able to escape him). It’s a recurrent nightmare that keeps happening again and again (and this is why they keep running faster race after race as they already experienced it before).

The Horseracing Industry

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Horseracing still takes place, legally, in many countries, many of which have a relatively big horseracing industry, such as the USA, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Czechia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mauritius, China, India, Japan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Malaysia, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, and Argentina. In several of the countries with a horseracing industry, this was introduced to them by colonisers of the past (such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, etc.). In any country where gambling is legal, the horseracing industry normally has a betting component, which generates lots of funds.  

There are many types of horse racing, including Flat racing (where horses gallop directly between two points around a straight or oval track); Jump racing, also known as Steeplechasing or, in Great Britain and Ireland, National Hunt racing (where horses race over obstacles); Harness racing (where horses trot or pace while pulling a driver); Saddle Trotting (where horses must trot from a starting point to a finishing point under saddle); and Endurance racing (where horses travel across the country over very long distances, generally ranging from 25 to 100 miles. Breeds that are used for flat racing include the Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, Arabian, Paint, and Appaloosa. 

In the US, there are 143 active horserace tracks in 33 different states, and the state with the most active tracks is California (with 11 tracks). In addition to these, there are 165 training tracks. The US horseracing industry has a revenue of £11 billion a year. The Kentucky Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Breeder’s Cup and the Belmont Stakes are their most important events.

Horse racing in Great Britain is predominantly thoroughbred flat and jumps racing. In the UK, as of 18 April 2024, there are 61 active racecourses (excluding Point-to-Point courses used by hunts). Two racecourses have closed in the 21st century, Folkestone in Kent and Towcester in Northamptonshire. There is not any active racecourse in London. The most prestigious racecourse is the Aintree racecourse in Merseyside, where the infamous Great National takes place. It opened in 1829 and it is run by the Jockey Club (the largest commercial horseracing organisation in the UK, which owns 15 of Britain’s famous racecourses), and it is an endurance race in which 40 horses are forced to jump 30 fences through four-and-a quarter miles. About  13,000 foals are born into the closely-related British and Irish racing industries each year.

In France, there are 140 racecourses used for thoroughbred racing, and there are 9,800 horses in training. Australia has 400 racecourses, and the most well-known events and races are the Sydney Golden Slipper and the Melbourne Cup. Japan boasts the biggest horseracing market in the world in terms of value, with more than $16 billion in revenue annually.

The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities was founded in 1961 and 1983 but in 2024 have not an official World Horseracing Championship.

The industry has been challenged by animal rights organisations all over the world — especially in the UK — but as horseracing remains legal, the authorities continue protecting this cruel activity. For instance, on 15th April 2023, 118 activists from Animal Rising were arrested by Merseyside police for their attempts to disrupt the  Grand National at the Aintree horse racecourse. On 22nd April 2023, 24 Animal Rising activists were arrested at the Scottish Grand National in Ayr, Scotland. On 3rd June 2023, dozens of animal rights activists were arrested in connection to the disruption of the Epsom Derby, a famous horserace that takes place at Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, England.

Horses Injured and Killed in Horseracing

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Of all the types of horse riding that have ever happened, horseracing is the second that has caused more injuries and death to horses — after using cavalry horses in combat during wars — and probably the first in the 21st century. As only horses in optimal physical conditions have a chance to win a race, any injury the horse may incur during training or at a race may become a death sentence for the horses, who may be killed (often shot on the track itself) as spending any money in healing them and keeping them alive if they are not going to be racing is something their “owners” may only want to do if they want to use them for breeding. 

According to Horseracing Wrongs, a non-profit organisation committed to ending the cruel and deadly horseracing industry in the United States, from 1st January 2014 to 26th April 2024, a total of 10,416 horses were confirmed killed at US horseracing tracks. They estimate that over 2,000 horses die at US tracks every year.

Since 13th March 2027, the website horsedeathwatch, run by the British animal rights group Animal Aid, has been tracking the death of horses in the horseracing industry in the UK, and so far it has counted 2776 deaths in 6,257 days. In the UK, since the first Grand National in 1839, more than 80 horses have died during the race itself, with nearly half of these deaths taking place between 2000 and 2012. In 2021, The Long Mile had to be shot dead during the main race having suffered an injury while running on the flat course, two years after Up for Review lost his life at Aintree. At Aintree alone, more than 50 horses have died since 2000, including 15 during the Grand National itself. In 2021 there were 200 horse deaths across Britain. Reforms have been made since 2012, but they have made little difference.

The majority of fatalities occur in jump racing. The Grand National is a deliberately hazardous race. A dangerously overcrowded field of 40 horses is forced to face 30 extraordinarily challenging and treacherous jumps. Two horses diet at the Grand National main horserace of the Aintree festival on 10th April 2022. Discorama died after being pulled up with an injury before the 13th fence, and Eclair Surf, one of the early favourites, died after suffering a heavy fall at the third fence. Cheltenham is also a dangerous racecourse. Since 2000, 67 horses have died at this annual festival (11 of them in the 2006 meeting). 

On 11th March 2024, Animal Aid held a vigil outside the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) doors, in memory of the 175 horses who were killed on British racecourses in 2023. In Ireland, at least 100 horses died that year. The deadliest racehorses in Britain in 2023 were Lichfield with nine deaths, Souyjfield with eight deaths, and Doncaster with seven deaths.

In Ontario, Canada, Peter Physick-Sheard, an emeritus professor of population medicine, studied 1,709 horse deaths in the horseracing industry between 2003 and 2015, and found that the majority of deaths were attributable to “damage during exercise to the horses’ musculoskeletal system”.

Any previously healthy young horse may die on any racing track in the world. On 3rd August 2023, Danehill Song, a 3-year-old horse, died after running on the opening day of Wine Country Horse Racing at the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, California, US. The horse took a bad step during a chase in the stretch and was later killed. The California Horse Racing Board listed the cause of Danehill Song’s death as musculoskeletal. Danehill Song was the 47th horse killed during the 2023 California racing season. Of the 47 horses that died this year, 23 of the deaths were recorded as musculoskeletal injuries, which normally leads to the horses being shot dead on what the organisers call “compassionate grounds”. On 4th August 2023, another horse died at the Del Mar racetrack. Five horses died at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in June and July.

Other Animal Welfare Problems in Horseracing

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There are other things wrong with the horseracing industry other than the death and injuries directly caused by it, and the inherited suffering in any riding of horses cases. For instance: 

Forced Separation. The industry removes the horses it breeds for racing from their mothers and herds from a very young age, as they are considered valuable assets to trade. They are often sold at the tender age of one, and most likely would be exploited in the industry for the rest of their lives. 

Premature training. Horses’ bones continue growing until the age of six, and the higher in the body the bones are, the slower the process of growth. Therefore, the bones in the spine and neck are the last to finish growing. However, horses bred for racing, are already forced to train intensively at 18 months and to race at two years of age, when many of their bones are not fully developed yet and are more vulnerable. Horses in the industry that are four, three, or even two years of age when they die show chronic conditions like osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease caused by this problem.

Captivity. Horses in the horseracing industry are normally kept captive on their own in small 12×12 stalls for over 23 hours a day. These naturally social, herd animals are constantly deprived of being in the company of other horses, which is what their instincts demand.  Stereotypic behaviour commonly seen in captive horses, such as cribbing, wind-sucking, bobbing, weaving, digging, kicking, and even self-mutilation, are common in the industry. Outside of the breeding shed, stallions are kept separated from mares and other males, and when not housed in their stable, they are confined behind high fences.

Doping. Horses used in races are sometimes injected with performance-enhancing drugs, which have the effect of masking injuries and reducing pain. Consequently, horses may injure themselves even further when they do not stop because they do not feel their injuries.

Sexual abuse. Many horses in the horseracing industry are forced to breed, whether they like it or not. During a six-month breeding season, stallions can be made to cover mares almost every day. About 30 years ago, mating with 100 mares in a year was rare, but now it is common for leading stallions to have 200 mares on their breeding books. Artificial insemination is also used, and even cloning. Breeding females are subjected to drugs and prolonged periods of artificial light to control and speed up reproduction. Mares in the wild have one foal every two years, but the industry can force healthy and fertile mares to produce a foal every year.

Slaughter. Most horses used in racing would be killed in slaughterhouses when they run slower because of age or injury. In some countries, their flesh will end up in the human food chain, while in others their hair, skin or bones may end up being used for a variety of purposes. Once the horses can no longer run or are deemed not worth breeding, they are no longer of value to the industry, which does not want to keep spending money feeding them or looking after them, so they are disposed of.  

There are many wrong things about horseracing and it should be completely banned, but we should not forget what the root of the problem is. Ethical vegans not only want to see horseracing abolished but they oppose horse riding altogether because it is a form of unacceptable exploitation. Keeping animals captive, putting ropes around their mouths, jumping on their backs, and forcing them to carry you wherever you want to go, is not something proper ethical vegans do. If horses allow some humans to do it, it’s because their spirit has been “broken”. Vegans don’t treat horses as vehicles, don’t order them to follow their directions, and don’t tell them off if they dare to disobey — all intrinsic practices in any riding of horses. Besides, normalising horseback riding erases the horse from existence as an independent sentient being. When the human-horse combo becomes “a rider” who is now in charge, the horse has been erased from the picture, and when you don’t see the horses anymore, you don’t see their suffering. Horseracing is one of the worst forms of horse riding, so it should be one of the first forms to be abolished.

Despite what the industry says, no horse wants to be ridden to run in panic with other horses to see who runs the fastest. 

The Truth about horseracing is that is a recurrent nightmare for the horses born in this cruel industry, which will end up killing them.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.