I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Thoroughbred race horses are magnificent animals that are sometimes horribly mistreated. They are the key element in a multi-billion dollar industry but they are often treated as an expendable commodity.
The training of thoroughbreds begins before the animals are fully grown. Once they are a few days old, foals are often handled by humans to get them used to the contact and to begin the process of teaching the horse who is the boss.
At about 18 months they are broken in—that means training the animal so that it will accept a bit, saddle, and rider. Some trainers do this gently, while others are brutal. Trainer Mark Arballo of San Diego believed in a rough approach and, in 2013, a horse called Bella Gunnabe Gifted died while he was training it. Charged with felony animal cruelty, Arballo entered a guilty plea. He paid a fine of $160,000 and was banned from training horses for three years.
Horse Racing Injuries
The problem starts with the breeding program. The ideal thoroughbred weighs about 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and is supported by skinny little ankles. The animals are then trained to run at speeds that put enormous strains on their flimsy legs. Inevitably, those fragile bones break under the enormous stresses put on them. They break frequently.
Animal Aid is a group in the United Kingdom that fights animal abuse. It has a web page with the grim title horsedeathwatch.com that catalogues the loss of thoroughbreds in the U.K. Between 2007, when they started keeping records, through mid-June 2019, 1,935 deaths are listed over 4,474 days of racing.
In an eight-day period in early June 2019, they list:
- “Sunsetstorise – Pulled up, injured, destroyed;
- “Indieburg – Finished race lame, destroyed;
- “Galitello – Slipped up on bend, destroyed; and,
- “Red Hot Chilly – Fell, dead.”
About their listed statistics, the group says “We have good reason to believe that the equine fatalities we are able to list on Death Watch, and which we have verified, fall some 30 percent short of the true total.”
The sport of horse racing which, at its best, showcases the majestic beauty of this animal and the athleticism of jockeys, has reached an alarming level of corruption and exploitation.
— U.S. Senator Tom Udall
The most frequent cause of death is a broken leg bone. Such fractures cannot be fixed, so the animals are euthanized behind mobile screens on the track where they fall. Forbes reports that in the United States, 750 thoroughbreds “die on the track each year, an average of two fatal injuries per day according to the Jockey Club’s new equine injury database.” That brings us to Santa Anita Park, California. Between December 2018 and June 2019, 29 thoroughbreds had to be euthanized after suffering inoperable injuries.
Most people blame the soft going of the dirt track, but CNN adds “some experts said that is only part of the equation and that the industry needs to take a closer look at its training practices and the drugs that can be administered to horses.”
Racehorses Are Drugged
Trainers often resort to drugging their animals in an attempt to get them to run faster. One drug called Lasix is a diuretic, and it is routinely given to horses before intense training and races. It causes the animal to expel huge amounts of urine, but it also prevents bleeding in the lungs.
The bleeding comes from broken capillaries caused by the intense exercise ofs sprint workouts and races. Insidescience.org notes that “Racehorses on Lasix compete while dehydrated, and are susceptible to muscle failure and collapse.”
Writing for USA Today, sports columnist Dan Wolken comments that “over-medication has led to a general weakening of the breed over several generations and created conditions where some injured horses don’t show physical signs of pain or distress that would set off typical alarm bells before going to the track.” The United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia don’t allow horses to run on Lasix.
Trips to the Slaughterhouse
Winx is the name of one of Australia’s greatly loved and highly successful racehorses. She won 33 consecutive races before her retirement in 2019. Her half-brother, Bareul Jeong, was not so fortunate.
Bareul Jeong was exported to South Korea where he was found to have a strained ligament. His final stud book entry notes that he was put to “death for meat processing.” Deemed no longer useful as a racehorse, Bareul Jeong was sent to an abattoir with a reputation for cruelty to animals.
Video taken at the Nonghyup slaughterhouse shows horses being beaten with metal rods to force them into a kill box. Other horses witness the killing and become greatly distressed before it’s their turn.
Dr. Bidda Jones is chief scientist of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She is quoted by The Guardian as saying, “No horse deserves to be treated that way. Regardless of whether it was bred to be eaten or bred to race . . .”
Hundreds of other thoroughbreds have been exported to South Korea, and many of them have met fates similar to Bareul Jeong’s. Such actions contravene Australia’s animal welfare laws. They also breach South Korea’s laws about the treatment of animals. However, the Australian government’s attitude seems to be that once the animal is exported, it has no further responsibilities.
They don’t slaughter horses in the United States anymore; the last equine abattoir closed in 2007. Americans are far more humane; they send the horses they don't want anymore to be put down in Canada or Mexico.
Marty Irby is a senior adviser to the Humane Society of the United States. He says that more than 100,000 American horses (other sources say the number is 10,000) are slaughtered every year in other countries. Obviously, they aren’t all thoroughbred racehorses, but a fair number are.
It doesn’t have to end this way. There are horse sanctuaries all over the world, but they can accommodate only a small number of the animals that are discarded each year.
- Horses were first domesticated in about 3,500 BCE.
- The thoroughbred was developed in England about 400 years ago. Stallions from the Middle East and Mediterranean regions were brought in to breed with English mares. Standard breeding practice is to mate the best performing mares and stallions on the track with each other.
- In 1791, James Weatherby published the first edition of the General Stud Book, which traced all known thoroughbreds back to the original three imported stallions. This book, and its counterparts in other countries, are the essential registries of the entire breed. Worldwide, there are now millions of horses classified as thoroughbreds with roughly 100,000 foals registered each year.
- The winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, died of a heart attack while training in December 2021. The horse had earlier failed a drug test.
- “The Ugly Truth about Horse Racing.” Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, March 24, 2014.
- “Winx’s Brother among Australian Racehorses Killed for Meat in South Korea.” Calla Wahlquist, The Guardian, June 5, 2019.
- “What Really Happens To Racehorses After They’re Done Racing?” Lily Feinn, The Dodo, June 8, 2018.
- “Racing Industry Silent About Slaughtered Thoroughbreds.” Vickery Eckhoff, Forbes, November 29, 2011.
- “The Hidden Cruelty Behind the Glamour of the Horse Racing Industry.” Sara Farr, Onegreenplanet.org, 2015.
- “The Science and Controversy Behind Horse Racing’s Most Popular Race Day Drug.” Kimberley Hickok, Inside Science.org, June 7, 2018.
- “Opinion: As Kentucky Derby Week Starts, Here’s What the Drug Lasix Does, Why It’s Controversial.” Dan Wolken, USA Today, April 29, 2019.
- “Horses Keep Dying at Santa Anita Racetrack. Here’[s What We Know.” Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN, June 11, 2019
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Donald on November 12, 2019:
Sir you don't mention the use of the whip - I have seen some horses receive fantastic whippings
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 12, 2019:
Dr. Mark. I did point out that there are gentle and brutal ways of breaking a horse. Yours is obviously the gentle way.
Here's a quote from Meredith Manor Equestrian Centre. Note the use of "many".
"Many people who are training horses will ask them questions that the horse has no way of understanding or answering. Then they will fight with the horse or hold him hostage until the horse either gives in or gives up. The so-called trainer walks away feeling like he or she has won the game because the horse finally did what they wanted him to do. But no actual communication took place. What happened was "breaking" not training."
I'll rework that section to make sure the distinction is clearer.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 12, 2019:
I didn't get into the whip issue. But, it occurs to me to wonder how race horses learn that the infliction of pain instructs the animals to go faster. How can they learn that other by being subjected to pain?
By a long-standing arrangement, we are going to the thoroughbred race track on Saturday for a charity fund raiser. After researching this issue I'm sure it will be our last visit.
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 12, 2019:
This could have been a good evaluation of the treatment of Thoroughbreds. Instead, you started out your hub with "it means destroying the animal’s spirit so that it will accept a bit, saddle, and rider" which is not only false, it is offensive.
The first time I put a saddle on my mares, and go to ride, they just look around as if to ask "okay, what now?" My horses are not BROKEN. People that care about horses do not have BROKEN animals.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 12, 2019:
I remember flinching years ago when I saw an excerpt from a horse race on tv with riders beating their mounts to go faster. Horse racing is still big in the UK with the Queen as one of its greatest fans.