Despite ongoing industry claims that racehorses are treated like royalty, evidence of the opposite continues to come to light, exposing the dark underbelly of the supposed ‘sport of kings’. Horses are gentle, inquisitive and social creatures, who form strong bonds with their herd mates, are incredibly maternal, and enjoy spending their days grazing in green paddocks and running with their herd (on their own terms).

Around 13,000 foals are bred into the racing industry every year. Figures from the RSPCA suggest that as many as 2,000 of these foals won’t even be registered to race and 2,500 will be used for breeding, leaving a whopping 8,500 horses exiting the racing industry every year. With a lifespan in excess of 25 years and a racing career not exceeding 4 years, there are serious concerns regarding the outcome for horses exiting the industry. Many end up wasting away in paddocks without the adequate care they need, or in abattoirs and knackeries where they meet a brutal end to a life of exploitation. Neglect and slaughter, sadly, are not the only issues with the industry; horses face a life of exploitation throughout their entire careers.

Breeding

The official breeding season of racehorses commences on September 1 of each year. With a gestation period of eleven months, this means foals are born early the following August, when there is usually ample feed in pastures for mothering mares. It is for this reason that all racehorses share the same official birthday; August 1. Breeders want horses born as close to this date as possible to ensure that when horses begin to race at 2 years old, they are as true to this age as possible. This is done to avoid any disadvantage on the track.

Thoroughbred foal born on a stud. 

Some breeders utilise artificial lighting and hormone injections to induce a mare’s breeding cycle to breed at the desired time. Some even use artificial insemination, where the genetics of potential future winners can be specifically chosen for. 

Some facilities offer a ‘nanny mare’ program where any orphaned thoroughbreds can be raised by another mare who has recently given birth to a foal. Little is known about the fate of nanny mares’ biological foals, however there have been ongoing rumors for years that many are killed for convenience.

Orphan foal with a nanny mare, the fate of the nanny mares’ biological foal a cause for concern.

Housing/Training

Racehorses are confined to a stable for up to 22 hours a day, usually only leaving to engage in their strict training regime. 

Horses are confined to stables for as long as 22 hours a day.

For horses to be able to be ridden they first have to be ‘broken in’, which entails a series of painful and frustrating practices to force a horse to begin obeying human commands under riding tack (saddle and bridle). Take for example the ‘mouthing’ process, in which a horse’s mouth can be made raw by restraining their head down in a bridle and bit attached to a band around their girth (stomach). The horse’s head is pulled tighter and tighter down. The purpose of this is to force a horse to ‘drop to the bit’. [note] [note]

A horse being broken in. Image: Mick Easterby Racing.

Horses are naturally foraging animals, and, given the opportunity, will constantly and selectively graze throughout the day. The way racehorses are housed denies their ability to express natural social behaviours. This ongoing confinement leads to horses engaging in a number of abnormal behaviors that are indicative of boredom and stress. 

Horse crib biting or ‘wind sucking’, an abnormal behaviour often caused by lack of socialisation, stress and lack of mental stimulation. Image: The Horse

Take for example cribbing, or ‘wind sucking’, where a horse places their upper teeth on a solid object and sucks in large amounts of air. It has been found that horses often engage in this unusual behaviour due to lack of socialisation, stress and lack of mental stimulation. This behaviour has also been associated with colic and stomach ulcers. Other similar behaviours like box walking, wood chewing and weaving are common in racehorses and indicate stress, and a lack of mental stimulation, time in pastures and social interaction.

Racing of 2 year old horses

Horses commonly begin racing when they are 2 years old, with their training beginning as early as 15 months old. Racing and training horses at such an early age puts them at far greater risk of serious injury, due to their juvenile skeletal systems not being fully matured. Research has found that shin soreness, a common cause of lameness in racehorses, is prevalent in 2 year old horses. 

Two year old horses on a racetrack. Image: Racenet

Deaths on track 

Every year, a huge number of racehorses are killed on track; one report found that between August 2018 and July 2019, a whopping 122 horses died on Australian racetracks. It was found that catastrophic front limb injury was the most common cause of death, with 61 occurrences. These deaths were recorded through stewards reports and did not include any deaths that resulted from injuries on the track where horses were removed and killed later. 54 that died had been raced as 2 year olds, 10 died at 2 years old, ‘bleeds’ were the cause of 5 deaths, and 7 of the deaths were horses that collapsed and died on track.

When horses are injured on track a screen is erected around them, to euthanize them out of sight from the public.

Racing during pregnancy 

One little known fact about the racing industry is that the Australian Rules of Racing allow for mares and fillies to race up until they are 4 months pregnant. Some trainers even believe that their performance is improved when they are raced in foal.

Jumps racing

Figures suggest that jumps racing is 20 times more dangerous for horses than flat racing, in terms of risk of fatality. There is a lack of transparency around the number of horses that die from jumps racing each year, and the industry statistics on death toll for horses in training and trials is not publicly available.

Jumps races have been found to be at least 20 times more dangerous than flat racing. Image: AAP

Doping

Despite there being rules in place banning the use of illicit substances to improve horses’ performance, it is a persistent issue within the industry. Instances as recent as June 2020, where thirteen thoroughbred trainers, one stablehand and a jockey were charged for administering banned substances, are indicative of the widespread nature of this illegal practice. 

Some trainers also use drugs in order to mask their horse’s pain, placing the horse at a high risk of further injury.

Health issues

Horses forced to race endure a number of health complications due to their strict training regime and unnatural living conditions.

Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) is one of the most common conditions suffered by racehorses. EIPH is characterised by blood vessels breaking in the lungs secondary to high intensity exercise. Research funded by Racing Victoria found from a sample of 747 horses, 68.4% had blood in their airways or lungs.

A horse with signs of blood in their nostrils. Image: Horses and People

Stomach ulcers are a painful condition commonly found in racehorses. Confinement, training, physiological and psychological stress are all factors that have been found to play a role in the prevalence of stomach ulcers in racehorses. One study that examined 345 racehorses found that 86% of participants suffered from the disease. Another study found the length of time a horse has been training to be closely correlated with the presence of stomach ulcers.

The disease has been found to be less prevalent in horses that spend increased time in pastures, rather than confined to stables. It has been hypothesised this is due to horses being relieved from boredom and having increased social interaction, indicating stomach ulcers are likely linked to stress.

Inflammatory airway disease is another disease which occurs frequently in racehorses, said to affect as much as 50% of athletic horses. This disease is caused by exposure to irritants in the airway. The unnatural way in which horses are housed in the racing industry (confined to stables 22 hours a day) may be correlated with the prevalence of the disease, where they are exposed to dust and other air pollutants.

Wastage

Horses that leave the racing industry before the end of their natural lifespan are referred to as ‘wastage’. The most common reason horses leave the industry is due to poor performance, however injury, illness and behavioural issues are also issues that see horses exiting the industry.

Former racehorses in the holding pens of a slaughterhouse in Australia. Image: 7.30

As aforementioned, horses have a lifespan for up to 25 years, however their racing careers seldom exceed 4 years. Statistics suggest approximately 8,500 race horses leave the industry every year. Indeed, a lucky few may find their way to loving, lifelong homes, but sadly this is not the narrative for the thousands of remaining horses every year. 

In 2019, the dark underbelly of the racing industries’ ‘wastage’ was exposed by ABC. Professor Paul McGreevy, a highly renowned veterinarian and academic who has studied thoroughbred racehorses for over 25 years, revealed that as many as 4,000 horses are unaccounted for each year, effectively ‘disappearing’.  

Investigations have revealed thousands of thoroughbred racehorses being slaughtered in knackeries and abattoirs around Australia, some who had won hundreds of thousands of dollars for their owners.

Former racehorse Bahrain in the holding pens of a knackery. Image: Farm Transparency Project

Those who don’t end up being killed when their racing career comes to an end arguably face a more uncertain future; there have been many cases where ex-racehorses have been found to be wasting away in paddocks.

Human impacts

A sad reality of the horse racing industry that is all too often overlooked is the negative impact it has on human wellbeing. The horse racing industry exists solely for, and is supported by, gambling.

Between 2017-2018 betting on animal racing in Australia increased by 7.1% to a total of $3.547 billion. The negative impacts of gambling coupled with the addictive nature of the habit have the ability to destroy human lives. Alongside the financial risks of debt and bankruptcy, the impact upon individual lives of people affected by gambling is something deserving of consideration in a compassionate society. Guilt and stress can lead to self-isolation and substance abuse issues. Research conducted by the Australian Gambling Research Centre has found consistent evidence of a correlation between gambling and family violence, and a high risk of gambling behaviours extending to the children of problem gamblers, passing between generations.

The normalisation of practices with negative outcomes for animals may also be considered as a negative impact on human wellbeing. For those who are raised in environments that excuse animal exploitation and abuse as ‘just how things have always been done’ without the insight that animal-friendly alternatives are available, it can be extremely mentally taxing, as it can be a violation of their fundamental integrity. This is particularly concerning when horse racing is promoted to children. It is important that we extend our circle of compassion to humans who might not have been aware of the alternatives available, those who have a past of normalised cruelty, and those who welcome education on kind and ethical options.

What can you do?

Firstly, and most importantly, never place a bet on a racehorse; without the revenue generated from gambling money the industry would no longer be able to sustain itself, and would effectively collapse. In addition to this, it is important to encourage our friends and family to do the same; many otherwise well meaning people might be totally unaware of the adverse welfare issues involved in the horse racing industry.