Is Horse Racing Cruel?
An insider points out some things you may not have realized about the Horse Racing Industry, in an attempt to inform people about what really goes on at the race tracks.
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This is one of those impossible questions to answer because first you have to establish the definition of “cruel”. Unfortunately everyone has a different interpretation of this word, and ultimately view what others do as cruel, and what they do as not cruel. The fact is every year hundreds of horses will loose their lives as a result of breaking down on the race track. Rather than using this article to define cruelty I will simply point out what I feel is cruel in the horse racing industry from an insiders point of view. I have worked with horses for many years.
Horse racing is different world wide. In the United States, and Canada, for example, horses are kept pretty much at one race track for an extended period of time. These race tracks are typically located in urban areas thus not allowing any pasture, or riding space other than the tract itself. Thus the horses are kept in their stalls for the greater part of the day, I will refer to this below.
In other countries such as England the horses are kept mostly at home, shipped to race meets which generally are around 2 weeks long. These tracks are in rural locations allowing areas for riding. The horses are often outdoors more of the time and have a generally better enjoyment of life. If you have attended a race meet in the United Kingdom you will notice right away that the riders are not “ponied” to the starting gate in the manner they are in North America. The riders seem to trust the horses a bit more, an indication that they are ridden more frequently and independently of racing and training.
The race tracks themselves are much more “humane” in the UK, being longer, no tight corners, they are often straight, or varying direction, grassy, and so forth. Whereas the typical North American track is always a counter clockwise oval.
Race horse owners and the industry itself, push to get these guys on the track early. Regardless of actual date of birth they are all considered to all have the birth date of January 1st of the year they were born. So if a foal is born in June, it is considered to be 1 year of age in January. There are races for 2-year-olds. In an eager attempt to get these youngsters on the track they are saddled and ridden as yearlings, something not done in any other discipline. Many Warmbloods, horses commonly used for jumping, are not even ridden until four or five years of age, much less pushed to their maximum capacity.
The races for two year olds are short distance races. This is actually very hard on them because they are sprinting which is hard on a young horse.
One thing that is apparent, is that in North America horses do not have as long of a career as in England or other places. In England it is not uncommon to see active race horses over the age of 6, however, in North America these horses stand out and are often discounted because of age.
This is a big point. The main problem here is that when a horse remains in a stall for a good part of the day, its bone density deteriorates, thus the bones become weaker. In my opinion this is probably the biggest reason for so many horses breaking down on the track. Yes, I would call this cruel, because we have predisposed the animal to being weaker and then ask it to run full out on weakened bones.
There are two main reasons why race horses are stabled for much of the day. One reason is space, race track stabling houses hundreds of horses, there is simply not enough space to have turn out pastures or pens for them in this situation. As I have stated, in North America, this means the horses are in their stalls for most of the day, for many months. The other, and more common reason, is that even if such spaces did exist, high energy horses would want to play, and playing is risky. Horse owners often do not want to risk their horse becoming injured, as such, the stall is a safer choice. Certainly more boring, but safer.
Race Horses are Not Pets
Race horses are not pets, they are status symbols and a tool to make money for their owner. Many race horse owners could not pick their horse out of a field, and it’s probably just as well, since many wouldn’t be able to put a halter on if they had to. The horse is a commodity to be used then sold. The horses are cared for by trainers and grooms.
It is a common misconception that race horses are treated like royalty. Very few are top dollar earners and those who are not, are flogged until they break down or are sold.
Thoroughbred vs Standardbred Racing
For the most part I do consider Standardbred racing to be much less risky to the horse in terms of stress and injury. Standardbreds are the ones that race with the carts behind them (not to be confused with Chuckwagon Racing). Thoroughbreds race at a horses top speed, the gallop, whereas Standardbreds race at a slower gait, the trot or pace. This means it is less stressful on the whole and as a result there are fewer injuries, even with the risks of legs being caught in the entanglement of the carts or collisions.
You must remember that not all injuries happen during the race, many stress related injuries show up after the race or during training workouts. Even these injuries are lower in the Standardbred race industry.
The Finish Line
So there you have it, I have scratched the surface and revealed some facts about horse racing you may not have considered. All things which exploit animals for people to profit off of, are all in some ways cruel, you have to decide how much cruelty you are willing to accept or support. By betting on racing a person is supporting it, because much of the purse money comes from the betting public and admission fees.
I would say to the person who likes watching horse racing, and enjoys betting on the races, but is conflicted by the feeling they are supporting a cruel industry, to perhaps switch to Standardbred racing, otherwise stay away from racing in general.