A horse race is a sporting event in which humans perch on a horse’s back and compel the animal — sometimes to the point of injury — to run at breakneck speed in close quarters. Whether the goal is to win or place, a jockey’s skill and judgment are critical to the effort. But this sport is unnatural, and horses do not understand it. They’re prey animals, and they instinctively know that self-preservation means getting to safety.
On the racetrack, they’re pushed to do things their bodies were never made to do. The way a horse runs free in the open field bears no resemblance to the way it’s made to race, and even those who support the industry acknowledge that the sport is not natural.
The claim that horses are born to run, love to compete, and that it’s a great sport to watch is a cynical lie. And while the racing industry has made significant improvements in recent years, it will be difficult to reverse the trend of fewer races and more injuries.
Most horses reach their peak ability at age three, but the escalating size of purses, breeding fees, and sale prices has forced owners to push their young horses past this point. Many of these horses are also injected with cocktails of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and boost performance. Powerful painkillers, anti-inflammatories, growth hormones, and blood doping are all used to help horses run faster, but racing officials often lack the testing capacity to catch them. And the penalties, when they are applied, are rarely stiff enough to keep a trainer away from the track for long.
As a result, the horses suffer countless injuries. Those who are lucky will heal in time to race again, but some will not. The most common injuries are pulled suspensory ligaments (a condition in which some portion of the ligament fibers have been disrupted), abrasions, lacerations, and fractures. Some horses will also bleed from their lungs during a race, which is called exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. This condition is often caused by the tightness of a horse’s stride, which can cause pressure on the diaphragm and lungs.
To avoid such injuries, horses must be conditioned to acclimate to the stresses of running. That’s why so many racehorses are drilled on treadmills for hours at a time before they ever take to the track, and why they’re often put through such rigorous workouts that they can barely stand afterwards. And then, a blizzard of whip blows, a mile and a half, or even longer, and the horses are ready to do it all over again. During the 2008 season, more than 1,800 racehorses were injured, a record number that has racetracks worried about their ability to survive. To combat the problem, they’ve created a new body to oversee safety, but critics say it will be difficult for the new board of directors to change the culture of the sport.