Animal Welfare

Horse Racing and the Disconnect from Nature

This post has been sitting in my drafts for a little while, but with the recent photo of Gordon Elliott (a reputable, successful racehorse trainer) sitting on a dead horse and grinning for the camera, I felt now was a good time to post it. I am not going to include that photo in this post for obvious reasons, but it’s not difficult to find online.

Before I start, I just want to remind anyone reading that these posts are primarily for me to voice my opinions. My aim is never to preach or lecture, but to encourage people to consider things differently. I know plenty of people who adore the races, and I don’t wish to shame anybody, but rather offer an alternative perspective.

Growing up in the UK, it’s not unusual for The Grand National to be a fun family day. Growing up, I was always allowed to put ยฃ2 on my favourite horse – which, obviously, was always down to the jockey’s jacket or the horse’s name. It was always so exciting, but also very removed. We only ever watched on TV, so it felt almost like it wasn’t real. Growing up with it, it seemed just as natural as eating meat (something I also didn’t question until later in life). We just don’t really consider these things in much depth when we’re little. But one year, I remember my family going quiet when the commentators said a horse had fallen. I thought they were just sad because he was out of the race, but it slowly became obvious that the reality was much more sinister. Since then, I can’t see The Grand National as anything but a sad day.

Frustratingly, like the dairy industry, the horse racing industry is built on rich people. It’s pretty much all owned by the creme de la creme, the people at the absolute top of the wealth chain. The amount of money the industry has behind it means it often manages to hush up deaths in major races; they say deaths ‘rarely’ happen anymore, but a horse died in The Grand National as recently as 2019 (Edit 11/04/21: update to say a horse was killed because he broke a leg in the Grand National yesterday). Of course, further deaths happen after the horses cross the finish line too; if a horse breaks its leg during a race, it’s much more likely to be killed than rehabilitated, purely because caring for an injured horse (who can no longer race) is seen as money down the drain. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director for the California Racing Board said himself: “it’s hard to justify how many horses we go through”. Once these horses begin to dry up as sources of cash flow for their owners, their value disappears. According to Horse and Hound magazine, “there is a black hole in the records on the fate of ex-racehorses”. It’s not surprising when you consider that it costs over ยฃ4000 a year to look after an ex-racehorse. For this reason alone, it’s simply easier for them to be neglected or killed. In the UK, some of these horses are then shipped to France to be sold as gourmet meat.

Pro-racers will argue that racehorses are cared for better than any other horse, and that their owners are animal lovers. But is it real love for the animal, or love for the money they bring in? I am not disputing that racehorses are well looked after – like I said, they’re owned by some of the richest people in the world who certainly have the resources to do so. But that care simply does not extend to the entirety of the horse’s life. At the root of this issue is the notion that animals belong to us, to use however we like for monetary gain without much regard for the horse as a living thing. This breeds suffering, and surely cannot be doing our psyches much good either.

Meeting a wild horse in Dartmoor National Park

Of the hundreds of thousands of horses bred for racing around the world, only 5-40% actually go on to be racehorses. The remainder are either sent to slaughterhouses for human or pet food, put back into the problematic breeding industry, or sold for less prestigious racing (which has even less regulations regarding animal safety). Even if a horse does make it to racehorse status, it may be given drugs to enhance performance, which kills more than 3 horses per day in America according to a New York Times Exposรฉ. If a horse falls into the slaughterhouse category, they’re in for a ride in a truck for, in some cases, 36 hours. One terrible story to illustrate the discrepancy between the perceived value of horses during peak performance racehorse glory and afterwards, is the story of Royale With Speed, who was on his way to the slaughterhouse in 2012 when PETA rescued him. Throughout his racing days, he had earned $127,000 for his owners, but was bought at a meat auction for $350.

Many jockeys and trainers say that it is a horse’s natural instinct to run, so they enjoy the racing. But if this were the case, why does a gun need to be shot at the beginning of a race to scare the horses into bolting? Horses may love to run in the wild, but at their own will. If there is any need to force a behaviour, is it in the animal’s best interest, or just the human’s? The same goes for whipping: should it be necessary to repeatedly hit a horse to make it run faster, if it enjoys the activity? Some argue that horses are much larger than us and have thicker skin, therefore a higher pain tolerance. But findings of Paul McGreevy last year indicate that there is nothing to support this claim, and that horses can feel even a fly land on their skin. McGreevy’s study went further to say that there is no compelling reason to whip horses at all, and that there is no evidence for the action making horses run faster. Is it naivety, ignorance, or complete disregard for the horse’s wellbeing to say you believe a horse feels no pain being repeatedly whipped by a blunt object? McGreevy’s study found no significant difference between the make-up of a horse’s skin and a human’s, and I’m not sure a human would be willing to subject themselves to that. In 2011, a law was even introduced to restrict the number of times a jockey can whip their horse during a race, which almost hilariously misses the point. Is it okay to whip an animal, or isn’t it?

Some have described the photo of Gordon Elliott as being “insensitive, barbaric, arrogant, and above all disrespectful to the animal with which he has made his fame and fortune”. But I would go as far to say this sums up the whole racing industry. The horses that are born into it may experience a short-lived pampered lifestyle, but ultimately, it is only humans who gain anything from the world of racing. That is, in monetary value of course. To view it from a different perspective, I think humans are only losing more and more; connection to nature and its inherent value, the ability to show empathy for other living beings, be gentle, and learn from the world around us. Instead, we continue to exploit those who cannot speak for themselves.

Dartmoor National Park wild horses


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