The Ethics of Horse Racing

Case Study 4: The Ethics of Horse Racing

Horse racing is a big industry and is a hugely popular sport with fans around the world. Nearly $12 billion is bet annually at North American racetracks, and the Dubai World

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Cup has a winner’s purse of $12 million.


However the popularity of horse racing has declined in recent years.Despite its overall popularity, horse racing is a dangerous sport for both horse and jockey. In the U.S. in 2018, 493 Thoroughbred racehorses died, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.Most of these deaths are the result of limb injuries, followed by by respiratory, digestive, and multiorgan system disorders. In fact, most of the 23 horse deaths at the Arcadia, California racetrack Santa Anita Park were due to limb injuries.


The recent spike in racehorse fatalities, notably at Santa Anita, led to the publication of numerous articles criticizing the horse racing industry fundamentally for being unethically destructive of horses. This sort of press endangers the future of horse racing. For horse racing to survive, it has to face its ethical hurdles and defend the fundamental morality of the sport.


The basic question is this: Is it unethical for humans to race horses? Are those who love horse racing just using these noble animals for our own entertainment, and is the cost to them too great given the value to us?

Consider the story of filly Eight Belles in 2008. “She went out in glory. She went out as a champion.” Those were the words of Larry Jones, her trainer after an accident claimed the life of the 3-year old filly a quarter of a mile past the finish line at the Kentucky Derby, when she simultaneously broke both her front ankles seconds after finishing second to winner Big Brown. The veterinarian called to the scene, Dr. Larry Bramiage, said the snapping of both ankles as the horse was galloping out after the race, was an incident he had never seen in decades of his work with animals. Eight Belles was euthanized by lethal injection after the doctors discovered the catastrophic injury to the champion filly.  Her jockey, Gabriel Saez, who was riding in his first Kentucky Derby, said later that he noticed that she was galloping funny, and when he tried to pull her up, she went down. The quick decision to put her down was made because a horse needs the use of at least three legs to survive more than 24 hours.

After the incident, many noted that although it was tragic, it happens all the time. Many said that it is simply part of racing. They agreed that it was sad and unfortunate, but part of the race, nevertheless. The fact that it “happens all the time” is part of the central issue. In a series of articles following the Derby, sports columnist Sally Jenkins pointed out that Eight Belles wasn’t even the only horse hurt that day: nine other racehorses at tracks across the country had to be carried away from their races in ambulances on Derby Day 2008. American horses average 1.5 career-ending injuries for every 100 races, or about two a day, a much greater rate than abroad. Is this really ethical?

Some compare it to dog-fighting, since it involves animals. In that “sport,”however, life threatening injuries to the animals are the point of the contest. Fans don’t look away from a bleeding animal in horror as they did at the Derby; they cheer. Causing unreasoning, unconsenting animals to inflict vicious wounds on each other for entertainment represents a whole different level of depravity and cruelty that horse racing lacks. People go to bull fights for entertainment and would be disappointed if the bull didn’t die in front of them. There is also the analogy to dog (usually Greyhound) racing, which has come under fire recently and eliminated or made illegal in most states. It is generally considered cruel and inhumane.

Another issue is the use of drugs in horse racing, which is extremely common. With so much at stake, trainers will do almost anything to give their horse an advantage without considering the welfare of the horse.

Stimulants are used to give a horse extra temporary energy. Pain relieving drugs are used to mask pain that may result from disease or injury. Certain drugs can also be used to control pulmonary bleeding (EIPH) resulting from over-exertion in racing.Certain drugs are even used to make the horse run slower thereby manipulating the form of the horse.

While using certain drugs under the rules of racing is permitted, the question which needs to be asked is, ‘is this in the best interest of the horse?’ In most cases the answer is no.While some animal activists feel such drugs should be banned, others in the horse racing industry believe better self-regulation is the answer.

Many say horse racing endangers and exploits animals for human entertainment. The injury and fatality rates are unacceptably high. Unsuccessful horses with no breeding value are often destroyed. Also, the activity supports gambling on a wide scale, along with all the financial and personal devastation that come with gambling. These are major ethical issues for a non essential human activity, some say.

The recent spike in fatalities is a problem and should be taken seriously.  But it is also uncharacteristic of the racing industry as a whole.  Moreover, the racing of horses is not merely an instance of humans using horses for our own selfish ends; it is a partnership that benefits both humans and horses.

Much has been written about the economic benefits of the horse-racing industry. It provides jobs for farm workers, feed companies, grooms, trainers, and more. It can also be defended as more environmentally friendly than many alternative uses of the land. Therefore one can make the case that it is a fundamentally ethical activity.

World Horse Welfare does not accept the claim that horses are unwilling participants in sport. Horses bred to compete will rise to the challenge, as anyone who has ever taken part in equestrian sport knows. This notion that sport is bad for horses needs to be challenged – and challenged forcefully.  Yes, sport horses are well cared for, but that is no more than one should expect. However, the sheer amount of investment that flows into the horse industry and the resulting research that is conducted on horse health and welfare has done an enormous amount for horses everywhere.

Yes, horse racing supports the breeding and racing industries and its employees. It is a sport with a long tradition.It is exciting, the animals are beautiful, and the horses love to run.  What about the welfare and fate of the horses? Horses are put in peril. PETA says horseracing must stop.

There is no doubt that public support for horse racing, and horse sport in general, is increasingly contingent upon their confidence in a sport’s care and protection of the horse. This is a welcome development, for horses, humans, and for sport. However, animal rights groups and others are attracting more attention for their view that it is inherently wrong to use horses for entertainment. So, is it ethical to use horses in sport?

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