Horses have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years. They pulled the first carriages, carried warriors into battle and, of course, raced for fun. But this popular sport isn’t as harmless as it seems. Horses endure exorbitant physical stress and often die as a result, whether from a heart attack during a race or a training accident. They can also suffer severe injuries, such as broken limbs, which can be so serious that the skin is sometimes the only thing keeping the limb attached to the rest of the body. And they can be subjected to psychological trauma, including the fear of falling and being injured.
Unlike other major sports, horse racing operates under a patchwork of rules across the dozens of states that host it. For example, some states have different standards for using whips during a race and the kinds of medications horses can take. And penalties for trainers and owners who violate these rules vary by jurisdiction.
To make matters worse, horse races aren’t as popular as they used to be. As a result, the industry has lost fans, race days and money. But despite this, there are signs of change for the better in recent years. The emergence of animal rights activists, the use of drugs to tame young, unruly horses and the growing awareness of the cruelty inherent in the industry have spurred improvement in a number of areas.
One of the most important changes has been increased safety measures on and off the racetrack. New technology, like thermal imaging cameras and MRI scanners, can help spot problems before they become fatal. And 3D printers can produce casts, splints and other tools to help injured or sick horses heal. But these technological advances cannot solve the fundamental problem of a sport that is cruel in its very nature. Horses are forced to run at breakneck speeds on a track with a group of humans perched on their backs who compel them with whips — against their natural instinct for self-preservation.
And, in a cruel twist, many of these equine athletes are then shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. There, they are often subjected to inhumane treatment, including amputations and crushing jolts. And if not for a handful of independent nonprofits that network, fundraise and work tirelessly to save them, they would likely face a horrific end. In short, the sport of horse racing needs a profound ideological reckoning that prioritizes the welfare of the horses at every level – from breeding shed to aftercare. But this won’t happen until the industry admits that the lives of its horses matter enough to do some complicated, expensive and untraditional things to protect them.