Horses are highly social animals who communicate their emotions and intentions to their herd mates through vocalisation and body language. They learn from and imitate others, both young and old. A foal can stand and even run within hours of birth, but horses’ bodies do not fully mature until they are about four years of age.
Life in the racing industry puts a range of unnatural pressures on these social animals. Many horses are raced at only two years old, which puts their still-developing bones and organs at risk. Minor stress-fractures and tendon injuries can lead to chronic lameness later in life, making it less likely they’ll continue to live after being discarded by the racing industry.
So behind racing’s glamorous image, horses are suffering – both on the track and during training. Every race puts horses at risk of injury and death. In a business that is all about winning and gambling, these animals are discarded when no longer profitable.
Horses are suffering and dying in racing every year, and the casualties will continue to mount unless action is taken.
Being whipped hurts
Only in horseracing is it legal to beat an animal repeatedly. The purpose of the whip is to make the horse run faster when fatigued. Horses are often whipped in the final stages of a race to make the tired horses run faster. These whips cause pain because horses have delicate skin and nerve-endings sensitive enough to even feel a fly landing on their body. In England, whip rules restrict the number of times a horse may be hit. Norway has gone even further by outlawing the use of whips altogether.
Bleeding within the lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH)), is so common, such horses are labelled ‘bleeders’ in stewards’ race reports. This bleeding probably results from high blood pressure within tiny blood vessels over extended periods during racing. Some studies indicate that virtually every racehorse suffers some degree of EIPH at some point. Instead of decreasing the severity of exercise, for example, by decreasing race lengths, the standard industry response is to give horses furosemide – a blood pressure-lowering diuretic drug.
All types of racing puts horses at risk of painful injuries or death, however, jumps racing has the highest rate of death and injury. In jumps racing, horses are pushed to jump high fences at speed, closely surrounded by many other horses. Additionally, jumps races are usually much longer than flat races. Tired horses have a greater risk of falling and injury.
The injuries that occur when horses fall or hurtle into the jumps or barriers can be horrific. Horses’ bodies are powerful, yet also delicate. Bones can shatter into tiny pieces, meaning recovery is impossible. Even when horses could potentially recover, trainers are often reluctant to spend money on treatment when the horse’s future earning potential is in question. Horse injuries which result in euthanasia vary from burst arteries to fractured legs and spines.
With millions of dollars to be won, the Melbourne Cup is the richest ‘two-mile’ handicap in the world. It is run on the first Tuesday in November. New Zealand horses are frequent entrants.
The 3,200-metre race is for three-year-olds and over and is conducted at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. It is longer than the vast majority of thoroughbred races in New Zealand and Australia. It could be described as gruelling, being at the extreme end of distances raced in New Zealand and Australia. The level of effort required to race two miles at such high speed is severe.
The race is also a handicap contest, whereby the weight of the jockey and riding gear is adjusted with ballast to a nominated figure. The minimum handicap weight is 50kg. The distance, speed and weight carried by these horses places them under severe strain, and leg fractures and other injuries are common.
Discarded and slaughtered
Horses no longer able to race fast enough to be profitable face uncertain futures. Some may be retired to become riding or breeding horses, but many are loaded onto trucks and transported long distances to the few New Zealand slaughterhouses that kill horses. The meat from these horses goes into the pet food chain.
A 2019 investigation into the treatment of horses discarded from the Australian racing industry exposed brutal treatment of these vulnerable animals. It was also revealed that horses exported from New Zealand were among those suffering this fate.
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