Ethical Issues in Horse Racing

by Rita Kennedy

Horse racing is a part of the lives of millions of Americans, whether by employing them directly or indirectly or providing an exciting spectator sport. Just under 850,000 racehorses are active in the United States, estimates the American Horse Council. However, the horse racing industry remains controversial, with ethical issues like drug use, training techniques, the danger of racing and the ultimate fate of racehorses all topics of criticism.

Drugs

The use of drugs forms a major ethical issue within horse racing. While some drugs, including anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants, are licensed for use by veterinarians to treat specific medical conditions, some stables resort to injecting their horses with banned steroids in an effort to improve their racing performance. In 2013, 11 horses from a total of 46 from the UK-based Godolphin stables tested positive for banned anabolic steroids.

Training

The high-stakes nature of the horse racing industry means that horses are often subjected to training so intensive that their health breaks down, alleges Susan Kayne, a horse breeder for 25 years. Horses train daily on a cocktail of legal drugs, says Kayne, “anything to run through the pain. You end up with addicted and drug-addled horses.” Clearly there is an ethical issue in subjecting racehorses to this intensity of training to compete for human enjoyment.

Danger During Races

Racing itself can be dangerous for both horse and jockey. A 2012 “New York Times” study estimated that 24 horses die on American racetracks every week, with the number of recorded incidents continuing to rise. While some of these deaths can be attributed to accidents – jumps racing, for example, possesses a consistently higher horse death rate than flat or hurdles racing – drugs may also play a part. Incident rates are lower in Canada and the United Kingdom, where drug controls are tighter, suggesting that drug use in the United States allows horses to be raced harder, resulting in higher breakdown rates.

After Racing Ends

Even the most successful racehorse must retire eventually, and the issue of what happens to these retired animals has strong ethical dimensions. Ex-racehorses can be highly-strung and difficult to manage, making them difficult candidates for adoption. Horses are expensive to care for and once a racehorse has retired its income drops, meaning many end up being slaughtered. In 2010, around 138,000 horses were sent from the United States to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico, of which approximately 10 per cent were thoroughbreds, estimates a Government Accountability Office report. Although groups like the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance attempt to find homes for retired racehorses, the sheer number of horses combined with the costs involved make it a difficult task.

About the Author

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.

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