A spike in racehorse fatalities at Santa Anita Park in California earlier this year led to a lot of negative press, and outcry from animal rights groups criticizing the horse racing industry of being fundamentally unethical in the treatment of horses.
This sort of publicity 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 we 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?
The Daily Racing Blog answers no to both of these questions. The recent spate 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.
Others have 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.
DRB can make a case that thoroughbred horse racing is a fundamentally ethical activity.
First and foremost, racehorses generally have good lives, and these lives depend on the existence of the horse-racing industry.
Naïve outsiders might think the horses live a grim life, like some Dickensian nightmare in which cruel owners beat horses and race them to death. But nothing could be further from the truth. The normal path for raising racehorses is actually idyllic, and is built around:
- Nursing from their well-fed and cared-for mothers.
- Sleeping securely in sunny fields.
- Playing with their peers, engaging the primal joy of racing each other around the field, and experiencing the communal bliss of grazing together.
- Eating well-balanced diets, even during winters and periods of drought.
- Benefiting from human protection from predators, contagious diseases, parasites, flying pests, and harsh weather.
- Having veterinary and dental support whenever injuries occur, intestines get blocked, or teeth grow excessively sharp.
- Experiencing human love, including soft tones, physical stroking, scratching, grooming, and the cultivation of mutual trust.
Secondly, racehorses love their job. In fact, the primary difference between good and bad jockeys is their ability to relax their mounts and keep them from running as fast as they want to run, which is full speed. They restrain their horses because success hinges upon their ability to have something left in reserve for the roughly 20 second long, final burst of effort at the end of each race.
And the horses want to Win as much as their human connections want them to. This fact explains why horse racing’s fans revere the gritty competitors who ran with determination and heart, such as SEABISCUIT, SECRETARIAT, SEATTLE SLEW, and AFFIRMED.
It’s also why a riderless BODEXPRESS kept running and passing horses after accidentally parting ways with his jockey at the start of this years Preakness Stakes, and then ran another whole lap after the race was over … just for fun!
Finally, horse people love their horses. To some, this is a self-evident statement, but it’s important to be explicit about it. Humans who own and work with horses almost always love them.
Whenever catastrophe strikes, and a racehorse has to be euthanized, his or her human partners mourn their horse’s passing very deeply. But in the normal course of events, horses don’t die; they race while they can, loving the competition, and then, when their racing days are over, they usually find second careers as pleasure horses or breeding stock.
Horse racing is worth protecting because it champions and strengthens our most lofty human values – hard work, persistence, and patience – while connecting us to noble and beautiful animals who have partnered with humans for hundreds of years and continue to benefit greatly from that partnership as well.
Nothing worth doing is completely without risk. But nothing worth doing should be burdened with unnecessary risk.
It is not merely that the sight of horses having to be put to death on the racetrack hurts the image of horse racing with the wider, uninformed community. Excessive, unnecessary risk hurts the horses we love.
We, as a society, don’t need to ban racing to give horses adequate protection. The industry needs to constantly be on the lookout for practices and conditions that impose unnecessary risks on the racehorses, and then actively address them.
The net benefits horses receive from being part of the horse racing game already outweigh the additional risks they face.
All parties concerned need to be vigilant and work together to maximize the safety of horse racing, and thereby keep this vital sport alive and well for ages to come.