Death of Racehorses: Why Does This Tragedy Happen?

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A Brief History

By 648 BC, both chariot and mounted horse racing were events in the ancient Greek Olympics.  From these origins through the present day, horse racing has remained a beloved sport to people all over the world.  Many people believe that horse racing is indeed a harmless sport in which racehorses are willing to participate and enjoy the thrill of racing, but it does not always go that way. The horse racing industry is facing inevitable and certain accidents from racehorses and even the jockeys on the field. Just like what happened later on Del Mar Horse racing, it is a rare crash yet unavoidable.

Horse injuries or even the death of them are one of the side effects of extensive training and competition. Hoofed mammals are more vulnerable to equine injuries that may lead them to result often, which is death.   Accidents do happen, and one cannot avoid it. Situations particularly when horses bump into each other, tangled, trip to some obstacles along the track, or taking a wrong step. That is why, on the racetrack, jockeys can be instant risk-takers because racehorses are unpredictable on the field.

Digging Deeper

How can Horse Racing be Dangerous?

Radiograph of a horse hoof showing rotation of the coffin bone and evidence of sinking, a condition often associated with laminitis.  The annotation P2 stands for the middle phalanx, or pastern bone, and P3 denotes the distal phalanx, or coffin bone.  The yellow lines mark the distance between the top and bottom part of the coffin bone relative to the hoof wall, showing the distal (bottom) of the coffin bone is rotated away from the hoof wall.  Radiograph created by Malcolm Morley, annotated by Froggerlaura.

If we humans broke our legs, it is easily treatable; but in the case for horses, a broken leg is as right as a death sentence for them. Horses have thin, soft tissues on their legs, so when an injury occurs, the bone commonly tears through the skin and cuts the blood circulation legs, which often leads to infection. And on some extreme cases, the bone their legs will shatter, making it impossible to treat.

Even if the injured bone of the horse treated, for several weeks, it would not be able to sustain its weight. If a particular horse is unable to uniform distribution of its weight relatively, they have the risk of laminitis, a possibly deadly tissue inflammation within the hoof.  So if a horse can not stand alone on all of its four legs, the horse cannot survive, and sadly, euthanasia is what the racehorse will experience.

If the horse falls on the middle of the track, the jockeys will also face grave danger. They will become prone to be stumbled with their racehorses, or getting stepped by other competitors and will lead to a catastrophic accident.

Some Factors that may Lead Horses to Risky Situation

Fall at a trotting race in Toronto, Canada, 1935.  Photograph from the National Archives.

The international community of horse trainers and organizations recognized significant risk factors in horse racing for injury or casualty. These involve risk factors that are related to horses such as age, sex, and breeding.  Race-related accidents are multi-factor events involving complicated interactions between several risk variables. So some factors may lead to horses and jockeys to a risky situation.

The type of race. This racing brand needs thoroughbred horses to jump over a sequence of obstacles and are usually running over longer distances. Many elements of the said type of race present a severe danger to horses, harming horses far above than that of flat racing.

Horse training. The little manifestations of injuries over again into a continual process are often lead to severe injuries. The insignificant proportion of fractures that happens during training are highlighting the importance of studying these injuries from the course. And a large number of stress injuries suggested improving training techniques for young thoroughbreds to make a more sturdy horse skeletal system.

Track related factors. There are three primary surfaces in Thoroughbred racing tracks, which is dirt, grass and synthetic. There is a need for understanding between the water content and surface performance for both dirt and turf surfaces. Moisture is the single most significant risk factor when associated with freezing temperatures because it is usually the cause of accidents. That is why there is are surface maintenance for these types of fields because moisture can cause even more significant complications.

Misusing Drugs to Horses Makes the Risk Getting Worst

Denis Lynch riding at the 2008 Olympic Games.  A few days after the above photograph was taken, Lynch’s horse, Lantinus, was reported as having tested positive for a banned substance.  Photograph by Craig Maccubbin.

Many of the animal activists think that such drugs should be banned from racehorses because it will make the risk of an accident will get high, but people in the horse racing industry believe that resolution will happen by better self-regulation.  To this end, there is a suggested law on horse racing that would set up an autonomous, self-regulatory body affiliated with the United States. In controlling the abusive drugging of racehorses. The regulators provide a list on which substances are recommended and are not allowed. Prohibited and banned drugs within twenty-four hours before the racing event starts.

Some are accusing horse derby trainers because of aggravating a dangerous condition by drugging horses with performance-enhancing medications or pain relievers. These drugs make the horses run faster than their usual speed and give numbness from pain. On the other side of the story, the side effects of the medicines cause unusual urination and weight loss.


Newspaper report of horse racing accident to Sir Wilfrid Lawson.  Scan by Terry Carrick.

In every sports event, accidents are somewhat like a glue that sticks with it whatever safety precautions they provide. That is why this article describes some of the causes of mishaps during, and even before the race begins. To inform and make an understanding briefly why accidents occur and making information educational so that people on the field are somehow cautious. Be careful about your races, and good luck!

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think horse racing is too dangerous?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Carter, John.  History of Horse Racing: First Past The Post: Champion Thoroughbreds, Owners, Trainers and Jockeys, Illustrated with 220 Drawings, Paintings and Photographs.  Lorenz Books, 2013.

Ennor, George, Chris Hawkes, and Bill Mooney.  The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing: The Illustrated Guide to the World of the Thoroughbred.  Carlton Books, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a photograph from Pixabay, is licensed under the Simplified Pixabay License license.


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