Is a Horse Race Morally and Ethically Appropriate?

A horse race is a competitive event in which horses run in a set distance and are judged on their finishing position. The winning horse receives a prize, usually a large sum of money or a trophy. A horse’s performance can be influenced by its sex, age and the weight it carries. Some races are open, permitting any entrant to compete; others are restricted based on a horse’s claiming price. In addition, there are races in which all entrants have equal chances of winning and those in which horses are assigned different amounts of weight to carry for fairness.

One of the quintessential experiences at a horse-racing track is feeling the earth shake as a mass of thundering hooves comes barreling down the stretch. But behind the spectacle, there are a host of issues that need to be taken into account when evaluating whether or not racing is morally and ethically acceptable.

The earliest races were match contests between two or at most three horses, with their owners providing the purses, or wagers. An owner who withdrew commonly forfeited half or, later, the entire purse. As the demand for more public racing increased, events were developed in which horses were rated based on age, sex, and birthplace to compete against other horses of similar abilities. The first records of these matches were kept by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keeper of the match books.

By the 1700s, horse-racing had become so popular that the sport had expanded to encompass a full schedule of races. Six-year-olds were allowed to race in standardized King’s Plates, which required them to carry 168 pounds in 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) heats, with a win in two of them needed to declare a winner. As dash, or one-heat, racing became the rule, a few feet gained in a race were crucial and the rider’s skill and judgment were more important than ever.

As a result of the stress and physical demands placed on a racehorse, many inevitably suffer injuries such as broken legs, fractured sesamoids, and exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. Some also develop mental and emotional problems that may manifest as cribbing, biting on their gates, self-mutilation, and even pacing and kicking.

Although improved medical treatment and technological advancements have helped reduce the number of racehorses that break down, the fact remains that these animals are born to be ridden and bred to race, yet are often subjected to excessively brutal training. In addition, the fact that the majority of racehorses cost less than a used car combined with taxpayer subsidies in the form of casino cash give many horsemen incentive to push their horses past their limits. In this environment, horsemen regularly administer cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask injuries and artificially enhance performance.