It was reported in the last couple of days that PETA Australia filed criminal charges in Tasmania alleging that the practice of whipping horses during horseraces violates the state’s animal welfare laws.
According to Tasmania’s animal welfare laws, it is a crime to beat an animal, and to cause an unreasonable and unjustifiable pain or suffering to an animal. Considering that whipping horses during horse races is beating an animal, and it is an unreasonable and unjustifiable infliction of pain and suffering to an animal, the organization is hoping to outlaw whipping horses on racetracks.
Obviously, all animal exploitation industries necessarily, unexceptionally and constantly involve beating animals and causing an unreasonable and unjustifiable pain or suffering, but if this initiative succeeds, hopefully it can function as a legal precedent and so expectantly initiate an international ban, at least on whipping horses during races.
However, whipping, as severe and as common in horse racing all over the world as it is, is of course extremely far from being the only or even the main issue horses are suffering from in the racing industry.
Run Until the Lungs Bleed
Horse racing is a very big and highly institutionalized industry. In the US alone its economic scope is at around $10 billion. In order to display the fastest horses, the racing industry breeds hundreds of thousands of horses per year on a global scale, and selects the fastest among them.
Most horses start with flat racing which is sprinting along a course at the age of two, which is 3 years before they are fully mature. “Owners” race them early because they want to get a return for their “investment” as soon as possible, despite that racing places an enormous strain on the horses’ under-developed limbs.
The few horses who have speed ability and stud potential would contest in the “classics” and other more valuable races. Slower horses are forced to run in “handicaps” and selling races, where they can be sold to different owners and trainers.
And the ones who are found unfit for these kinds of races, would carry wagons, would be sent to the circus, or as most horses end, would be slaughtered for meat consumption.
Horses are herd animals with strong social behavioral needs. But as in every other exploitation system, natural behaviors are denied from them. The horses have no contact with fellow horses.
The horses are kept in a small stall for more than 20 hours a day, in dark dingy stables, separated from each other.
They develop neurotic stereotypic behaviors, similar to animals in factory farms and zoos, such as wood chewing, box walking (round and round the stall), wind sucking (grasping an object with the teeth and sucking in air), or weaving (swaying the head, neck and forequarters from side to side).
They are deprived of natural behavior such as foraging hay, having straw bedding, and visual contact with other horses.
The industry is making tremendous efforts in order to make the horses run faster. The ingenuity is limitless:
They use special instruments to broaden the bronchi in order to widen the horse’s airways.
They use hormones in order to increase the red blood cells (since they carry oxygen).
They inject venom into the horses’ joint to harden it.
They infuse a mixture of carbonated water, sugar and electrolytes in order to increase the levels of carbon dioxide in the horses’ blood and to decrease the lactic acid. They do that to prevent exhaustion.
They use thousands of drugs.
They use oppression and subjugation methods.
They use batteries that are planted under the horse skin which will give the horses an electric shock when they slow down during the race.
One of the most “creative” efforts the industry is making to increase the horses speed is a violent surgical procedure called Tubing. A hole larger than a 2 pence piece is surgically cut into a horse’s neck, into which a metal breathing tube is then placed. The tube is designed to increase the air intake into the lungs with air drawn through the neck, in part bypassing the nose and mouth. The tube often gets blocked with mucus from the horse’s throat, causing severe distress.
The use of drugs in horse racing is extremely common. Exploiters are using any possible chemical to give their horse an advantage over the others so they can increase their profits, no matter how high the price the horses pay.
Pushed beyond their limits, most horses are subjected to cocktails of drugs intended to mask injuries and artificially enhance performance.
Diseases and Injuries
The horses suffer from a wide range of diseases and injuries because they start to train and race, before their body and skeleton are fully developed.
Horses are forced to race with hairline fractures, that without drugs would be too painful to run on. The pain killers effect fades at some point and the horses which spend around 20 hours in the barn every day, are forced to bear the horrible pain for all these hours.
In some cases injured horses are being kept alive so that greedy owners can pump semen and therefore money out of them.
Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH)
Due to the excessive exertion demanded of horses in the rigorous training and in the race, more than 90% of them have lung bleeds and breathing difficulties. The severe condition is usually a result of burst capillaries. The tiny blood vessels are ruptured by the acute pressure of blood pumping around the body during strenuous exercise.
Only about 1 per cent of horses show outward signs of bleeding, with blood at the nose. The rest are more difficult to diagnose because they bleed into their lungs without it being obvious.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne have shown that 56% of racehorses have blood in their windpipe, and 90% have blood deeper in their lungs.
90% of the horses have deep bleeding stomach ulcers within 8 weeks of starting race preparation.
A study regarding horse racing found that in the US, 94% of the horses in races have one or more lesions in the stomach lining and 100% of the horses who had raced in the 2 months prior to the study, had ulcers. When horses continue to race, their ulcers get worse.
Apart from the stress of racing, the major reason for the ulcers is intermittent feeding. Horses are fed only at certain times, so there is nothing to neutralize the stomach acid that damages the stomach lining.
The thoroughbred horses are “genetic freaks”. They run too fast, with a too large frame, on too small legs. These horses lack fully developed bone structure and muscular systems, and so are more likely to suffer injury. They develop acute lameness and sometimes break a leg in the race.
The cartilage plate, in the shaft of the leg bone, is undergoing too much strain. It causes a tear in the periosteum layer around the bone leading to haemorrhage, acute lameness, shin soreness and scar tissue.
“Failed” and “retired” thoroughbred racing horses, are commonly further exploited in other types of races such as jumping races. These are even more dangerous and harmful than flat races, with up to 20 times more fatalities. This is mainly since a group of horses are forced to jump a series of one meter high fences, together, at speed.
There are two main types of jump racing, hurdles in which horses jump lightweight frame ‘fences’ with brush tops, and steeplechases in which horses jump a number of higher, more solid obstacles. Both are generally long and very tiring events.
The horses are forced to jump over 10 hurdles in the average race and as many as 20 or more hurdles in the longer races. When horses are bunched up as they approach a jump, it can make it more difficult to take off accurately and can lead to error or even a ‘pile-up’. Muscle fatigue, especially in long races, increases the danger of horses to injure themselves when taking a jump. Horses are large, heavy animals and when they fall, they suffer extreme pain, even if there is no serious or long-term damage.
When jumping at speed, the force on the lead foreleg as it hits the ground is 1.7 times the body weight of the horse. Some of the shock of the hooves hitting the ground is absorbed by the spongy bone, which is compressed in the process. The bone becomes weaker in the course of a race as a result of this micro-crushing.
When a horse breaks a leg or a shoulder, the bones may shatter into many pieces, making it impossible for a veterinarian to “repair” them.
The cost of restoring a horse to full fitness is expensive, not necessarily successful and usually deemed uneconomic. Consequently, horses’ injuries get worse. Horses that suffer severe injuries and horses failing to win races are considered ‘wastage’ by the racing industry and are sold for riding, eventing or other uses. The majority are sent for slaughter, either directly through auctions or ‘eventually’ when they have no further use.
So whipping is far from being the only or even the main issue horses are suffering from in the racing industry. The main issue on a more general and principle sense is of course how is it that horse racing still exists deep into the third millennium? How is it still legal? How is it still popular? How even whipping the horses during it wasn’t legally banned yet? And most importantly, what does it say about humanity, and about the animal rights movement’s effort to change it?