The 3-year-old filly Motion Emotion, seen earlier this year with her groom in the paddock at Churchill Downs
A spike in racehorse fatalities at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., earlier this year led to the publication of numerous articles criticizing the horse racing industry fundamentally for being unethically destructive of horses. This sort of press 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?
Our answer to both of these questions is no. The recent spike 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. But our aim here is to make the case that it is a fundamentally ethical activity.
Benefits to the horses
First and foremost, racehorses generally have good lives, and these lives depend on the existence of the horseracing industry. Naïve outsiders might think of their lives as grim, 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, 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, bellies 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 too! This fact explains why horse racing’s fans revere the gritty competitors who ran from within such as Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, Stymie, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Zenyatta. It’s also why a riderless Bodexpress kept running and passing horses after accidentally parting ways with his jockey at the start of the 2019 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.
Proper Regulation of the Industry
Racing horses is more than a job, it’s a cherished way of life. This is why true horse people welcome oversight of their game; it keeps participants, both human and equine, much safer, and protects the game itself by ensuring a level playing field for all. Just the perception of performance enhancing drug (PED) use in horse racing can be catastrophic to the industry. Whenever bettors suspect that some horses are getting “the juice” and that others are not, but don’t know who is getting what, they soon find alternative wagering opportunities elsewhere.
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 millennia 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 community. Excess, unnecessary risk hurts the horses we love. We don’t need to ban racing to give horses adequate protection. What we need to do is vigilantly identify practices and conditions that impose unnecessary risks on our racehorses, and then actively address them.
The net benefits our horses receive from being part of the horse racing industry already outweigh the additional risks they face. Let’s all work together to maximize the safety of horse racing, and thereby keep this vital sport alive and well for ages to come.
Larry Smith is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with a B.S. in animal science from Cornell University who owns, breeds, and trains racehorses with his wife at their farm in Westminster, Md. [email protected]
Alec Walen is a professor of law and philosophy, specializing in ethics, at Rutgers University in New Jersey. [email protected]
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