And so we bid a fond farewell to another Spring Racing Carnival. Good riddance, I say. Flat races are at least somewhat less lethal than steeplechases which see an average of six horse deaths for every 1000 that take part (six deaths per 439 horses between 2000 and 2010 for the Grand National (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_National)). Still 1.5 dead horses out of every 1000 that start a flat race in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_racing) is nothing to be sneezed at.
Personally I can’t derive any excitement from watching a bunch of horses running around in a circle. The excitement must come from the betting, I suppose. I also fail to understand how normally sane people come out of the closet at Melbourne Cup time every year (the race that allegedly stops the nation) just to throw money away betting on something they know absolutely nothing about.
However, it is the horse welfare aspect that concerns me the most. Race horses are like elite human athletes and, although human athletes don’t die with the same frequency (0.75 per 100,000 for male athletes and 0.13 for female athletes: http://www.diet-blog.com/07/why_do_healthy_athletes_die_of_heart_attacks.php), they both suffer elite athlete injuries: shin splints, fractures, bone chips, strained tendons and ligaments, arthritis, etc. The trouble is that racehorses are all inbred and have been selected artificially to run faster than is physiologically sustainable (See “Do I Hear Banjos?” for more information on inbreeding). As with most things we have tampered with we are not happy unless we’ve taken things beyond the extreme.
Today’s racehorses are extremely large, 450-500 kg, by equine standards. If you look at wild equids, such as Przewalski horses and zebras, they weigh around 350 kg. Horses run on their toes. That hoof you see at the end of their leg is actually their third toe. All that weight as they come thundering down the straight is borne on four toes. And, because horses are generally raced before they are mature, that equine skeleton has not finished developing, which further predisposes them to injury. Horses, like most athletes, are pushed to the very limit of what they can physically do, so it should come as no surprise that virtually every horse suffers from exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage following a race, basically bleeding into the lungs.
When you take that artificially selected enormous amount of weight, support it on four tiny limbs and push it further than nature intended it is no wonder that as many horses break down as they do. What does come as a surprise is that they don’t all crumble into a heap of broken muscles and tendons. But, with so much money at stake and people taking such a perverse delight in seeing animals running around in a circle with people on their backs, it seems unlikely to change any time soon.
Dr. F. Bunny