The death of Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby and that of Medina Spirit at America’s most famous horse race this year have sparked a reckoning of the sport’s ethics and integrity. Both horses were star performers who died under the exorbitant physical stress of performance. Their deaths are just the latest in a long history of horses falling victim to the grueling demands of horse racing and training.
Despite the racing industry’s claims that horses are “born to run, love to compete,” the truth is that they are not. These large, docile animals are engineered to do a specific job, and it bears no resemblance to the way horses behave in the wild.
This is especially true of the horse races themselves, which are unequivocally unnatural acts for a beast that was never meant to compete in such an artificial manner. In the process, they are pushed far beyond their natural limits and often suffer horrific injuries.
Many of these horses bleed from their lungs, a condition known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage or EIPH, which is so severe that many are left to die in agonizing pain. To combat this, the racing industry uses cocktails of legal and illegal drugs designed to mask injuries and enhance performance.
One of the most controversial of these substances is Lasix, a diuretic with performance-enhancing properties that is used by most horses to prevent EIPH. However, the drug has been linked to numerous deaths in horses, and its use has been banned in several countries.
In addition to the risks from lasix, most horses are subjected to excessive amounts of exercise. The pounding, jarring impact and repetitive motions of the races can cause a variety of injuries to the muscles, bones and joints, including abrasions, sprains, bruises, coffin bone fractures, torn ligaments and spinal injuries.
Another common injury is shin soreness, caused by the continuous impact of running over hard surfaces. This can result in the development of a bony growth on the back of the leg, called a chip or scab, which may lead to infection. A sprain is an injury that causes a ligament to bend or stretch more than it should, and is usually considered mild.
The rules governing how horses should be ridden and raced differ by national organization, but are largely similar. A jockey is required to wear a helmet and be in control of the horse at all times. A jockey who is not in control of a horse or is using his/her hands to interfere with the animal is disqualified. A dead heat is a race in which no one horse has won. If there is a tie for the first place, it is determined by studying a photograph of the finish. If it is still impossible to determine a winner, the stewards will settle the matter according to a set of rules based on the time of the race and the position of the horses at the finish.