If there was one thing that anyone involved in the world of horse racing could be guaranteed then it would be that no horses would ever die from taking part in events. Despite what some critics of the industry might think, each and every single death of a horse is a tragedy and should be mourned appropriately. Indeed, you could see from the outpouring of anger towards Gordon Elliott when a photo of him sitting astride a dead horse was leaked just how much those involved in the world of horse racing take it seriously.
Those that hate horse racing as a sport act as if it is a callous world in which the horses are treated appallingly. In the majority of cases, nothing could be further from the truth and everyone from owners to trainers via jockeys and stable staff treat the animals in their care with the utmost respect. Racecourses are constantly looking to improve the safety for the horses that take part in the events that are held at them, but has this played out in the number of horses that have died year-on-year? Is the number going down or not?
A Dangerous Sport
The first thing that we must acknowledge is that horse racing is a dangerous sport. In the United States of America alone, close to 500 horses died in the year 2018, for example. The exact figure was 492 according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, though the reasons for the deaths weren’t always to do with the fact that the horses took part in races. Some of them were due to respiratory issues, whilst others were because of digestive problems. The biggest killer of horses due to racing, of course, is broken bones or injured limbs.
Part of the reason why horses die so regularly through racing is that what might seem like an innocuous injury can actually be really serious. Horses have such a small amount of soft tissue in their legs that the bone can tear through skin or cut off circulation to the rest of the limb when it is broken. This, in turn, can lead to an infection. If the bone shatters, it is virtually impossible to reassemble it, whilst those that are possible to be set can’t bear any weight for weeks. If they can’t spread their weight out evenly then they are at risk of developing a fatal inflammation of the tissue in the hoof, this is why racing on hard ground is more risky, especially for jump racing.
Deaths Per Year In The UK
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With all of that in mind, then, it is clear that horses racing is a sport that puts the participants at risk. That being said, a horse running around a field can still break a limb and end up needing to be put to death, so the idea of stopping racing altogether isn’t really one that will automatically ensure that no horses will die from such injuries. The question is, how much better at protecting horses have racecourses in the United Kingdom become in recent years? The table above looks at the number of deaths that we know about over a period of time.
We have chosen 2008 as our starting point for the simple reason that is the first year in which full records were kept in real time, leading up to 2021 as that is the most recent year for which we have the full 12 months’ worth of information at the time of writing. Across the 14 years that we’ve looked at here, 2,235 horses have died as a direct result of taking part in races. That amounts to an average of 159.6 horses dying each year.
For the avoidance of doubt, we have looked at calendar years between the first of January and the 31st of December, not the horse racing year.
The Numbers Haven’t Dropped Off
The key thing that we can tell from looking at the table is that the number of deaths has not dropped off. Indeed, the 220 horses that died during the calendar year of 2021 was the highest since before we looked at. The next question that should be asked, therefore, is ‘why’. In an article written for The Guardian in May of 2022, Elizabeth Banicki says that one of the biggest issues is that no one is being honest about horse racing as a sport. Though Banicki is writing about racing in the United States of America, the same sentiment could easily be expressed for the sport in the UK.
A big part of the problem, as far as Banicki is concerned, is the fact that there has ‘never been an evolution of the industry’s business model with the best interest of the horses as the top priority’. Ultimately, those involved in the game are more interested in making money than in looking after the animals that are its lifeblood. Banicki makes the point that the issues around equine welfare are systemic, meaning that they will never change as long as there is no reckoning to fix the problems from top to bottom, which is unlikely to ever happen.
From burst blood vessels to heart attacks via broken backs and simple exhaustion, there are countless reasons why a race horse might end up needing to be put to sleep. According to reports, only 30% of the actual horses that die each year do so on the racecourses themselves. With British racecourses hosting around 12 racing days a year on average at the 59 courses, the figure of 375, which is believed to be the true number that die as a direct result of racing is pretty staggering. That is what Animal Aid have said in their article, entitled ‘This Unsporting Life’.