There are many things about horse racing that seem cruel to those that don’t know much about the industry. Elsewhere on this site you can read about the use of the whip, for example, and the fact that the evidence suggests that whipping a horse not only hurts it but also makes very little difference to its ability to win a race.
Of all of the things that outsiders struggle to understand, though, there is nothing as all-encompassing as the fact that horses that get seemingly innocuous injuries end up having to be euthanised. Is a broken leg really enough for a horse to lose its life?
Many animal welfare organisations are firmly against horse racing as a sport. This becomes especially true when it comes to National Hunt racing, on account of the fact that horses are put at significantly more risk of serious injury when they’re having to jump over obstacles, especially when the ground is firm.
Though there are some injuries that can be suffered and a horse can recover from it, there are others that are all but impossible for even the best veterinarians to save, which is why it is that the horse’s life is tragically brought to an untimely end. Here we’ll have a look at why that is the case so often.
Horse Can’t Recover From Some Injuries
As human beings, we are all too used to the idea of breaking an arm or a leg. It is obviously a painful experience, but you wouldn’t be quick to euthanise someone who suffered a bad tackle in a football match that resulted in their leg being broken. As a result, it is difficult for some people to understand why it is that horses that suffer a similar fate are put to death rather quickly.
Should time not be given to allow them to heal? Is the choice to get the vet out made in order to speed proceedings up and ensure that the next race gets underway on time? No, nothing so cruel is the case.
Whilst horses are generally incredibly hardy animals, there is an extent to which their ability to recover from certain injuries means that they might as well be made of crisps. Horses are all but incapable of recovering from the sort of injury that would have nothing but an inconvenient effect on humans.
Whilst racing a horse is more likely to result in them picking up an injury, just as runners or footballers are more likely to be injured than people who sit at home and don’t do anything, life-threatening injuries can occur to horses even if they are just trotting around in their own field.
This is because there is literally no way back if a horse suffers the wrong sort of break. There are cynics who think that it is just because of money, but ask yourself this: if a horse could be saved in order to be put out to stud, where most horses earn their owners the majority of money, why would that not be the case?
Why euthanise a horse when saving them would be much more beneficial to an owner in the long-run? The answer is that there is no choice and it would be far crueller to the horse to keep it alive than it would be to have it euthanised if the break can’t be fixed.
Horses Are Strong, But Their Bones Are Light
Over hundreds if not thousands of years, horses have developed in order to become stronger, so as to allow their weight to be carried, but also lighter. This allows them to be much faster, which is as useful in the wild as it is on the racecourse, but it also means that bones can be all but impossible to fix when they break.
Whereas a human break is likely to be relatively simple to understand, especially if it’s a clean break, a horse breaking a bone is much more likely to result in the bone simply shattering to the point that it would be impossible for it to be put back together.
Even if you could put all of the pieces of the bone back together, it will have bent before it broke and it is the bent shape that the pieces would retain. This would make it useless in terms of being able to support the weight of the horse, which is why vets often feel that they are presented with no choice but to have the horse put to death.
It goes without saying that it is a complete tragedy, but when all is said and done the veterinarian is only interested in what is the best thing for the animal. The concerns of the owner, trainer or jockey doesn’t enter their thinking when they decide what to do.
It Isn’t Just Breaks That Can Be Deadly
Whilst the idea of failing to fix a shattered bone is relatively easy to understand, it is much harder to get your head around why it is that a fractured bone can also result in a horse being euthanised.
The answer comes in the form of what happens to the skin of the horse, which can often be pierced as a result of a fracture. This open fracture, as the injury is known, is something that is bad for humans but is even worse for horses. The blood supply will be damaged and living tissue requires blood. A fracture might result in the nerves, tendons and blood vessels to be cut, not just the skin.
That might result in the tissue dying, meaning that even if the bone is healed it can still not be enough to save the horse. There is also the fact that horses live in the outside wild, meaning that any number of bacteria and other infections can get into their system if the skin is broken.
Not only that, but there is also another possible complication that comes from a thing called laminitis. This is when the interdigitating laminae of three legs is asked to take on too much burden when the fourth leg is taken out of action. As the laminae gets inflamed, it becomes extremely painful for the horse and it can be cruel to keep it alive in such circumstances.
There Is Little That Can Be Done
As tragic as it is to admit, there is little to nothing that can be done to help a horse that has suffered so terrible an injury. Even if we could somehow persuade the horse to lie still in order to give the bone time to heal, other problems will arise. Pressure sores would be a major problem, but the bigger risk is pneumonia.
When anyone is asked to lie in an unusual position for too long, fluid begins to accumulate on their lungs. This is just as true for a horse as a person, so secondary pneumonia can be just as much of an issue as it would be for your gran or granddad, say.
Even the idea of putting them in a sling to support their weight wouldn’t work, on account of the fact that their internal organs would need to be compressed in order to keep them up. On top of that, it is impossible to explain to a horse why you’re doing it and they would need to be kept in the position for several weeks in order to give them time to heal. Though synthetic things could be used to pack a gap in a simple fracture, it isn’t structural and would likely fail as soon as it was asked to bear any sort of weight. The living tissue that is the horse’s bone would need a biological structure in the long term.
Diagnoses Aren’t Made Quickly
One of the feelings that some people have towards a horse being euthanised is that it happens very quickly. There is a sense from those that don’t understand such things that the amount of time between injury, diagnosis and treatment is rushed, with some even going as far as to suggest that it happens in order to allow the racing to get back underway.
In reality, though, a vet follows the racing in a car and is at the scene of an injury almost immediately. A second vet arrives shortly after to give another opinion, with connections of the horse also transported to the scene as quickly as possible.
This means that everyone that is needed to make a decision will be present before one is made. If a horse can be moved off the course comfortably and safely then they will be, but nothing is rushed. It is standard procedure for vets to give a horse a painkilling injection almost as soon as they arrive and have assessed the situation, meaning that the situation can be looked at more thoroughly without the horse being in pain.
Ultimately, there is no one that is more keen for a horse’s life to be saved than the vets that work with them, but the long-term benefit of the horse has to be at the forefront of decision making.