Horse racing is a huge sport worldwide, and many people watch it on TV. Some criticize it, arguing that the practice is cruel or corrupt, while others consider it to be the pinnacle of achievement for horses.
In the earliest days of horse racing, races were simple affairs. A horse was ridden by a jockey, who guided it through turns and other obstacles, often over rough surfaces. A rider was also expected to control the speed of his or her mount and avoid any mishaps that could lead to the horse losing its balance.
As demand for public racing increased in the 18th century, races became more elaborate. Horses were bred to meet specific physical requirements, and rules were developed that dictated when a race could start and how long it would be. The emergence of standardized distances in the early 1850s led to a more structured format, and races were separated by age, sex and class.
By the 1870s, racehorses were competing around the globe in famous events such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, Melbourne and Sydney Cups in Australia, Caulfield Cup in New Zealand and Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini in Brazil. While these competitions were a thrill for spectators, the conditions under which the horses trained and raced were abysmal.
The deaths of Eight Belles and Medina Spirit sparked a major change in the way horse racing is run, including the implementation of more stringent safety measures. But these improvements have not addressed the fact that racehorses are routinely subjected to exorbitant levels of physical stress. As a result, catastrophic cardiac episodes and broken limbs are commonplace.
In addition to the physical risks of horse racing, horses can be exposed to a variety of psychological issues. Many of these problems stem from the fact that racehorses are rushed into training at an extremely young age, when their skeletal systems are still growing. This is not only physically damaging but psychologically stressful, and many equine athletes end their careers in retirement with serious injuries.
In addition, the financial pressures of the industry make it difficult to provide the best care for the horses. As a result, the majority of racehorses are abandoned by their owners after they retire from racing. A small group of dedicated nonprofit rescue groups, individuals and supporters network and fundraise to help these horses find good homes. But for the most part, these horses hemorrhage into the slaughter pipeline. If not for the work of this network, thousands of these magnificent creatures would face horrific ends. In some cases, even when a horse is rescued, it can be months or years before the charity that saved them can afford to keep it. This article originally appeared on The Atlantic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2019 The Atlantic. All rights reserved. Subscribe to The Atlantic today to enjoy unlimited digital access to every story on our site and app, plus subscriber newsletters and more.