The legs of horses running during a race, and scattered grass.

Understanding the background of horse racing.

Horse racing has perhaps the most glamorous image of all so-called animal ‘sports’. Such is the allure of horse racing that major race-meets such as the Melbourne Cup are even ‘celebrated’ with public holidays – but for the horses forced to participate, there’s much more than money at stake…

There’s a dark and mostly hidden reality to horse racing that likely sees thousands of Thoroughbred horses (used for flat and jumps races) and Standardbred horses (used for harness races) who become injured or fail to run fast enough discarded and killed by the racing industry each year.

A brown horse foal with a white stripe down their face, looking alertly.
A group of horses looking to the camera
A group of horses looking to the camera

Worth determined by ‘winning’ potential

At the sales of Thoroughbred colts and fillies, ‘yearlings’ can sell for tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the gamble starts right there; with the owners and trainers hoping to ‘back a winner’.

The scale of the industry is huge, with 12,666 Thoroughbreds bred in Australia in the 2020-2021 year alone.[1] It is not possible for all of them to be ‘winners’, meaning more horses are bred for racing than anyone knows what to do with.

Training and competing pushes these sensitive animals to their physical limits, risking damage to their muscles, bones, heart and airways. Being forced to race at just two years old puts horses at particular risk of injury; at this age, these animals are still immature, and their bodies are far from prepared for the physical stress of the racing world.[2] Despite this, the lure of the very high stakes for the two-year-old races means many owners push trainers to have their ‘expensive’ animals compete.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Horse face with black background
A horse falling on the ground with his neck and face down on a racing track

Dangerous – and fatal – falls during flats and jumps races

In 2023 alone, there have been multiple fatalities associated with falls during horse races – taking the lives of people[3] and horses[4] during flats and jumps races…

Jumps racing is, sadly, one of the many fates for ‘failed’ and ‘retired’ Thoroughbred racing horses. Statistics over many years have shown that jumps races are even more dangerous and harmful for horses, with up to 20 times more fatalities than flat races. This is unsurprising, given groups of horses are being pushed to jump a series of one-metre-high fences together at high speed.

Victoria is now the only Australian jurisdiction that allows jumps racing since legislation passed in SA ending this long-outdated ‘sport’. For more information, see Animals Australia’s submission to the Victorian Members of Parliament about why jumps racing should be banned.

Why are injured horses almost always killed?

This is a question often asked as race-day audiences watch a traumatic fall, and are very quickly shielded from the brutal reality of the game with a screen rushed on the field.

When a horse breaks their leg or shoulder, the bones may ‘explode’ into many pieces, making it near impossible to be repaired or helped by a veterinarian – and even when recovery is possible, it is unlikely the horse will be able to be used for racing again. Even where a mare or stallion has potential at stud (breeding), the cost of rehabilitation to full fitness is expensive and not a guarantee. Injured racehorses are prone to infections, particularly pneumonia, and are usually deemed ‘uneconomic’ to the industry.

Further physical suffering

During training and competition, horses of all ages can suffer painful muscular-skeletal injuries, such as torn ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints and even fractured bones. Some horses even drop dead from Exercise Associated Sudden Cardiac Death, with approximately half of these attributed to an irregular heartbeat.[5]

Although perhaps less overt forms of suffering when compared to injuries from collisions and falls, horses are also forced to wear uncomfortable bits, barbaric ‘tongue-ties’, and are hit with painful whips – mostly when they are at their most exhausted state during a race. Recent studies on whipping have shown horses’ skin is not only thinner than that of a human, but may be more sensitive to pain, and that whipping horses is “likely to be painful”.[6] If other animals – like our companion animals – were hit the same way, it would be considered a cruelty offence.

They can also suffer behind the scenes, with feeding, training methods, and pre-race treatment hidden from the public eye. Being fed high concentrate diets (grains), rather than being permitted to graze, can also lead to painful problems like laminitis, colic and gastric ulcers. Recent charges against a prominent Australian trainer accused of employing a banned electric shock device referred to as a jigger,[7][8] and Australian trainers having been found to have administered a range of substances to horses (from steroid hormones to cocaine), demonstrate that the ‘rules’ in place do not properly protect animals from cruelty while being pushed to become ‘a winner’.

Two race horses running track
A jokey using whip cruelty on a race horse on a racing track
A jokey using whip cruelty on a race horse on a racing track

Invisible suffering: internal race injuries

The exertion forced upon horses during races leads to a high prevalence of bleeding into the airways, called Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Haemorrhage (EIPH). As this generally occurs with no outward visible sign, this suffering of horses goes unnoticed by spectators. EIPH has only been fully realised in more recent years when cameras have been used to examine the windpipes of horses.

Bleeding can be seen in up to 75% of racehorses, and when lung fluid is examined under a microscope, blood can be detected in more than 90%.[9]

Mental suffering

Horses may be stabled alone for most of every day, apart from when they’re taken out to train or compete. Without social and environmental stimulation and without the opportunity to engage in highly motivated behaviours such as grazing, horses can develop behavioural/mental health issues. These issues can show up in different ways, including stereotypic behaviours (repetitive and compulsive behaviours), self-mutilation, crib-biting (biting on fences and other fixed objects and then pulling back), and wind sucking (arching the neck, gulping air and expelling air with a characteristic grunting noise).

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Racing horses looking out from their cabins

‘Wastage’ – the terrible term used for unwanted racing horses who are discarded

The horse racing industry would love for everyone to believe that all retired or ‘failed’ racehorses spend the rest of their years grazing on beautiful paddocks, but most ex-racing horses are not so lucky. The vast majority of horses either fail to run fast enough to be profitable or become injured and as a result, they are discarded by the racing industry.

A 2014 study found that close to 40% of racehorses exited the race industry in the 2002-2003 year due to poor performance, illness or injury, or behavioural or other ‘problems’; 39.7% for Thoroughbred and 38.7% for Standardbred racing industries.[10]

Where do they go?

Some horses considered ‘wastage’ by the racing industry will be sold on for riding, eventing, or other uses. The majority, however, will not be wanted and are likely to be killed at just a fraction of their natural lifespan. Sold directly through auctions or at a later date when they no longer have a ‘use’, these horses may be sent to knackeries to be killed for ‘pet food’ or sent for slaughter for human consumption. Due to the lack of transparency, it is unknown how many horses in Australia face this fate each year.

Of all horses slaughtered in Australia, lack of information transparency makes it difficult to determine the portion that comes from the racing industry. However, given the large number of foals born into the racing industry each year, the high attrition rate in the industry, and the high consistency of the number of horses in the racing and breeding sectors of the industry, that portion is likely to be significant. Some horses are exported alive, and with no control over what happens to them abroad, they may be killed for meat at their destination – as was the case for the half-brother of  ‘champion racehorse’ Winx, who was found to have been killed for meat in South Korea.[11] The long-distance transport of horses to slaughter for human consumption is not well monitored or regulated.

A 2008 study found that 52.9% of horses studied at one Australian export abattoir carried brands indicating they were of racing origin, and a further portion fitted the breed specifications for racing horses but had no brand; meaning they could have potentially been discarded before being registered to race.[12]

A portrait of brown horse with a white stripe down their face.

Sport of kings?

The horse racing industry is no different to any other profit-driven animal industry. It values animals on the basis of financial ‘return’.

The ethics of any gambling industry are questionable – but when the gamble is with living beings, there will inevitably be very few ‘winners’ and many losers. The drive for financial and personal success and glory is about return for trainers and owners, not the horses. At best, horses lead an unnatural and restricted life whilst racing, and at worst, end up as ‘wastage’ in an industry that has no more use for them.

A mother horse with her foal

What you can do to help horses today


  1. Racing Australia. (2022). Racing Australia Factbook 2022.

  2. Crawford, K. L., Finnane, A., Greer, R. M., Phillips, C. J. C., Woldeyohannes, S. M., Perkins, N. R., & Ahern, B. J. (2020). Appraising the Welfare of Thoroughbred Racehorses in Training in Queensland, Australia: The Incidence and Type of Musculoskeletal Injuries Vary between Two-Year-Old and Older Thoroughbred Racehorses. Animals10(11), 2046.

  3. Jockey Dean Holland dies after fall during race in western Victoria. (2023, April 24). ABC News.

  4. Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses (CPR). (2023). Deathwatch 2023 Report.

  5. Nath, L., Stent, A., Elliott, A., La Gerche, A., & Franklin, S. (2022). Risk Factors for Exercise-Associated Sudden Cardiac Death in Thoroughbred Racehorses. Animals12(10), 1297.‌

  6. Tong, L., Stewart, M., Johnson, I., Appleyard, R., Wilson, B., James, O., Johnson, C., & McGreevy, P. (2020). A Comparative Neuro-Histological Assessment of Gluteal Skin Thickness and Cutaneous Nociceptor Distribution in Horses and Humans. Animals10(11), 2094.

  7. Racing body charges Melbourne Cup winner Darren Weir over alleged use of jigger. (2023, September 14). ABC News.

  8. McGreevy, P., & Boakes, R. (2019, Feb 5). The shocking use of “jiggers” in horse racing. The Conversation.

  9. Exercise-induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage in Horses – Respiratory System. (n.d.). Veterinary Manual.

  10. Thomson, P., Hayek, A., Jones, B., Evans, D., & McGreevy, P. (2014). Number, causes and destinations of horses leaving the Australian Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries. Australian Veterinary Journal92(8), 303–311.

  11. Wahlquist, C. (2019, June 5). Winx’s brother among Australian racehorses killed for meat in South Korea. The Guardian.

  12. Doughty, A. (2008). An epidemiological survey of the dentition and foot condition of slaughtered horses in Australia.