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Ethics and Morality

Racehorses Are Dying Because of Poor Care, Not Protesters

Churchill Downs is closing down racing operations to study safety measures.

Key points

  • Far too many horses are being trained and run to death and more and more people are deeply concerned.
  • Blaming protesters for the deaths is the pot calling the kettle black; "Cruelty can't stand the spotlight."
  • It's no less anthropomorphic to claim animals are happy and content than it is to claim they are suffering.

Numerous horses die in equine-related sports that primarily are run for human entertainment and fashion. Before the 2023 Kentucky Derby, there already were seven dead horses. At the Santa Anita Racetrack, 42 horses died in 2019 and after so-called safety improvements were made, 20 died in 2020, 21 died in 2021, 12 died in 2022, and by February 2023, six had already died. It seemed as if more people knew about the dead horses than who won the race and managed not to die beforehand. The injuries and deaths that occur in public view or leak out into the hearts of the public only tell part of the story about the horrific lives of numerous racehorses who really don’t care if they win or lose and who get nothing for their life-threatening or lethal efforts. As I was editing this post, I learned another horse died at Belmont Park a week before the finale of the Triple Crown.

Source: coldbeer/Pexels
Source: coldbeer/Pexels

A week ago I received a number of emails about an essay in New Scientist by science journalist and horse advocate Christa Lesté-Lasserre. The title and the subtitle for the online piece read, "Let science guide horse welfare, not misguided, overemotional protest: Equine sports are increasingly under fire from animal rights activists, but science should be the focus for those who demand changes to the likes of horseracing and Olympic events," and the title and subtitle for the print version read, "Talking horse sense: When it comes to equine sports, animal rights protesters need to base their efforts on science, not emotions."

Here's some of what Lesté-Lasserre wrote:

  • HILL SIXTEEN broke his neck falling at the first fence of this year’s Grand National race at Aintree in the U.K. Animal rights activists say the 10-year-old Thoroughbred would still be alive today if he hadn’t been forced to race over the jumps. The horse’s trainer blames the death on animal rights activists.
  • If the activists had known more about horse behaviour, they might have opted for protests that wouldn’t stress out these animals, high-strung Thoroughbreds set to run the most challenging course of their careers.
  • Animal rights activists fill an important role speaking out for voiceless fellow species that (sic) become victims of human mistreatment. But we urgently need their efforts to be based on science, rather than on passions, emotions or anthropomorphism.

Racehorses need better care and respect, not apologies

Lesté-Lasserre's viewpoint on the horrific lives of racehorses reads as an apology for the brutal sport of horse racing—something like, "We're doing the best we can but it's not good enough, so we'll continue running you until we figure this out." This is a classic example of self-serving humane-washing and ignoring the real problems at hand.

Activists are not to blame for the downsides of horse racing. It's inane to make them the "fall guys" or a bump in the road for the industry's failures. Their passions and emotions don't get in the way of making progress in animal welfare but rather call attention to the rampant abuse of these highly emotional equines. Their deep concerns lead to better science and changes in welfare regulations. Sir Brian May, an animal and environmentalist activist, renowned singer, songwriter, and founding member of Queen, and co-founder with Anne Brummer of the Save Me Trust, has firmly criticized horse racing with strong words and a vivid video.

Researchers I know and others, including myself, hear the voices of people who are deeply concerned about animal abuse and that's among the reasons that there is a lot of science that clearly shows that horses are deeply feeling sentient beings, "emotional sponge" as Lesté-Lasserre herself calls them. (1) Many people who would never call themselves "activists" speak out when they don't like how nonhumans are treated.

Research also shows there is nothing overly emotional or anthropomorphic about viewing horses as deeply feeling beings. Appealing to what I call the "A" or anthropomorphism card doesn't work. It is no less "anthropomorphic" to claim animals are happy and content than to claim they are suffering. Lesté-Lasserre and other critics of people who claim horses and other animals need better treatment make this move and ignore that this sort of anthropomorphic double-talk is totally illogical because it implies that it's OK to say that animals are doing well but it's not permissible to say they are not. Research shows anthropomorphism favors coexistence rather than domination, and when used carefully, biocentrically or critically, it's a valuable tool for promoting animal well-being.

Lesté-Lasserre also writes, "Social media has become a powerful outlet for some activists to spread propaganda that isn’t necessarily grounded in either truth or science. This fuels fires that risk doing little service to the animals they want to protect." In fact, social media does not exaggerate the truth of what these horses are feeling. The truth is that more and more horses are being killed and a growing number of people globally are tired of how they are being treated as unfeeling objects rather than as deeply sentient beings. Highly emotional people, including activists, are a major reason why more and more people are learning about, and are fed up with, the largely unknown miserable lives of horses who are trained and raced to death.

Horses need all the care, respect, dignity, and love they can get; they want to feel safe. Expressing thoughts, prayers, and apologies for the continued abuse and death of these highly sentient beings doesn't do much, if anything, for them. Giving horses what they need isn't misplaced or hysterical activism. Rather, it's an issue of decency and humaneness. It's the least we can do for animals who trust we have their best interests in mind.

Lesté-Lasserre also writes, "If the public can trust the science—and if governing bodies act on evidence-based recommendations—it will be a win for all." The major problems are that a growing number of people don't trust science very much, the abuse and deaths about which we know and continue to occur clearly show that what science has learned about equine emotions and sentience isn't being used on their behalf, and there's a lot we don't know about the lives of sport horses because it's hidden from public view and scrutiny. Many skeptics about animal emotions and sentience always ask for more science when there's plenty already available and much has been available for decades. They simply ignore what we already know in very self-serving ways. (2,3) As a result, horses aren't winners save for what they garner for humans.

Coda—"Cruelty can't stand the spotlight"

Just as I was finishing this piece I learned that Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, is closing down racing operations to study safety measures because of the rising number of horse deaths. Accusing protesters of killing horses is misplaced blame.


1) For more on the science of equine emotions and sentience click here. Christa Lesté-Lasserre. Researcher: Horses Are “Emotional Sponges.” theHorse, January 2, 2020.

2) The precautionary principle clearly tells us that it's high time, and has been for a long while, to use what we know about the deep and rich emotional lives on behalf of horses and other animals.

3) For more on the growing distrust of science click here.

Merritt Clifton. Necropsies dominate the 2023 Kentucky Derby post-mortems. Animals 24-7, May 6, 2023,…

Kathy Guillermo. Four dead horses in six days at Churchill Downs shows horse racing’s reality problem | Opinion. Yahoo News, May 3, 2023,…

Jessica Ogilvie and Nate Perez. Santa Anita Park Reports 6 Horse Deaths So Far In 2023, Renewing Racing Scrutiny. Laist, February 13, 2023,…

Homero De la Fuente and Zoe Sottile, Churchill Downs to suspend all racing operations to further evaluate safety measures amid increase in horse deaths. CNN, June 2, 2023.

Joe Drape. Churchill Downs to Cease Racing as It Investigates Deaths of Horses. New York Times, June 2, 2023.

Gretchen Wyler. "Cruelty can't stand the spotlight."

Anthropomorphic Double-Talk: Can Animals Be Happy But Not Unhappy? No!; Anthropomorphism Favors Coexistence, Not Deadly Domination; Do Emotions "Get in the Way" of Progress in Conservation?

The Unknown Emotional and Physical Lives of Sport Horses; Wild Horses, Reverence, and the Psychology of Awe; The Humane Hoax' Asks Us to Rethink Our Meal Plans.

More activism against horse racing please. New Scientist, June 7, 2023.

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