In this section:
- Breaking the spirit
- Learned helplessness
- The bit
- Tongue tying
- The rejects
- Insurance Fraud
Breaking the spirit
Horses largely perform as racehorses because they are given no other option. Racing is not something that comes naturally to horses. It is something they are taught and forced to do.
From an early age, racehorses are ‘broken in’. This is a euphemism for breaking the horse’s spirit using training methods that force the horse to submit to the trainer.
Antiquated training methods like tying a horse’s legs together are still used today. Horses are also beaten into submission if they do not comply to the demands of their handler.
If an animal experiences pain—for example from severe bits being applied with relentless pressure, constant spurring and whipping—and finds that no response results in relief, it may gradually habituate to the pain. This phenomenon is known as “learned helplessness”.
Learned helplessness results in chronic conflict and gastric disorders leading to colic, which can be fatal. (1)
Tools of a cruel trade
Jiggers represent an example of the extreme lengths that trainers and owners will go to in order to give their horse the best possible chance of winning.
The jigger is an (illegal) device sometimes used in training, often in conjunction with a legal device like blinkers. The jigger delivers an electrical shock to the horse and on race day the horse will associates the blinkers with electric shocks and run faster out of fear.
The bit is a device attached to the bridle and placed in the horse’s mouth. It is used as a means to control the horse by applying pressure to its mouth, tongue and lips.
When the jockey pulls on the bridle, this pushes the bit further into the horse’s mouth which can cause pain and injury. Broken teeth and lacerations to the mouth are common.
“Racehorses have bits in their mouths pretty much their whole lives… A lot of jockeys actually balance on the horse’s mouth so often [its mouth is] destroyed…”
Frank Bell, horse whisperer from the video ‘Retraining the racehorse’
Spurs are typically metallic and worn on the sides of a jockey’s boots, in contact with the horse’s flanks. The jockey kicks the horse with his spurs during a race to control it and make it go faster.
Modern jockey ride with their stirrups much higher, so fortunately using spurs is much more difficult and is in decline. However, they are still used in jumps racing as jockeys ride with the stirrups much lower.
Tongue ties are strips of material passed through a horse’s mouth over the tongue and tied under the jaw. They are used on racehorses for two primary reasons:
- To stop the horse from putting its tongue over the bit to avoid being controlled by the rider.
- To prevent dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP), which can impede the horse’s breathing. Anecdotal reports as well as some clinical research have indicated tongue tying is effective in preventing DDSP in some horses and ineffective in others. (2)
Ultimately, the tongue tie is largely used as another form of control over the horse. If this much control is required to make the horse perform, it suggests the horse is only complying under duress.
Horses that don’t submit to training are deemed stubborn, pig headed and not of a suitable temperament for racing. They will never race and will be quickly discarded. A widely accepted figure is that only 300 of every 1,000 thoroughbred foals born actually end up racing. (3)
In Australia, well-bred racehorses from sires like Encosta De Lago and Redoutes Choice are extremely expensive to purchase. This however does not necessarily guarantee a return on investment. The Thoroughbred is very vulnerable to injury which can prematurely end its racing career at any time. As a result, many horses are insured.
Sometimes, horses will sustain soft tissue injuries not covered by insurance or simply do not perform to their owners expectations. In order to recoup costs, horses are sometimes deliberately made to break down or killed so that an insurance claim can be made. This may be achieved by making the horse break down through excessive exercise on the racetrack or even on a treadmill. For these people, their horse is more valuable dead than alive.
1. McLean 2003
2. Equine Veterinary Journal 41:8 (2009), pp. 812-81
3. Bailey et al. 1999; Bourke 1995).