Why Do They Euthanize Racehorses Who Break Their Legs? (2023)


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Humans and other mammals can recover from a broken leg. But a similar injury can be catastrophic for thoroughbreds, as the public has seen during this Triple Crown season.

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Why Do They Euthanize Racehorses Who Break Their Legs? (1)
(Video) Why are leg injuries so devastating for horses?

There is a lot to enjoy for a new fan introduced to thoroughbred racing. There is the beauty of the animals, the thrill of watching them move and the joyful feeling of outsmarting the other horseplayers and cashing a bet.

But there is a cold fact about the sport that can be hard for fans — and impossible for critics — to accept: Sometimes a horse gets hurt, and sometimes it is euthanized, often right on the track.

Earlier this month, seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, including four that broke down while racing or training. And the victory of National Treasure, trained by Bob Baffert, in the Preakness was clouded by the collapse and euthanasia of another Baffert racehorse earlier in the day at Pimlico Race Course.


People who oppose horse racing on principle often point to such occurrences while making their case. Even for racing fans, the disquieting reality of breakdowns can raise the question: Does something as apparently simple as a broken leg have to lead to a horse dying? The unfortunate answer, veterinarians say, is often yes.

Horses are just different from many animals, even other equines. “They can run really fast,” said Dr. Scott E. Palmer, the equine medical director of the New York State Gaming Commission. “And because they weigh about 1,100 pounds, the forces that are acting on their legs are really profound.”

Palmer continued: “All their muscles are up high. When you get down into the lower part of the leg, there is literally skin and bones and tendons and blood vessels and nerves. If something breaks, the circulation of the area can be easily compromised by the injury.”

As a result, horses are vulnerable to breaking their legs; it happens running on the racetrack, or running in a pasture, or kicking a stall door. The problem is that it is very difficult to heal a broken leg on a horse.

Breaks in horses can also be much more severe than in a human or other mammals, because of their weight and the fragility of their legs. “Because of the high energy impact, the horse can shatter that bone, more than just a simple crack, making repair much less likely,” Palmer said.

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To fix a broken bone on any animal, the break must be immobilized. But immobilizing a horse brings a host of challenges. Horses are restless and skittish. Thoroughbreds are bred to run. Keeping them in one place for an extended period is difficult.

Horses also spend almost all of their time on four feet, even when sleeping. So all four of their legs bear their weight. If suddenly three legs have to support that weight, the uninjured legs can quickly develop problems.

Most commonly and dangerously, horses can get laminitis, a painful condition that develops in the tissue between the hoof and the bone. “The hoof is attached to the bone by organic fasteners like a Velcro system,” Palmer said. “If those little hooks become swollen, they become unhooked. That is impossible to take care of.”

The entire treatment experience can bring severe pain for a horse who, of course, cannot understand what is going on the way a human undergoing painful treatment would.

The pain for the horse is consideration “No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3,” Palmer said.

Laminitis brings “unbelievable pain,” he said. “They cannot stand on that leg. Now you have a horse with a break in one leg and can’t stand on a second."

Horses cannot simply lie down for extended periods to avoid putting weight on their legs. Lying down for more than a few hours will cause muscle damage, restricted blood flow and blood pooling in the lungs.

Any elaborate or unusual process to try to repair a badly broken bone can cost thousands of dollars. Few horse owners are willing to spend that kind of money on a painful treatment process that might not work and probably won’t get the horse back to the racetrack. Euthanasia is the unfortunate choice most of the time.


(Video) Horse fatality at Santa Anita - Arms Runner March 31, 2019

When the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, broke his leg in the Preakness two weeks later, his owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson decided to try to save him.

His injury was serious: The leg bone was broken into 20 pieces. He had five hours of surgery to insert 27 pins and a stainless steel plate.

Palmer was on the scene the day of the injury. “I said: ‘The fracture is horrible, but none of the wounds came through the skin. Because of that, I believe that surgery is possible.’ I honestly thought that was the very best chance he had for survival.”

Two months after his surgery, Barbaro developed laminitis, requiring most of a hoof to be removed. He then had some good months. But the hoof did not grow back properly, leading to another procedure. He got a foot bruise, and more surgery followed. Complications led to laminitis in two more limbs, and Barbaro’s distress increased significantly.

“We just reached a point where it was going to be difficult for him to go on without pain,” Roy Jackson said. In the end, the extraordinary efforts lengthened his life by only eight months.

“From a purely surgical perspective, it was extremely unsatisfying because he didn’t make it,” Dr. Dean W. Richardson, the surgeon, said at the time. “Professionally, I think we did the best we could.”

The dazzling filly Ruffian in 1975 had 12 hours of surgery after a bad break. Upon waking, she began thrashing around in her stall, causing another break and leading to her euthanasia.

If euthanasia is the only option, the horse is sedated, then a barbiturate solution is administered, generally behind a screen to block the view of spectators.


(Video) Racehorse Destroyed After Injury (1966) | British Pathé

Strides have been made in the last decades in treating horses, including development of better antibiotics and the aluminum splint and improvements in understanding laminitis.

There have also been improvements in prevention, which, given the horse’s unusual anatomy, may be the most promising way to make progress.

After a string of horse deaths at Aqueduct in 2011 and 2012, Palmer and others made recommendations, including improving the racing surface, changing claiming and purse rules and strengthening drug regulation. Those have helped the number of racing deaths come down and stay down.

Palmer has hope for Fitbit-type devices — biometric sensors that can spot horses with gaits that might lead to injury before those injuries happen. A trial at Saratoga Race Course last year was promising, he said.

But the challenge of caring for horses is likely to always remain. Palmer said of the difficulties of surgery: “We have to put a broken leg back together again with screws and plates, and they have to be able to stand on it immediately after surgery. That is an enormous challenge.”

Victor Mather covers every sport for The Times.


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Why Do They Euthanize Racehorses Who Break Their Legs? ›

Any elaborate or unusual process to try to repair a badly broken bone can cost thousands of dollars. Few horse owners are willing to spend that kind of money on a painful treatment process that might not work and probably won't get the horse back to the racetrack. Euthanasia is the unfortunate choice most of the time.

Why are race horses put down after injury? ›

While the sport endures scrutiny over the safety of its horses, their owners, trainers, jockeys and handlers must move forward after the wrenching decision to put a horse down simply because it is considered so difficult to heal a leg injury.

What do they do for a horse with a broken leg? ›

The horse is usually placed under general anesthesia to perform the adjustment, and specialized equipment might be required to pull large bones into position. Once the bone fragments are properly aligned, they're fixed in position with casts, pins, screws or plates until the fracture heals.

Do injured race horses get put down? ›

Race horses can live for up to 30 years, but injured fallers at National Hunt events are often put down after breaking limbs. According to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), this is due to a horse's complex physiology.

Why can't a horse heal a broken leg? ›

"They're very strong, to carry their weight, yet they're light, for them to be able to go fast. So, unfortunately, sometimes, when they break, they just shatter." When that happens, it is not possible to repair the bone, and not just because it is now in lots of little pieces that won't heal together.

Why are horses sacrificed when they break a leg? ›

Because horses can not stay off their feet for long periods, broken bones do not have a chance to heal, and so often sadly the kindest way to help a horse with a broken limb is to put it down.

Why do horses with bad legs get put down? ›

A horse with a broken leg is usually killed because it is very difficult to heal a horse's broken leg properly. In addition, the blood flow of a horse depends on its hooves. Keeping a horse still for a long period of time to allow its bone to heal is an enormous risk to its life.

Why do they shoot horses instead of euthanasia? ›

Though the practise seems cruel, but 'destroying' a racehorse is usually more humane than forcing the horse to endure the recovery. Around 150 horses are 'destroyed', as the racing community calls it, mostly by lethal injection, at racecourses each year, usually after sustaining badly broken legs.

Why can't horses lay down? ›

Their bodies simply can't tolerate the pressure exerted when laying down for more extended periods. The pressure cuts off blood flow to tissue, muscle, and organs, which leads to severe damage.

Can a horse survive with 3 legs? ›

Most people don't realize that a horse can survive on three legs with a prosthetic limb but Dr. Grant does. One of his first amputees was Boitron, a TB who had a hauling accident that required a hind limb to be amputated. With a prosthesis Boitron could gallop in the snow and breed just like any other stallion.

What happens to a race horse if it breaks a leg? ›

Often the only humane option after a horse breaks its leg is to euthanize it. This is because horses have heavy bodies and delicate legs, and broken leg bones are usually shattered making surgery and recovery impossible.

Why are race horses slaughtered? ›

The Solution. The racing industry does not have a retirement plan. This results in thousands of racehorses being sent to knackeries and slaughterhouses where they're killed for dog meat and human consumption.

Are race horses treated humanely? ›

The unregulated practice of “raising champions” sees horses forced through abuse and cruelty to perform, even in pain. All in the name of sport, trainers inject horses with clotting agents to prevent pulmonary bleeding and mask the pain so a horse can run just once more before retirement (aka slaughter).

Have any horses survived a broken leg? ›

With all the advancements in modern veterinary medicine, fractures are no longer death sentences for horses. Veterinarians can repair and rehab many limb fractures, and the horse might even be able to return to work.

Do horses enjoy racing? ›

Yes, horses enjoy racing and are well-looked-after animals. Running and jumping come naturally to horses as you see horses doing this in the wild. It's also very interesting that when a horse unseats its jockey during a race, it will continue to run and jump with the other racehorses.

Why can't horses vomit? ›

Horses have 3 anatomical mechanisms designed to assist in continual movement of food through the digestive tract. These mechanisms prevent the back flow of food from the stomach to the mouth, hence they cannot vomit.

Where do you shoot a horse to put it down? ›

The shot should be aimed in the middle of the forehead, but slightly higher than the position for cattle. Take two imaginary lines drawn from the middle of each eye to the base of the opposite ear; shoot the animal approximately 2cm above the point where they cross (Figure 9).

Why do horses break their legs so easily? ›

Horses put a huge amount of stress on their legs, especially when galloping and jumping. And, there are several bones below the knee and hock. Some of the bones are within the hoof, and when they shatter, they are far more difficult to stabilize and heal.

Do horses sleep standing up? ›

Horses have an amazing ability to be able to sleep standing up. But they do also sleep lying down. If you're a horse, you need to be able to do both. It's one of the mistakes lots of people make about horses.

What happens when a horse can't stand up? ›

Regardless of the reason, a horse that can't get on its feet presents a serious situation. Horses that lie down for extended periods—many hours or a few days—are at increased risk for complications such as pressure sores, colic, and pneumonia.

How do you stop a horse from being dead to the leg? ›

Start in a halt. Give your horse the very lightest squeeze possible and ask him to trot on, simply by slightly tightening your calf. If there is no response (which there probably won't be!), immediately give a much harder kick with your leg. You want the horse to really jump forward, ideally to an energetic canter.

Why do horses stand with one back leg bent? ›

The most common cause of this behavior, especially in the forelimbs, is heel pain. However, other common foot lameness conditions like hoof abscess, bruises and other injuries to the rear of the limb also commonly cause horses to adopt this stance.

Why can't you bury a horse? ›

You can't just bury a dead horse anywhere because of the risk to groundwater and other animals. Most states have laws that govern the disposal of dead livestock.

How are horses humanely euthanized? ›

The penetrating captive bolt euthanizes by physical destruction of the brain. Only a penetrating captive bolt gun can be used for euthanasia. A concussive captive bolt gun should never be used as it is not an effective means of euthanasia for horses.

What is the average cost of horse euthanasia? ›

On average, most forms of chemical euthanasia combined with sedation will cost about $250+, plus whatever amount for the method of disposal you decide on. You can always check with your vet and have the correct amount set aside in advance.

Does a whip hurt a horse? ›

Whipping hurts horses

“This was not surprising, as horses, like humans, need robust yet sensitive skin to respond to touch, say, from flying insects or other horses,” said Professor McGreevy. “From this, we can deduce that horses are likely to feel as much pain as humans would when being whipped.”

Do horses like being ridden? ›

Plenty of horses seem to enjoy being ridden and are fond of the attention they get from their riders. However, there are definitely horses out there who do not like it. They'll be more stubborn while you're on and maybe agitated while being tacked up. Though, riding does benefit the horse.

What animal Cannot sit down? ›

Flamingos live on caustic salt flats, where there's nowhere they can sit down.

How much does a prosthetic leg cost for a horse? ›

Gould estimated that 3D rendered limbs-both the temporary and permanent prosthesis-could come with the combined cost of between $12,000 and $25,000. But perhaps the greatest reason why equine prosthesis remains such a niche veterinary procedure boils down to ethics and optics.

Can horses have two hearts? ›

Horses, like other mammals, have only one heart. However, the frog in each hoof acts like a pump to push blood back up the leg with each step a horse takes.

Do horses ever have all four feet off the ground? ›

In the gait known as the gallop, all four feet leave the ground-but not when the legs are outstretched, as you might expect. In reality, the horse is airborne when its hind legs swing near the front legs, as shown in Muybridge's photos.

What famous race horse broke his leg? ›

Nicholasville, Kentucky, U.S. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, U.S. On May 20, 2006, Barbaro ran in the Preakness Stakes as a heavy favorite, but, after a false start, he fractured three bones in and around the fetlock of his right hind leg.

Will a horse ever heal if it breaks its leg? ›

Today, internal fixation (screws and bone plates) enables the horse to stand on a broken leg while it heals, making previously life-threatening fractures treatable. With the best possible care, many fractures heal in under six months, though it takes at least a year for the horse to reach its full potential.

Can a horse weight bare on a broken leg? ›

The biggest challenge facing equine surgeons with regards to fracture repair is the fact that horses for the most part need to remain weight bearing on all 4 limbs. This is true even in the case of a fracture.

Is it cruel to race a horse? ›

Racing exposes horses to significant risk of injury and sometimes, catastrophic injury and death through trauma (e.g. broken neck) or emergency euthanasia. The odds are stacked against horses in the racing industry.

How many horses are killed each year in racing? ›

Each horse that starts in a race is a "start," so in 2013 there were 7,860 starts on 109 race days. In 2022, ten race horses died according to the Equine Injury Database, resulting in a 1.03 fatality rate per thousand starts. There were 9,664 starts last year.

Why doesn't the US eat horses? ›

The primary reason horse meat is taboo is because horses are considered valuable pets and culturally respected animals. Besides, people fear horse meat might be infected with harmful drugs. Some Christian schools of thought also discourage eating horses.

Do horses naturally want to race? ›

Running and jumping comes naturally to horses, and we see them doing both those things in the wild.

What happens to horse after euthanasia? ›

It's best to think about the costs, the methods of euthanasia and what's available in your area beforehand. If your horse was euthanised by injection or had been given other drugs, the options for disposal are cremation, incineration or burial (subject to certain legal restrictions).

Does PETA support horse racing? ›

Lifesaving Racetrack Changes That Passed, Thanks to PETA. PETA has been pressing the horse racing industry to make lifesaving changes for a long time, from taking a seat in the boardroom to proposing 11 simple rules for racetracks to adopt.

Are horses intelligent? ›

Horses are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals on Earth, due to their ability to learn quickly and remember things. They can also solve problems, figure out how to get something, and even understand human language.

How long do horses live? ›

Do horses understand they are racing? ›

Horse Psychology

The simple answer to whether or not horses understand horse racing is that while racehorses want to win races and do subjectively enjoy winning them, they do not understand the greater significance of horse racing to the extent that humans do.

Do horses love their riders? ›

Horses DON'T form attachment bonds with their owners despite what equine enthusiasts might think - but they do regard humans as 'safe havens' Horses think of humans as 'safe havens' but don't form attachment bonds with their owners - despite what equine enthusiasts might think, a new study reveals.

How many times can a horse be whipped in a race? ›

Rules and limits on use

The whip can be used a maximum of six times in a Flat race or seven times in a Jump race. Any more than this will prompt the stewards to review the ride.

What two animals Cannot vomit? ›

That's right: Squirrels, mice, rats, gophers, beavers and all other rodents are incapable of throwing up. Scientists have long known that rodents aren't able to vomit, but the reason behind it has only more recently been understood, according to Smithsonian(Opens in a new window).

Why do they throw water on horses? ›

The water used to wash the corpse before placement in the coffin was traditionally kept to be thrown in front of the hooves of the horse drawing the funeral carriage. Later, this developed into the symbolic act of neighbors and family throwing buckets of water as a mark of respect for the dead.

Why do horses not drink? ›

Horses need fresh, clean water. If your horse isn't drinking water, check their water sources. If it's stale, has algae in it, or is dirty, your horse probably is going to refuse to drink it. You can keep your horse's water fresh by having their buckets, troughs, and other water sources cleaned regularly.

Do race horses feel pain? ›

Yet in two studies released around Melbourne Cup week, Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science and his colleagues have found that not only have horses evolved to feel as much pain when whipped as a human would, but that there is no compelling reason to whip these animals at ...

Are race horses treated cruelly? ›

Forced to Race

The unregulated practice of “raising champions” sees horses forced through abuse and cruelty to perform, even in pain. All in the name of sport, trainers inject horses with clotting agents to prevent pulmonary bleeding and mask the pain so a horse can run just once more before retirement (aka slaughter).

What happens to a horse if it falls in a race? ›

Horses may fall face-first into the ground and break their neck or back, dying almost immediately. Those who endure this traumatic experience – a stomach-churning mess of tangled limbs and broken bones – are often euthanised during or after the race.

What happens to horses that can't race anymore? ›

After their racing careers are over, many of the best horses will be retired to stud to breed the next generation of racehorses. However, thoroughbreds are versatile, highly intelligent creatures that can adapt well to retraining outside racing.

Does a human feel heavy to a horse? ›

Bottom line: riders who move WITH a horse are “lighter” than people of the same weight who “ride like a sack of potatoes.” There is a popular misconception that big people should ride big horses. The reality is that smaller horses can carry a higher proportion of their own weight than bigger horses.

Do horses know they are racing? ›

Just like people. Fillies have more intelligence than colts. They learn quickly. A horse knows the day he's going to race.

Do horses suffer when ridden? ›

Both studies prove that horses experience increased pain and discomfort purely from the act of being ridden. Other factors that influence the scores include the height and weight of the rider. As well as the type of saddle or overall gear used when riding horses. So yes, horses feel pain when ridden.

Are horses happy to race? ›

Yes, horses enjoy racing and are well-looked-after animals. Running and jumping come naturally to horses as you see horses doing this in the wild. It's also very interesting that when a horse unseats its jockey during a race, it will continue to run and jump with the other racehorses.

Are race horses slaughtered? ›

Panorama's researchers were also able to discover that race horses – some of whom, like Vyta Du Roc, had had prestigious careers – were slaughtered for their meat.

How does PETA feel about horse racing? ›

PETA is working hard to tackle horse-racing cruelty.

After PETA supporters called on the Jockey Club to implement our Thoroughbred 360 Lifecycle Fund to help fund retirement programs and prevent the slaughter of Thoroughbreds, the club launched the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance to raise funds for retirement.

What do horses get if they win a race? ›

Finishers receive a percentage of the purse, with 60% going to the winner, 20% to the runner-up, 10% to third place, 5% to fourth, 3% to fifth, and 2% to sixth. So, the owner of a winning horse in a race with a $20,000 purse would make $12,000.

What causes sudden death in racehorses? ›

In this study, the injury or diagnosis of a fatality within three days of a race occurred in 536 horses to include: a) sudden death in 86.2%; b) pulmonary hemorrhage in 10.8%; c) exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in 9.1%; d) post-exertional distress/heat stroke in 3.9%; and e) cardiac arrhythmia in 2.2%.

What is the life expectancy of a racehorse? ›

The majority of racehorses will have a racing career of only 2-3 years yet their life expectancy is 25-30 years. Whatever the reason or age at which it occurs, all racehorses will eventually cease racing.

Why do horses stop racing after 3 years? ›

Unaltered racehorses that win enough races will be retired quickly, usually before 3 years of age. This helps to avoid injury and allows the owners to begin collecting their money for breeding fees. Male horses that have been altered, geldings, are usually allowed to race longer because they cannot sire offspring.


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