What Is Horse Racing?

Horse racing is a sport in which participants compete to win a race by riding a spirited horse to a finish line before any other horses. To win a horse race, the horse must complete a prescribed course, jump any hurdles or fences (if present), and cross the finish line before any other horses. The winner receives a certain amount of prize money, called a purse, depending on the particular race.

Behind the romanticized facade of horse races, though, is a world of injuries, drug abuse, and even death. Horses used for racing are forced to sprint-often under threat of whips and illegal electric shock devices-at speeds that often cause them to sustain horrific injuries, including gruesome breakdowns and hemorrhaging from their lungs. They are pumped full of cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask the effects of these injuries and boost their performance.

Then, to prevent them from suffering long-term, many are slaughtered. Each year, an estimated 10,000 “unprofitable” or otherwise unwanted Thoroughbreds are trucked to Canada and Mexico and killed. Even so, the racing industry churns out nearly 20,000 new foals every year.

The sport has been around for thousands of years, with records going back to the Greek Olympic Games in 700 to 40 B.C. Today, it’s a global business with races taking place in more than 120 countries.

Most horse races are held on a dirt surface, and the horses must be able to travel at high speeds without losing their footing. This requires the horse to have excellent balance and agility, which means the animal needs strong bones and a flexible spine. The animals’ legs also need to be able to work in unison with each other. In order to achieve this, they are usually trained to use two different gaits: the pacing gait, in which the front and back legs on each side move forward together, and the trotting gait, in which the front and back leg on each side moves forward separately. Most pacing-trotted horses wear hobbles, straps that connect the front and back legs on each side.

For a horse to be successful in a horse race, it must also have the right temperament, which is partly why they’re so well-trained. The trainers must make sure the animal is tense and focused, not overly excited or lethargic.

Despite the widespread popularity of horse racing, many Americans are turning away from the sport. Its core audience is older and increasingly less affluent, while the sport’s reputation for cruelty and doping have turned off new would-be fans. In 2020, Congress decided that it was not willing to see horses die just to entertain racing enthusiasts, and it passed a law requiring stricter safety standards. These standards will be enforced by the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority, which began enforcing them last July.