Horse Racing: What Equine Lovers Should Know About This Sport

Horse racing is an ancient sport that is ingrained in many cultures and every level of society. This traditional sport has been active in one form or another for many thousands of years. In earliest times, it consisted simply of pitting horses with riders against one another to determine who was fastest, strongest and most skilled. The bond between horse and rider was an important aspect of the sport.

Today, horse racing is big business and we stand on the brink of an age when quite a bit of training is being done using mechanized devices rather than jockeys. While this innovation has quite a bit to recommend it in terms of helping strengthen young horses, it is impossible not to wonder how this type of mechanical training might interfere with the bond between horse and rider, which has traditionally been an essential aspect of racing and all forms of horsemanship.

In this article, we will discuss the history of horse racing and explore the pros and cons of following racing, betting and/or participating. Read on to learn more.

Horse Racing Has Held Steady Popularity For Centuries

Evidence of horse racing

Earliest evidence indicates that people have been riding and working with horses since as long as 10,000 years ago.

Evidence of horse racing can be found in the early cultures of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Persia. The first official record of horse racing comes from the Greek Olympic Games that took place between 40 and 700 BCE.

Both bareback and chariot races were held at these games. In the earliest days, chariot racing was a popular sport that often involved wild risk-taking, injuries and even death to both horse and driver.

It is believed that the Romans brought horse racing to what is now the United Kingdom in the early 10th Century. The first recorded race took place in an area that is now called Smithfield in northwestern London.

Horse racing has always been popular with royalty, and none more so than the royal family of England. In fact, British royals have been the source of a number of historic developments that have shaped and changed racing for centuries.

For example, Henry II imported horses to improve racing bloodlines. Charles II developed racing rules, which were introduced in 1664 to be applied to the Newmarket Town Plate.

Horses & Humans – A Time Tested Bond

Horses & Humans

In these historic times and now, races and competitions provide riders an opportunity to practice and perfect their riding and driving skills. Today many horsemen and women practice their skills as a sport, in a number of equestrian disciplines.

In ancient time, these competitions honed horsemanship skills for practical use in everyday life and in war.

Today and in yesteryear, practice matches provide good entertainment and help riders and their mounts learn to face a wide variety of challenges with resourcefulness and bravery. As a result, many activities associated with horsemanship remain popular and vibrant today.

Indeed, if it weren’t for competitions, many types of horsemanship and associated skills would have died out with the passage of time. Everything from calf-roping or breakaway roping to skijoring to jousting might easily fall by the wayside without these popular competitions and events.

The popularity and growth of this sport has resulted in a number of peripheral gains. For example, due to the evolution of various forms of horse races and competition, various breeds of horses were developed to meet the specific challenges of each type of contest.

These competitions may account in large part for the lovely array of horse breeds we have today.

Types Of Horseracing

Types Of Horseracing

There are several types of horse racing (e.g. harness racing, endurance racing, etc), however, horse races today can be roughly classed into two types: jump racing and flat racing.

Flat Racing

The most familiar of the two is flat racing which is very popular around the world. Flat racing, true to its name, takes place on a flat, oval track, which can be made of dirt, turf or polytrack. Distances and rules may vary from one place to another.

The earliest recorded flat race took place in 1174 AD. The first flat race in the UK took place at the estate of the Earl of Derby in Epsom, England in 1780. The “Derby” is a sweepstakes race that is still held annually. The Grand National is another sweepstakes race which began in 1856 and is still held annually.

Other types of flat races are referred to as the English Class races. The Epsom Oaks race was established in 1776 as a 3-year-old fillies race. The Epsom Derby, another fillies race, was established in 1779. In the early 1800s, two more fillies races were added to the English Class races: the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas races.

Jump Racing

Jump, hunt or steeplechase racing is quite different from flat racing and is more popular in Europe than it is in the United States (here are some breeds great for show jumping).

This type of racing includes fences, obstacles and hurdles for the horses to jump. It is a test of a variety of skills (e.g. sprinting, distance running, long jumping and hurdling). It may be held in an open, countryside setting, and can be as much as 2-4 miles long.

The first recorded hunt race took place in Cork, Ireland in the year 1752. The course was four miles long and ran from the steeple of one church to another. This is why this type of racing is often called a “steeplechase”.

Classifications Of Horse Racing

Classifications Of Horse Racing

In each of the categories, there are various contests available depending upon the age, experience and ability of the horse and the conditions of the race. For example, a “nursery race” is a handicap race for two year olds, on the flat, in all weather conditions.

The term “handicap” refers to the weighting of a horse depending upon its demonstrated ability. The horse’s performance, running surface, prevailing weather and a number of other factors are considered when determining a horse’s handicap – here is the basic horse racing terminology explained.

Races are generally categorized by age group. Additionally, the official handicapper rating bracket (a score each horse earns via performance) helps determine a horse’s eligibility to participate in various competitions. For example, only horses that have not won a race can compete in maiden races.

Non-handicap races are those in which all the horses are weighted equally; however, the amount may be adjusted dependent upon certain penalties described in the rules of the race.

One example of this is that in some races horses that have won a race within the past six weeks may be required to carry a specified extra amount of weight.

All-Weather Racing

This type of racing takes place on outdoor tracks, all-year round, night or day. This is possible because all-weather tracks are equipped with floodlights and artificial turf.

What Types Of Horses Are Usually Raced?

Two main types of horse

Two main types of horse are used for racing. The most popular is the thoroughbred. These are hot-blooded horses that are famous for speed and athleticism. Thoroughbreds are descendants of Oriental horses with Turkoman, Arabian and Barb breeding.

In the United Kingdom, horse racing began as early as the 12th Century when English knights brought these exotic horses back from the Crusades. These horses were bred with English horses and produced the early precursors of the Thoroughbreds of today.

When the Jockey Club was formed in 1750 for the purpose of establishing rules and guidelines for racing, the regulation of racehorse breeding began.

Jockey Club accountant, James Weatherby, had the daunting task of tracing pedigrees and compiling family histories for all of the racehorses in existence in England at that time.

The result of his work was the 1791 General Stud Book which traced the history of every valid racehorse back to three specific stallions:

  1. Byerly Turk (1680-1696)
  2. Darley Arabian (1700-1733)
  3. Godolphin Arabian (1724-1753)

Beginning in the early 1800s, only horses whose lineage traced back to one of these three stallions could be listed in the General Stud Book, considered Thoroughbreds and allowed to race professionally. Once established, Thoroughbreds quickly became a popular racehorse breed worldwide.

American Quarter Horse

Another popular type of race horse is the American quarter horse, a breed which was originally the result of crossing Thoroughbreds and Native American horses. These horses were originally descendants of Spanish barbs and other horses brought to the Americas by the Spaniards during the 15th Century.

Quarter horses are typically shorter and stockier than Thoroughbreds. They are more muscular and have a deeper chest. They have a great deal of endurance and are amazing sprinters. Their best racing performance is seen in quarter-mile races – hence the name “Quarter Horse”.

Quarter horses are typically quieter than Thoroughbreds and are also quite versatile. For this reason, they are popular choices for activities such as calf-roping, barrel racing, trail riding and pleasure riding.

What’s The Difference Between A Pleasure Horse And A Race Horse?

What's The Difference Between A Pleasure Horse And A Race Horse

A race horse is typically trained to do one thing – run! A pleasure horse must be able to interact with his or her rider in a variety of situations. Pleasure riding (often called “hacking”) can take the form of trail riding and other light recreation activities.

The vast majority of horses owned and ridden in the United States are used for trail riding (see some of them here) and other light recreation, as opposed to showing (here is how to get ready for a horse show), racing and other forms of competition.

Hot blood and an excitable temperament are pluses for a racehorse but not for a pleasure horse (aka: hack). A quiet disposition, versatility and adaptability are the best qualities in a pleasure horse.

A racehorse must be a pure-blood Thoroughbred or Quarter horse, but a pleasure horse can be of any pure horse breed or of mixed heritage. Mixed breed horses are called “grade” horses and many are perfectly suitable for pleasure riding.

Btw, do you know these horse racing movies based on true story? It may be a good idea to watch them if you want to learn about stories of some of the famous racehorses.

Can A Racehorse Be A Pleasure Horse?

Racehorses often turn out to be very good pleasure horses, and rescuing a retired racehorse is a worthwhile pursuit. Just don’t try to take your new racehorse for a quiet pleasure ride first thing. Allow some settling in and transition time and provide proper training to help your retired racehorse succeed.

Begin by giving your new horse some time off. A racehorse’s personality often changes dramatically after a generous amount of down-time (3 months to a year).

A horse that has been recently worked and raced may have tight, stiff muscles that need to relax. Racing is demanding and stressful, and it is only natural that a horse would need some time to calm down before moving on to new pursuits.

It’s important to understand that the muscles used for racing are completely different than those used for pleasure riding, so it’s very wise to allow your retired racehorse (here is how to buy and own a racehorse) to loosen up a bit before you begin any kind of training in pleasure riding.

This also gives you the opportunity to spend quality time with your horse grooming, walking and building the kind of relationship that is so necessary between a good pleasure horse and rider.

It’s smart to enlist the help of a professional trainer who is familiar with racehorses when you do begin your riding training. A racehorse may have a lot of trained-in behaviors that are considered bad habits for a riding horse.

For example, a racehorse is trained to start walking while being mounted, but this is not what you want in a pleasure horse.

A professional will know how to retrain your horse to transition smoothly from racing to pleasure riding. Some trainers use things such as ear plugs to improve horses’s focus and encourage their relaxation by reducing distracting and loud noises.

Retraining may take a while. A lot depends on your level of skill and the amount of patience you have. Your horse’s age, experience and personality are also major factors.

If you’ve given your horse a significant amount of time off and you’ve spent quality time with him or her, your progress will be quicker and steadier.

The Pros & Cons Of Horse Racing

Pros & Cons Of Horse Racing

Horse racing is an ingrained aspect of the horse world, and it attracts a lot of support and a lot of criticism. As an equestrian, it’s wise to know something about it regardless of whether you are for it or against it.

The fact is, horse racing is both beneficial and detrimental to horses. It can also be both beneficial and detrimental to society. In this section, we will examine some of the effects of the horse racing industry on people and horses.

Betting on the horses is an enormous industry. It’s possible to win or lose a fortune at the track. It’s also possible to enjoy a bit of a “flutter” from time-to-time and build an interesting and enjoyable pastime around keeping up with the races and following your favorite horses and jockeys.

Unlike online or casino gambling or many other forms of betting, active participation in betting on the horses can involve time spent outdoors and healthy, positive socializing with other enthusiasts.

There’s always something to learn about horse racing and discussing the famous races all around the globe can make for interesting conversation.

If you actually go to the race track, study the horses and get to know other enthusiasts, and people associated with the sport, there are social and health benefits to be gleaned from staying active, spending time outdoors, wearing beautiful dresses (great for ladies indeed!), and interacting with others while watching horses with good horse racing binoculars.

When you bet on the horses you are providing support for an industry that helps boost the economy and provides quite a bit of employment. You don’t need to find the most profitable racing system to enjoy a bit of betting.

There are also many ways in which horse racing benefits horses in general. Many scientific advancements and discoveries in nutrition and veterinary practice and technique have come from work within the racing industry.

The flip side of that coin is that horse racing is also a cruel sport for the horses involved for these 5 reasons.

  1. Racing is a hard sport, and young horses are started in it as two-year-olds when their bones are not fully grown. They are highly prone to injury.
  2. Some horse injuries are fatal, and over twenty horses die in racing in the US alone, every week.
  3. Very often, race horses are given dangerous pain-killers and other drugs to cope with pain from injuries and to enhance their performance.
  4. Racehorses are often lonely and anxious because they are prevented from socializing freely with other horses in a pasture setting. This is a horse’s natural way of living.
  5. Horses that do not win races are often shipped off to slaughter in Mexico or Canada in the US. The trip, alone is grueling as horses are packed into cattle trucks and shipped several thousand miles without food or water. Many horses shipped to slaughter die on the way. Once the survivors arrive at their destination, they are cruelly killed.

This problem is not limited to US racehorses. In the UK more than 5000 horses a year are cruelly slaughtered and the meat is sent to France.

This is all the more reason to consider adopting a retired racehorse! Luckily, in both the US and the UK, there are reliable organizations on hand to help you do just that!

Is Horse Racing Good Or Bad?

The short answer to that question is “It’s both!” It is a huge industry, and like any industry that is designed around the premise of making money with live animals, there is lots of room for corruption, exploitation and cruelty (some might say it is very similar to today’s rodeo organized by modern “cowboys“).

It is also an industry that is built around gambling, which is an extremely addiction-prone behavior. It’s easy to see that there is lots of potential for harm and sorrow in many aspects of the racing industry.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that the industry provides work for lots of people, and a great deal of benefit for horses in general is gleaned from research and information connected with this industry.

As a horse lover, it is wise to be informed about the industry and to recognize the benefits connected with it. Simultaneously, it is equally wise to speak up and work for change in regards to negative aspects of the industry.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is the physical stress of race training and racing entirely negative for horses?

The stress of race training and racing is a double edged sword. While it can certainly cause injury to joints, bones, ligaments and tendons, it can also create benefit. Properly conducted training of young horses results in a phenomenon known as “bone remodeling” whereby the musculoskeletal system adapts and bones become stronger and thicker in response to well moderated exercise and well managed physical stress.

2. Is it a good idea to run horses at two years of age?

The answer to this depends upon what you consider a good idea. Young horses very often outperform older horses; however, about half of them have very short racing careers. One reason for this is that it is very common for two-year-olds to develop shin soreness. In fact, this is a problem for 40-80% of racing two-year-olds. Three-year-old racehorses experience this problem at about half this rate.

3. Are two-year-old racehorses mature enough to run races?

Horses typically mature fully around age six. Racehorses usually start training at about twenty months of age before the skeleton has fully matured. At this age, the cartilage surrounding a horse’s knees has not yet fused, so knee injury is very likely. Additionally, a young horse’s spine is not yet fully developed, so spinal injury is quite likely.

4. Is two years of age the peak age for a race horse?

Even though younger horses typically perform better than older horses on the track, the actual peak age for racing is thought to be about four-and-a-half. The reason many racehorses are started so young is a simple matter of cost effectiveness. The owner has made a lower investment in the horse and stands to reap a greater return on that investment by running the horse very young.

5. How can you tell if a two-year-old is fit to run safely?

The horse should be examined by an independent veterinarian before beginning a racing career. The vet should conduct a full physical examination paying close attention to the possibility of physiological abnormalities, as well as checking the animal’s legs and spine with particular care. This examination should be repeated frequently as the horse matures to the age of four.

3 thoughts on “Horse Racing: What Equine Lovers Should Know About This Sport”

  1. Wow, I honestly did not know there was this much to horse racing 🙂 Just for the lame person in me, I only knew what was always shown on television. There is certainly a lot more to it than that!

  2. well, being a long-time breeder, owner, trainer ..etc….I take issue with the “what’s wrong” part of this article! 1) most responsible trainers do not run two-year olds unless they’re fit and ready, and x-rays show their bones have matured, 2) yes, there are fatalities, just as there are fatalities in pasture accidents …but the percentage of fatalities to starts has been steadily declining, 3) racing in most responsible tracks has rigorous testing for drugs, and people take more drugs playing golf than the horses do racing. They are tested carefully, and the penalties are severe, 4) horses in training are in stalls where they can stick their heads out and watch the goings-on, and use stalls to rest….and most trainers will send horses to the farm for “freshening”, 5) most tracks now have anti-slaughter policies. There are former race horses posted on rescue sites that have long-since stopped racing.
    just as in the world at large, MOST people treat their horses well, but there are exceptions everywhere there are horse owners …not just in racing.

  3. Not all horse-racing deaths are cruel or race-caused. Animals, including humans, have a myriad of problems that show up while moving.
    Fatal heart attacks, arrhythmias, aneurysms, etc., happen while racing, walking, and standing.
    Often, people see a horse with a broken leg and say horse-racing is cruel when in fact the bone was broken while awkwardly falling dead from those sudden deaths.
    I’ve spent my life observing horses, including analyzing and writing about their deaths. There are no easy answers.


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