The Evil (Yes, Evil) of Racehorse Confinement

For me, the very worst cruelty racehorses are made to suffer is confinement and isolation. Locking social, herd animals in tiny stalls – alone – for over 23 hours a day is heartrending beyond words. We know this, reflexively, instinctively, yet the apologists dismiss our feelings as imaginations run amok. The horses, they say, are just fine – well-fed and safe. This is why I always look to the experts: science professionals who can explain, with authority, what these poor animals are experiencing. Here is Dr. Kraig Kulikowski, prominent equine veterinarian, at a NYS Senate hearing:

And Dr. Nicholas Dodman, world-renowned animal behaviorist: “Racehorses, with long periods of confinement and isolation, exhibit an unusually high prevalence of stereotypies. The suffering can be described by referencing the suffering of people in solitary confinement. A recently released man who had spent years in solitary said he sometimes felt anxiety, paranoia, panic, hallucinations, etc. The only way he could help suppress the dysphoria was to walk back and forth in his cell until the line he walked was soaked in his sweat.”

Then there’s a recent ABC Science article on a new equine-confinement study. The full piece, “Horse immune system study suggests animals kept alone in stables are prone to stress,” is noteworthy, but here are my highlights – again, from experts:

Dr. Sonja Schmucker, one of the study’s authors: “The results of the present study…strongly indicate that social isolation is a chronic stressor. [A] resulting decrease in immunocompetence might increase disease susceptibility of the horses and thus impair their health and welfare.”

Dr. Paul McGreevy, veterinarian/ethologist, University of New England: “[Horses] lower their heart rates when they groom each other. So, if they can spend time close to each other and mutually groom, they thrive. We have always lazily considered that the dog is in his kennel, the pig is in his sty, the horse is in his stable….” Dr. McGreevy goes on to explain that horses become habituated to the cruelty: “The horse is its own worst enemy – it puts up with an awful lot. Just because horses stop reacting, and appear to oblige us, does not mean they’re having a great time.” His recipe for true horse welfare: “Forage, friends and freedom.”

Dr. Kirrilly Thompson, University of Newcastle: “It’s not just about friendship, but about how they regulate their emotions. If a horse is grazing and sees another horse tense or put its head up, then that horse will put its head up. They will all put their heads up and run off.” But a horse by himself in a stall is “kind of in a state of hyper vigilance, and that’s not good.” She concludes: “Individual stabling is stressful for horses. If we discovered the horse today…we would not keep them the way we currently keep them.” Amen.

16 Comments

  1. Horses kept in stalls for 23 hours a day suffer from loss of bone density just as astronauts in zero gravity suffer loss of bone density. Many times I have said “it isn’t rocket science” about most of the horrendously wrong things that racing industry people do to the horses.
    Horses should be let out of their stalls for at least 14-hours a day. Ten hours of being kept in a stall should be the maximum length of time for horses to be confined..

  2. Cribbing, weaving, and self inflicted injuries are common in horses confined continuously. It is cruel to coop a horse up day after day.

  3. when i was growing up we always kept our horses and ponies in a big pasture together. it was always fun catching them, but i know they were happier together. it was my job as a kid to feed them in the morning. they would run together and come for the food. it was beautiful. my parents used tack, but i always rode with just a hackamore bridle, no bit… and purely bareback. most times not even a pad. my horses were as free as i could make them and im so glad thats what we did back then. i just wish horseracing were totally outlawed but im sure its a long way to go to get there. love to you

  4. It is hard to listen to the reality of a racehorse’s life. It is especially frustrating to know that people actually believe that they are well cared for…such a lack of empathy for animals.

    • This passage in particular caught my eye … ““The horse is its own worst enemy – it puts up with an awful lot. Just because horses stop reacting, and appear to oblige us, does not mean they’re having a great time.”

      Every time I went to visit my horses, I noticed how others in stalls nearby would stick their heads out to see what was going on, who was there, and maybe those people would have a carrot or mint for them. Visitors weren’t to touch or feed someone else’s horses, but it didn’t mean you couldn’t go over to them to at least give them a kind word. I never thought to ask before, but is there a racing regulation that requires owners to stable their horses at the track where they race, or are they free to keep them on pasture where the horses can be free to roam, and socialize, then bring them to the track for the required timed workouts, and to race?

      • this is awful to say but my guess is they want them in the little stalls so its easier to give them drugs and other awful things they do. they dont want them to be free. they want them to perform. travesty

        • I think a lot of it is that they have to accommodate a lot of horses to fill the race card and in some ways, mathematically and economically speaking, it is more practical from the human standpoint, a capitalist standpoint, to have stalls of a certain size. It is somewhat like the fact that a Walgreens store makes more money per square foot than a public laundromat even though for some people the laundromat is much more necessary than another store with a pharmacy competing against other stores with pharmacies already well established.
          The carriage horse stables in NYC are even smaller than the stalls for racehorses. It is a travesty!

          • dont even get me started with the carriage horses. they need to totally ban that and people are working on it

  5. It’s not just racehorses – how many other horse owners keep their horses in stalls? When you think about it, the size ratio of a horse in a 12 x 12 stall is like a human being forced to live in a phone booth.

  6. I’m still caring for my 36-year-old Arabian gelding. He’s free to move about in 2 acres of pasture. I feed him a nutritious diet for a senior horse and make sure he always has access to fresh water. He even has a special shady tree to be under to help him stay cool. This evening because of the extreme heat, he got a nice shower in addition to his evening meal. My only regret is that he’s alone. His mother, whom he shared a large portion of his life with, died eight years ago. He seems to have adjusted to her absence, but I still feel sad that he’s alone. I attribute his longevity to the fact that he’s lived a stress-free life and able to move about as he wants. My heart literally aches for race horses. It is incredibly self-centered and selfish to believe that just because they are well fed and shiny, they are enjoying their lives. At the rate they are breaking down and dying, the horse racing world has to be held accountable. There are absolutely no acceptable excuses!

    • Sounds like he’s thriving with YOUR companionship, so don’t beat yourself up too much over his being “alone.” He’s not crammed into a tiny box the way these young, abused racehorses are. (36! I love the old-timers, and it seems like you’re giving him a wonderful life in his golden years:)

      • Thank you, Kelly! I hope he’s enjoying his life. I’m doing all I can to help him enjoy his senior years! Bless you!

  7. RAcetracks are no place for a horse. That’s putting it in boiled down terms.
    Horses are kept in stalls all day if they aren’t scheduled to train, for up to 23 hours a day if they do get out to train. They get bored. They are lonely. There’s no mental stimulation other than watching the world go by outside their stall door. There’s no communication with other horses, even the one next door, as there’s a wall between the two horses. They are not mentally mature, so can’t figure out how to handle this isolation, so they end up neurotic, or even psychotic. How many times have we heard people say racehorses are dangerous, and by extension, all horses are dangerous? Every wonder why?
    Horses are designed to move about as they feed, yet there they are, in a stall, with a bag of hay and a tub of pellets, another tub of water, filled twice a day. So, their stomachs, which in a pasture or the wild, are rarely completely empty due to grazing, get hungry. Horses may pan ick, thinking they are starving, that food is not coming every again, and panic in the stall. Add to that, the NSAIDS and other pain killers, often given on an empty stomach. NSAIDS taken on an empty stomach all the time, will cause ulcers. Little wonder necropsies always show numerous ulcers in horses’ stomachs. And are now showing suppurative hepatitis. You have to wonder, if one of those ulcers eats through the stomach wall, even causes a tiny hole, and the stomach contents leak through into the gut, and end up in the liver…is this how suppurative hepatitis happens? I imagine any horse with ulcers and hepatitis does not feel well, at all.
    Not being able to move about, to actually help digestion as it does…does this predispose a horse to colic? I’d believe it if a vet told me this is so. That would account for all the colic, twisted bowels, and other digestive problems that can be fatal in a horse is not treated at once.
    And, I still cannot get over the number of horses “found dead in stall at 6 am.” In other words, the horse has died during the night, and was found when the day shift came on in the morning. And, vet’s notes often include that the horse has abrasions on its face, there’s blood all over the stall, that the floor is badly disturbed, even the stall walls caved in or dented. In other words, this horse was in horrible, increasing pain, all night long. And, no one heard it thrashing about in its stall, or screaming in agony. That means, no night security in the stables for even the “cheap” horses who cost more than I make in a year. No night security to hear a horse neigh, then neigh again, louder, to hear it kick the stall walls, or to hear it start screaming, or hear it throwing its body around as it tries everything to get rid of the pain. And, no one hears it collapse, and then die. Just thinking financially here, you’d think after spending all that money at the Keeneland Yearling Sale, paying trainers, vets, grooms, paying stall rentals at the track, paying for feed, no one thinks to hire a night watchman, or have a vet sacked out on a cot in a tack room, in case he or she is needed?
    Like I said, a racetrack is no place for a horse.

    • colic is horrifying. ive seen many horses have it, you have to stay with them all night, all day, they are in terrible pain, many die even with the best care. they do get it from not being able to move and digest properly… cant imagine leaving a horse alone with colic. god im having nightmares tonight

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