Why are injured race horses put down?

At least one horse has died at the Cheltenham Festival every year it has been held since 2000  (PA)
At least one horse has died at the Cheltenham Festival every year it has been held since 2000 (PA)

The return of the Cheltenham Festival sees animal welfare again in the focus, with at least one horse put down at every edition since 2000.

Four competing animals were destroyed during the course of four days of racing at the Gloucestershire course in 2022.

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.

A broken leg, for example, can often damage other tissues and blood vessels, making the injury more complex.

Horses are unable to stay off their feet for long periods, which means limbs are not allowed to fully heal, so euthanasia is often carried out on the track.

“The vets on the racecourse, in conjunction with the owner, will make a decision as to what is in the best interests of the horse,” the BHA explains.

“Racehorses enjoy a very high standard of care and quality of life when in training.

“Maintaining a comparable quality of life is a key consideration when considering future options for a horse that has had a serious injury or condition.”

Racing has been criticised, however, as unethical by a number of animal rights charities, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta).

Accusing the industry of treating horses as “disposable commodities”, Peta says that the animals “too often pay the ultimate price”.

The global animal rights organisation says: “[Race horses] are forced to run around racecourses at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour while carrying people on their backs.

“Horses don’t enjoy this ordeal or get a thrill out of crossing the finishing line. They’re whipped into submission and end each race sweating and exhausted, often with debilitating injuries – if they survive at all.

“Whether they die in terrifying accidents on the track or in training, are euthanised after sustaining crippling injuries, or fail to win races and are shipped off to an abattoir, these sensitive animals are treated as nothing more than disposable commodities.”

The BHA published a list of recommendations designed to improve the safety and welfare of horses and riders in National Hunt racing after a review of the Cheltenham Festival in 2018.

The recommendations included increased pre-race veterinary checks on runners and a reduction in the safety limit for two-mile chases from 24 to 20.