The Psychology of a Horse Race

horse race

Horse races are a grueling test of speed and stamina. The sport’s most prestigious events, such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Melbourne Cup, are run over distances that require both endurance and skill. But a horse race is not just a physical challenge, it’s also a psychological contest. The sport’s unique combination of a public spectacle, high stakes, and a long history of controversy has left its mark on the mental health of racehorses.

In the 19th century, horse racing developed into a national and international sport through wagering. The earliest bets were private, based on an agreement between the owners of two horses to play against each other: if one horse won, the bettors paid half the prize money (the purse) for their bet; if the horse lost, they paid nothing. Eventually, these agreements evolved into public betting pools called pari-mutuel. The bettors shared the pool, with a percentage going to the management of the racetrack. During this period, the sport shifted from a competition between two horses to an overall test of speed and endurance.

By 1830, horse racing had become a sensation in the United States. An English traveler remarked that a horse race “awakens more interest than a presidential election.” By the end of the Civil War, there were more than 130 thoroughbred tracks nationwide. Many of them promoted North-South races, pitting champions from the North against those from the South. For example, in 1823, Union Course on Long Island, New York, staged a three-four-mile race between Northern champion American Eclipse and Southern hero Sir Henry. The match race drew crowds estimated at seventy thousand people.

During the 1850s, Civil War-inspired breeders focused on producing swift horses for the cavalry. As a result, by the 1880s, America had become the leader in Thoroughbred production and racing.

The racing industry carries on today with little change in its treatment of horses. Many horses are pushed beyond their limits, leading to injuries and death. A common injury is exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage, in which the horse’s lungs bleed. To avoid this, trainers use cocktails of legal and illegal drugs—including Lasix, a diuretic with performance-enhancing properties—to mask the signs of pain and increase their horses’ energy levels. Those that do not perform well enough are euthanized, or worse, sent to Mexico and Canada for slaughter.

For a sport to survive, it must rethink its relationship with horses. It must address the fact that horses are not property but are rather subject to a fundamental right—to survival in a society and culture and a justice system that recognizes them as having some level of rights. If the industry does not change its practices, it will inevitably cease to exist. Otherwise, Eight Belles, Medina Spirit, Creative Plan, Laoban, and countless other horses will continue to suffer. It is time for horse racing to stop exploiting animals and start providing them with a life free of violence, cruelty, and uncertainty.

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