Article originally published in the Daily Hive.
A heartbreaking incident this weekend showed many Vancouverites that horse racing is not all fun and games.
Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse is once again the subject of controversy after a three-year-old horse named Lent Me Twenty tragically lost her life at The Cup – formerly known as the Deighton Cup – event on Saturday.
Reports of Lent Me Twenty’s death offer conflicting accounts. David Milburn, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of BC – an industry group that supports the continuation of thoroughbred horse racing – believed that the horse reared up before falling and striking her head on the ground.
One of around 30 spectators who witnessed the death, Darren Hill, said, “It just walked normal in front of me with its trainer and then as it passed me, it just dropped sideways.”
The true cause of Lent Me Twenty’s death is currently under investigation. Regardless of the outcome, it is doubtless that humans caused her death by choosing to use her as entertainment.
The selective breeding and use of animals for entertainment like horse racing always carries a risk. Sadly, that risk is not taken into account because the animals are not treated as sentient, feeling individuals. The industry requires that we see these horses as objects.
This is likely why, after Lent Me Twenty’s body was hidden beneath a tarp and carried away on a trailer, races continued throughout the day.
The tragic incident of Lent Me Twenty’s death is yet another stain on the satin shirt of this ostensibly high-society event.
The Cup markets itself as stylish and sophisticated; it invites people to dress up for a “good ol’ fashioned day at the races.” However, under the pomp and pageantry, the reality for animals is far less glamorous.
Unlike human athletes, racehorses are not given a choice of whether to participate. They are bred and raised for the purpose and forced to perform at high speeds in front of roaring crowds.
There is no choice to opt out when they are not feeling their best or conditions are not favourable. The show must go on – even on days like Saturday, in temperatures far exceeding what horses prefer to exercise in, and when a horse had just lost her life.
At the end of the race, horses have no concept of winning or losing. Dr. Stephen Peters, a neuroscientist who has worked with both humans and horses, notes that “The idea that horses love the event they compete in is something we’ve created. It’s a myth more for us than the horse.”
Unlike when horses “race” each other in a field, running around a racetrack is not a natural behaviour for horses, says certified applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell.
Horses do not understand the thrill of competing in events developed by, and for, humans. For animals, the thrill of play and competition can be seen when they set their own rules and are given freedom to move and behave as they please, like when a dog “chases” his guardian through the grass.
Instead, what these horses know is the stress of being carted between different loud and highly controlled environments, the bite of an uncomfortable bit in their mouth, and the pain of a whip on their flank as they run along a strictly guided path. Their so-called “careers” are short and marked by fear.
Typically, horses begin racing around two years of age. Research shows that horses who begin high-intensity activities like racing at a young age have been found to have high rates of injury, and to decline and retire quickly.
One study found that during the training and racing of two-year-old racehorses, 85% suffered at least one incident of injury or disease. Another found that of the horses that began racing at two or three years of age, only 46% were still racing two years later.
Racehorses typically retire around age four to six; but life after racing is no frolic in the pasture, either. If horses are not used for breeding or given another way to turn a profit, they run the risk of ending up at auction, where unwanted horses are sent and sold to the highest bidder.
While some horses may be bought from auction for riding or companionship, others are less fortunate and are purchased by horsemeat buyers, destined for slaughter. Auctions are a stressful and dangerous place to be an animal, and rescuers at the Squamish-based horse sanctuary, Second Chance Cheekye Ranch, have said that all horses they have rescued from this process arrive with some degree of trauma.
This display of risk and fear only exists because there is money in it. Every spectator at this year’s event at Hastings Racecourse can be part of the solution for horses by skipping next year’s event and spending a Saturday wearing a fascinator or cufflinks elsewhere.