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How Dangerous is Horse Racing?

Animal rights activists are always quick to criticise horse racing. The sport is much scrutinised and there have been concerns over the welfare of the equine competitors since forever. Horses are injured and can be killed whilst racing and the most high profile deaths, such as those which occur in the Grand National, always result in more calls for the sport to be banned. But how dangerous is horse racing?

How Many Horses Die in Racing?

According to the horse racing’s governing body, the British Horse Racing Authority (), the fatality rate is 0.19%. This rate has fallen by a third in the last 20 years. Any death is distressing but the statistics suggest that these tragic incidents are surprisingly rare. Is it simply the case that big races make big headlines?

The Grand National

There is no bigger race than the Grand National. It is an event of such stature that even those who otherwise never watch horse racing look forward to the big day and follow proceedings with great enthusiasm. It is, therefore, inevitable that any fatalities in this race will make the news. But the Grand National is an uncharacteristically challenging race.

A unique test of stamina and jumping, the Grand National is huge spectacle that is watched across the globe. It is a high-risk race in which 40 runners tackle 30 fences and cover over four miles. But there have been no fatalities in this amazing event for the last five years. In 2017, 317 horses ran at the Aintree meeting and thankfully none of them were killed.

Safety Improvements

This impressive safety record is, in part, the result of significant changes to the course. The death of Gold Cup winner, Synchronised, in the 2012 race emphasised the need for improvements. £1.5 million was then spent on safety measure at Aintree. The structure of the fences was altered with the use of more forgiving materials. The start of the race was moved away from the stands to induce greater calm and the landing sides of some of the fences, including the infamous Becher’s Brook, were levelled. Stricter qualifying criteria were introduced and a wash down area was added to cool down the horses after they finish the race.

Life’s a Risk!

The improvements at Aintree have clearly worked. The race remains a significant test of a horse’s stamina and ability. It is still a wonderful spectacle but it is now a much safer race. Everyday life is a risk for horses and so it isn’t only on the race track that they may get hurt.

Researchers at Liverpool University studied the incidence of equine injuries. They found that 62% of traumatic injuries suffered by leisure and competition horses occur when they are turned out in a field. A further 13% occur during ridden exercise. So three quarters of all serious injuries happen when horses are not under the stress of competition and are involved in normal day to day activities.

It’s all a bit like the human fear of flying. You might think that you are at risk being 35,000 feet up in the air but you are far more likely to die in your own kitchen than in a plane crash.

Overall it is great to see improvements in the racing industry. Ideally this will continue and we'll see further reduction in the number of fatalities.


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