Horses have been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years, from pulling buggies and carriages to serving as warhorses and being pitted against each other in races. While horse racing has evolved from a primitive contest of speed or stamina into a spectacle with thousands of horses and sophisticated electronic monitoring technology, its core is still the same: Two horses race each other for a prize. The sport’s popularity is in decline, though. Attendance at tracks that once held thousands of fans now hold dozens, and would-be new fans are deterred by scandals involving animal welfare and doping.
The most common type of horse race is a flat-course race, which is run on an oval track and features long straight lengths of grass or dirt. These races are often categorized by distances, such as a quarter-mile or half-mile. There are also a number of other types of horse races, including steeplechases (which feature obstacles), sprints (which are shorter and involve more turns) and jump races, which require the horse to clear fences at different heights.
Before a race starts, the horses are positioned in stalls or behind a starting gate. Once all the runners are set, the gates open and the race begins. A jockey, or rider, will sit on the back of each horse and control its direction and speed by using a whip. In the United States, a jockey’s use of a whip is strictly regulated to ensure the safety of both the rider and the horse. The whip is a vital piece of equipment, used in combination with the rider’s skill and judgment to coax the maximum performance from each horse.
In addition to a whip, the jockey might use spurs to exert sharp pressure on the horse’s flanks. The RSPCA opposes the use of these devices, as they can cause significant pain and discomfort. Other devices that are banned under animal welfare legislation include tongue ties and electric shock devices such as the jigger.
Horses are pushed to the limit in order to achieve the required speeds for a race, and are therefore at high risk of injury. Many of them will bleed from the lungs during or after a race due to exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. In an effort to minimize this bleeding, most horses are given cocktails of legal and illegal drugs that mask injuries and enhance performance.
While horse racing has evolved into a modern industry, it has also been impacted by the rapid technological advances in recent decades. Among the most significant changes are race-day security measures, with thermal imaging cameras, MRI scanners, X-rays, and 3D printing providing a variety of casts, splints, and prosthetics to keep horses fit and healthy.