4. Injuries in Horse Racing

Date: 11 June 2022
Horse Raising

Dangers, deaths and injuries of the horse

Despite its popularity, horse racing is a dangerous sport for both horses and jockey. In the first four weeks of the race season, five horses have died at Santa Anita Park, a California racetrack, including three in as many days over Martin Luther King Day weekend.

In the U.S., 493 Thoroughbred racehorses died in 2018, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database. From December 2018 to late January 2020, more than 40 of those deaths were at Santa Anita Park. Most of these deaths are the result of limb injuries, followed by respiratory, digestive, and multi-organ system disorders. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, says the deaths may be because horse racing has become more competitive.

Horses aren’t getting the rest they need, especially in temperate places like southern California, where the animal’s race year-round, he says. “It’s hard to keep an athlete absolutely at the top of their fitness 12 months out of the year.”

While a broken leg is easily treatable for humans, it’s often a death sentence for horses. That’s because horses have so little soft tissue in their legs that the bone often tears through the skin or cuts off circulation to the rest of the limb, leaving them prone to infection. In some severe cases, the bone shatters, making it nearly impossible to reassemble

Even if the horse’s bone could be set, it wouldn’t be able to support weight for several weeks. If horses can’t distribute their weight relatively evenly, they risk laminitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of tissue inside the hoof. In general, if a horse can’t stand on all four legs on its own, it won’t survive and will be euthanized, Arthur says.

And when a horse falls, its jockey is often hurt, too. A 2013 analysis of about five years of California horse racing data showed 184 jockey injuries from 360 reported falls. Most of the falls occurred during races and were the result of a “catastrophic injury or sudden death of the horse,” the study found.


The drug controversy

Trainers have been accused of making an already risky situation worse by drugging horses with performance-enhancing substances or painkillers, animal welfare advocates say.

Such drugs allow horses to run faster and power through the pain. For example, the drug furosemide, popularly known under the brand name Lasix, is a “performance-enhancing drug cloaked as a therapeutic medication,” according to a March report by the Jockey Club.

While it’s prescribed to treat bleeding in the lungs, the medication also causes urination and, consequently, weight loss. Lighter horses run faster, and Lasix has been shown to help horses run three to five lengths faster. The legality of each drug varies by state. While some animal activists feel such drugs should be banned, others in the horse racing industry believe better self-regulation is the answer.

In the Canadian province of Ontario, a study of 1,709 racehorse deaths between 2003 and 2015 found that the majority of deaths were attributable to “damage during exercise to the horses’ musculoskeletal system“, including fractures, dislocations, and tendon ruptures.


Dangers, deaths and Injuries of the jockey

Anna Waller, a member of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of North Carolina, co-authored a four-year-long study of jockey injuries and stated to The New York Times that “For every 1,000 jockeys you have riding [for one year], over 600 will have medically treated injuries.” She added that almost 20% of these were serious head or neck injuries. The study reported 6,545 injuries during the years 1993–1996. More than 100 jockeys were killed in the United States between 1950 and 1987.

To win the battle with their body weights, occasionally jockeys ride in a dehydrated and energy-deficient state. Riding horses in such extreme health conditions expose jockeys to higher risks in terms of safety; the rapid weight loss practices adopted by jockeys often generate unfriendly implications and places the jockeys’ safety at risk in terms of long-term health and psychological complications.

However, this is only one of the dark sides of being a jockey. It is a hazardous occupation and every time jockeys are on the saddle they put their lives at risk. Different contributing factors to a jockey’s injury have been identified, such as:

  • Poor track conditions
  • Bad weather conditions
  • Riding in energy-deficient states
  • The unpredictability of a fall
  • The unforeseeable injury of horses

To minimize these dangers and preserve jockeys from the catastrophic consequences of a fall, Australia introduced in 1998 the compulsory use of safety vests that were required to satisfy the EN 13158 and ARB 1.1998 standards. These standards control the certification of safety vests for jockeys however, only minor revisions have been made to these standards since they were introduced. Despite safety vests becoming mandatory with the intention to protect a jockey’s trunk, torso and spine: unfortunately, injuries to these regions are still highly problematic for this profession.

It is not possible to foresee a fall and despite the skills possessed by jockeys, horses can display unpredictable behaviours even though they are properly trained. Being a jockey is a profession that includes ups and downs like a rollercoaster; their life can remarkably change at any instant because of a fall. Consequences include permanent and debilitating injuries and even death. The use of mandatory safety gear, particularly the helmet and safety vest during each race, is paramount for a jockey’s safety.


Reducing the injuries

The introduction of safety vests was an important development which brought minimal benefits in protecting users. Australia has 840 registered jockeys and since 1847, more than 880 have been killed in race falls. Every year, approximately 200 horse riders are injured on Australian racetracks: however, the combination of racetracks and track work produces approximately 500 falls annually. In the specific case of jockeys, 89% of them will have a fall that needs medical assistance. It is relevant to note that 9% of Australian jockeys experience falls more than 20 times in their career, while each year, 40% of Australian jockeys experience a fall, which prevents them from riding for an average of 5 weeks.

Particularly, 5% of these falls would be career-ending injuries. Behind these professionals and their families there are associations such as the Australian Jockeys’ Association (AJA) and the National Jockey’s Trust (NJT) that support jockeys from apprenticeship to retirement, but even assist jockeys and their families during financial hardship caused by injury, illness or also by jockey’s death. While there have been an increasing number of studies using analytical techniques to identify risk factors for horse racing injuries, a paucity of information exists on jockey’s falls and no studies appear to exist about the role of design in safety vests. In addition, considering that jockeys are still experiencing severe injuries since the introduction of the vest, it is highly plausible that this kind of protective equipment provides a suboptimal level of safety.

A study was done – A total of 6545 injury events occurred during official races between 1993 and 1996 (606 per 1000 jockey-years). Nearly 1 in 5 injuries (18.8%) was to the jockey’s head or neck. Other frequent sites included the leg (15.5%), foot/ankle (10.7%), back (10.7%), arm/hand (11.0%), and shoulder (9.6%). The most frequent location where injuries occurred was entering, within, or leaving the starting gate (35.1%), including 29.5% of head injuries, 39.8% of arm/hand injuries, and 52.0% of injuries to the leg/foot. Most head injuries resulted from being thrown from the horse (41.8%) or struck by the horse’s head (23.2%). Being thrown from the horse was the cause of 55.1% of back and 49.6% of chest injuries. An additional 16.0% of injuries involved multiple body sites.

The most frequent location where injury events occurred was entering, within, or leaving the starting gate (35.1%).. Of all injury events, 14.2% occurred in the turns and 15.9% occurred in the home stretch or at the finish line. The most frequently reported causes of injury were being thrown from the horse (44.4%), crushed (9.6%), and flipped and pinned (7.5%). Being struck by the horse’s head accounted for 5.3% of injuries, being jerked accounted for 3.7%, and falls accounted for 3.3%. The location of the injury event on the track and the cause of injury were not reported for 18.9% and 8.1% of the injuries, respectively.



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