The Ethics of Killing Horses

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Posted in response to the recent (October 2019) revelations about the death of ex-race horses in Australia. See: and ….

Pre-publication sections from Chapter 11: ‘Ethics in Conflict’,  By McManus, P., Albrecht, G, & Graham, R. (2012) The Global Horseracing Industry: Social, Economic, Environmental and Ethical Perspectives, Routledge, London.

Chapter 11: Ethics in conflict: Thoroughbred breeding and racing

Although the horse has a well documented evolutionary history, it is worth noting again that the modern horse is present on earth today largely due to its domestication by humans (see Chapter 2).  The thoroughbred horse is the product of further domestication and selective breeding from the C17 and C18. A combination of Arab-type horses and the then extant British racing stock produced a blood line that continues to the present day. In important respects, the modern thoroughbred horse is the product of careful human stewardship over 3000 years for, as Budiansky argues, without a long-term relationship with humans, “[H]orses, in fact, would very likely be extinct today if it had not been for their domestication” (1992, 61). Further, Budiansky (1997, 8-9) claims:

Recent archaeological and animal behavior studies strongly support the idea that domestication was not the human intervention it was long supposed to have been, but rather a long, slow process of mutual adaptation, of “coevolution”, in which those animals that began to around the first permanent human settlements gained more than they lost. (Budiansky, 1997, 8-9)

From an ethical point of view, the special historical relationship between horses and humans requires more than considerations of general welfare and utility. Our mutually adaptive relationship requires deeper awareness on the part of humans of the special duty of care we have to all horses. While in a technical sense, it might be argued that there can be no reciprocal moral-ethical relationship between horses and humans, as is the case with rational adult humans where each side of the relationship has clearly defined and understood rights, duties and responsibilities, we argue that there is an emergent ethical dimension to the human-horse relationship that suggests the possibilities of a genuine reciprocal relationship.

There are humans, such as self-proclaimed ‘horse whisperers’, who promote the idea of reciprocal relationships between horse and human.  It is precisely these kinds of relationships that generate special ethical considerations. Mary Trachsel describes such an ethical consideration arising out of what the ecoanarchist, Murray Bookchin, has called the “equality of unequals” (Bookchin 1982, 148) where an ethic of egalitarian care replaces any possible anti-ethic of despotic domination and exploitation. She argues:

“Whispering ethics accepts Yi-Fu Tuan’s premise in Dominance and Affection that unequal power relationships are not necessarily morally objectionable. Tuan argues that although power certainly can be abused in ways that are cruel, exploitative, and devoid of affection, power does not necessarily lead to these abuses; it may choose the alternative channels of attention and care.” (Trachsel, in Goodale and Black (eds) 2010, 47).

It was Immanuel Kant who famously argued that “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals” and, in the case of the treatment of horses by humans, the nature of the relationship in theory places a high ethical burden on humans to have a caring heart. However, as we shall see, the pressures of gambling on the treatment of horses, the inherent riskiness of racing and their place within a highly competitive industry run for profit ensure that a dialectic of kind cooperation versus abusive exploitation of horses operates within the thoroughbred industry. Alexander Fiske-Harrison, writing in the context of Spanish bullfighting, highlights this dialectic as being on the horns of an ethical dilemma:

… this thing, whatever it was, seemed balanced on a perfect moral borderline. When it was done well, it seemed a good thing; when it was done badly it was an unmitigated sin. How could anything straddle an ethical boundary like this? (Alexander Fiske-Harrison as quoted in Clayfield, 2012)


After Racing: Retirement and Death

Some thoroughbreds enter the sports of eventing or showjumping after a career in racing. The ethical issues relevant to this area of the use of thoroughbreds include training methods, the use/misuse of bits and gear (such as double bridles, draw reins), the spurs required at higher levels of dressage, the use/misuse of whips and spurs and Rollkur or the hyperflexion of the neck. As with jumps racing in general, there are major ethical issues involved in the risks horses are required to undertake in order to be competitive.

 In Australia, a recent study indicated that about one third of all thoroughbred foals born in any one year will ever go on to race (RSPCA  2008). The same study “showed that the majority of horses processed (60%) at an Australian abattoir were seven years of age or younger and over half were easily identifiable as originating from the racing industry” (RSPCA 2008).

The case is not much different in other parts of the world. In the UK it has been stated that:

Approximately 18,000 foals are born into the closely-related British and Irish racing industries each year, yet only around 40% go on to become racers. Those horses who do not make the grade may be slaughtered for meat or repeatedly change hands in a downward spiral of neglect. Of those horses who do go on to race, around 420 are raced to death every year. (Animal Aid n.d.)

As indicated in Chapter 2, some racing horses are more vulnerable to early euthanasia than others. Gelded horses have lower economic value as obviously they have no value for breeding. In general, there is a cumulative high failure rate in both racing and breeding that generates a large number of horses that have no viable economic place in the industry. A few of the lucky champions go to racehorse retirement homes such as the Kentucky Horse Park and at Living Legends at Woodlands Historic Park in Victoria, Australia, while others have extended lives as showjumpers and police horses, or are cared for by ethically motivated individuals who rescue animals that would otherwise be slaughtered.

However, the end stage of a racing horse’s life is often one of the worst ethical failures manifest in the whole industry (Heller, 2005; PETA, 2012). With residual economic value tied only to their value as meat (for pet or human consumption), thoroughbreds and standardbreds are killed after transportation (sometimes across the borders of nation states) to abattoirs. At this point, the question must be raised, is the horse in any different position than the fighting bull?


The ethical dialectic that has been alluded to in this chapter has been presented as largely one-sided. Unfortunately, narratives of successful race horses that have uneventful racing careers then a happy ending in idyllic retirement seem not to be the norm. Such stories should be told because they do represent that moment of beauty and goodness that many people feel in conjunction with the horse and horse racing. The current champion Australian sprint racehorse, Black Caviar, generates just such a combination. When a good union of horse and human prevails, when horses and people are in harmony and there is no obvious pain and distress to horse or rider, it is an ethically, aesthetically and emotionally powerful experience.

Equine instrumentalism rests on the assumption that horses lack any form of agency, rendering them vulnerable to human despotism and cruelty. It also privileges human forms of knowledge, power and communication.  We have argued that when moderated by an enlightened stewardship ethic, such despotism evaporates and human dominance can be exercised in a way that eliminates obvious cruelty.  Stewardship ethics seek to reform rather than eliminate the ethically dubious practices highlighted in this chapter. Liberation ethics, by contrast, seek the abolition of all hierarchical and exploitative relationships between sentient animals and humans. Such a position would even rule out the ownership of horses and their ‘exploitation’ involved in breaking and riding them. Nothing short of strictly enforced regulation of all pain and distress circumstances would satisfy liberation ethics as a stop gap measure until complete elimination of exploitation. The fate of the horse would once again be left to the vicissitudes of ‘the wild’. However, ‘whispering ethics’ would not mandate rules or regulations, it simply requires empathetic and caring people who put the intrinsic value of horses above their instrumental value. Within such an ethical space, the co-evolution of horse and human can continue. It remains to be seen if such an empathetic ethic can find a place in the thoroughbred horse industry. What is certain is that as with all other aspects of human-sentient animal relationships, greater ethical scrutiny will be applied to the thoroughbred industry whether it likes it or not.

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