Ethical Assessment of the Thoroughbred Flat Racing Industry: From Foals to Retirees
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs/Animal and Food Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY USA

Equine scientists are often asked their opinions about the ethicality and welfare status of the Thoroughbred racing industry. Using ethical framework assessments discussed by Heleski and Anthony in 2012 (‘Science alone is not always enough: The importance of ethical assessment for a more comprehensive view of equine welfare: …’),3 we will work through a discussion of the Thoroughbred flat racing industry in North America. We will holistically examine the industry and consider all life stages of the horses.

The public cites the following as their primary concerns: breakdown rates, racing of 2 year olds, whip use, race day medication and “throw away” retirement horses, but there are counterpoints to many of these arguments. On the one hand, the racing industry likely needs to listen to public perception in some areas, e.g., whip use, where increasingly strong evidence shows it does not help horses run faster1 and is increasingly offensive to spectators.5 In other areas, such as the racing of 2-year-olds, most evidence actually supports that connective tissue benefits from the early conditioning and rational racing commitments at that age. Increasingly, welfare scientists are asked to address issues of ‘what positive mental states can the animal experience’? Is it a good ‘quality of life’?6 Is it ‘a life worth living’? If we process the elements of an ethical assessment, we find evidence of many positive aspects of a Thoroughbred’s life. For example, in the majority of cases, Thoroughbred brood mares and foals live a life that is very horse-centric4 and attentive to the horse’s nature. The majority of mare and foal dyads experience well over 12 hours per day of turnout, in social groups, with significant grazing opportunities. Health protocols tend to be state of the art. We will explore more deeply the public’s concerns about racehorse welfare,2 using scientific evidence where available.

Public concerns regarding horseracing have increased over the past few decades. Horse people from other disciplines also cite equine welfare concerns. We will discuss the concerns point by point, providing scientific evidence where available. Positive aspects of the Thoroughbred industry will also be discussed. For example, significant time and money resources have been going toward Thoroughbred aftercare efforts over the past decade with impactful results.7


1.  Evans D, McGreevy, P. An investigation of racing performance and whip use by jockeys in Thoroughbred races. PLOS ONE. 2011;6(1):e15622.

2.  Fiedler JM, McGreevy PD. Reconciling horse welfare, worker safety, and public expectations: horse event incident management systems in Australia. Animals. 2016;6(3):16.

3.  Heleski CR, Anthony, R. Science alone is not always enough: the importance of ethical assessment for a more comprehensive view of equine welfare. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2017;7:169–178.

4.  Heleski CR. We shouldn’t fear the conversation: a holistic, ethics-based, welfare assessment of the Thoroughbred racing industry, from foals to retirees. Abstract from the International Society for Equitation Science Proceedings, Australia.

5.  McGreevy P, McManus P. Why horse-racing in Australia needs a social licence to operate. The Conversation, Nov 2, 2017.

6.  Mellor D. Updating animal welfare thinking: moving beyond the “five freedoms” towards “a life worth living”. Animals. 2016;14:6(3).

7.  Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance,

8.  Retired Racehorse Project,


Speaker Information
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C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs / Animal and Food Sciences
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY, USA

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