Is life really a race?

Edition 01/2021



The racehorses literally fly at full gallop over the sandy ground of the racetrack. Electrified by the speed of the animals and the atmosphere, the crowd on the edge cheers and cheers. The dream of big profits is what unites high society with the family next door - around one million spectators are drawn to the horse racing tracks in Germany every year. In 2016 alone, betting sales amounted to around 26 million euros.

Fear is written on the animals' faces. With lashes of the whip, the jockeys demand top performance from the horse racing horses.

And then it happens. A horse breaks its leg at full speed. Fatigue fracture. The bones could not withstand the great stress. The broken leg dangles down from the body, the horse initially shoots in fear of death, then slows down and finally turns in a circle on three legs in panic. At the same moment, the fate of this horse is sealed: it will die on the spot. This scene is not a rare, even unknown or invented horror scenario. "It is a scene that is by no means unique in horse racing," says Dr. Esther Müller, consultant for horses at the German Animal Welfare Association. A scene in which it runs down the spine of anyone who feels even a hint of empathy for these animals. However, anyone who thinks that this incident will shock everyone equally is wrong. “In 2016 alone, twelve horses were killed on the racetrack because of a broken leg, and in 2017 six,” said Dr. Müller. Nevertheless, the stream of visitors does not stop.

Change of scene. When the North Sea clears the seabed at low tide, a mudflat landscape for kilometers is created in front of Cuxhaven. Once a year, it is precisely this place that becomes the setting for a spectacle that casts its spell over thousands of visitors. The Duhner Wadden Race is a world-famous event in which horses run for their lives in a backdrop of air shows and music bands. The trotting horses, harnessed to a sulky, rush past the audience with wide open mouths and fearful eyes. Their heads are usually tied with a strap or hanger, the so-called check, and fixed to the back of their back. Some of these straps are directly connected to a bit in the horse's mouth. So that the horse does not take the head up too far, it is fixed downwards with further straps, so-called straps or a martingale. The tongues of the animals are not infrequently tied to their lower jaws with ribbons or nylon stockings. There are also blinkers up, down, right and left - individually or in combination. The animals, whose field of vision is normally around 300 degrees, sometimes only has a view through a small slit. But that's not all. "In addition, the horses' ears are closed with plugs so that they cannot hear anything, and then there are side bars on the left and right - you cannot watch as a horse lover," says Dr. Maximilian Pick, veterinarian for horses and animal welfare.

Apparently the equipment is supposed to protect the horses during trotting. In reality, athletes brutally force the animals to be more obedient and quicker with accessories that are contrary to animal welfare.


If you look closely, you have to realize that the boundaries between sport and animal cruelty are blurring in the middle of this event, which many tourists serve as the highlight of their visit to the North Sea. The strap on the head is designed to help the horses keep their balance and trot while reaching higher speeds. “In order for a horse to stay healthy in the long run, it must be able to stretch its head down and swing over its back. Due to the fixed, unnatural posture, muscle problems and pain are inevitable ”, criticizes Dr. Müller. The so-called tongue band is intended to prevent the animals from putting their tongue over their teeth and to protect them from suffocating during the race, because the tongue swells due to the heavy load or folds backwards.

"The tongue ligament is not only cruel to animals, but also insane," says Dr. Pick. The reasons are simply wrong - the horses let the tied tongue hang out to the side instead of taking it over the bit. The expert also describes the argument with suffocation as a fairy tale. “If someone does that, they have absolutely no idea about riding or horses.” In addition, the blinders' blind spots restrict the field of vision, which forces the horses to keep their heads straight ahead in order to be able to see anything at all. The reason: the horses can only reach their maximum speed with a straight neck and head. "The fact that the horses can neither move nor see naturally puts an enormous strain on the animals," says Dr. Müller.

During trotting races, the horses are harnessed to sulkys, single-axle horse-drawn vehicles. Accessories that violate animal welfare are part of everyday life.

But all of this is part of everyday life in harness racing - not just in the mudflats off Cuxhaven, but on all racetracks in Germany. In horse racing, the anti-welfare tongue tape has been banned since June 1st, but whiplashes continue to cause animal suffering. Five lashes are allowed per race. From an animal welfare point of view, that's five too many. In a derby race in Hamburg in 2016, a horse was whipped to victory with nine strokes. Anyone who breaks the rule of five allowed strokes can expect a fine or a few days' starting ban. However, this is far too low compared to the premium that awaits the winner and is accepted. A small consolation: The upper racing court of the Galopper umbrella organization has denied this victory in a second judgment.


Horses have cast a spell over people for thousands of years - no other pet is as closely intertwined with the development of human cultures as the horse. The animals kept all their natural behaviors throughout the time. Unfortunately, this fact doesn't stop many people from trampling their needs. The respect for the living being gives way to the greed for money and success.


The specialist in horses and animal welfare has worked as a racetrack veterinarian for 25 years and is now one of the greatest critics of horse racing. Read

When a foal sees the light of day, it should stay with its mother for at least six months and then romp around the pasture with peers of the same age. “It is only when the animals are around three years old that the body and mind of animals have developed to the point where humans can begin to work with them. And even then in small steps that have to be individually adapted to each horse ”, says Dr. Müller. Racehorses are not allowed this time - the scene argues that thoroughbreds are precocious. “That's just not true. You can measure this in terms of bone growth. The so-called epiphyseal plates in the bones do not close so that the body can continue to grow. Only when they are closed is the horse mature. And it's definitely ripe when it's six years old, ”says Dr. Pick. In addition to this physical development, the animals need the psychological maturity to be able to cope with the big change from keeping on the pasture to a small, closed box and the daily stress of training.

But in racing, money determines business. And time is money. Racehorses are usually offered for sale at auction at an age of around one year. They are presented in the atmosphere of a wholesale market and the price sums flicker across the billboard. In a matter of minutes, potential buyers submit their bids at the push of a button and the highest bidder wins. From here, most horses go straight to the training stables. There they usually find themselves in a box in which they can just turn around themselves.

Even presenting the racehorses before the actual races in the parade ring stresses the animals enormously.

Isolated from their conspecifics by bars or closed walls, they will eke out their lives here 23 hours a day from now on. Many of them will be running their first race as early as next season. “If the high stress of horse racing is already demanded by two-year-olds, this is a violation of Paragraph 3 of the Animal Welfare Act. Because it says: It is forbidden to demand services from an animal - except in emergencies - which it is obviously unable to cope with because of its condition, ”says Dr. Pick.

The most damage occurs in the first year in the training stable. "The other horses are usually one and a half or two years on the racetrack and then drop out because they are no longer suitable for various reasons." Whether immediately or later retired - the animals then simply disappear from the scene. After all, only the fastest and toughest horses remain in the sport and are approved for breeding. The Galopper umbrella organization rejects responsibility for the disused horses - it only records breeding animals and active racehorses in its statistics. Countless racehorses end up in hobby riding every year. The problem: Racehorses are usually not suitable for recreational riders due to their temperament, the new owners are often overwhelmed accordingly, and the horses continue to pass through countless hands or end up at the butcher. “A lot of racehorses do not recover from the mental damage. It is always a lottery game to see whether a racehorse can be turned into a good riding horse. Usually it doesn't work, ”says Dr. Pick from his years of experience.


The training process of the racehorses, which initially remain in the sport, follows clear structures in most cases. The jockeys saddle the animals in the box, ride them for a few minutes, and then they do canter training on the stable's own racetrack. Usually it's over after ten minutes and you go back to the stable. Most of them are denied access to a pasture. "There is still the deepest Middle Ages on the racetrack when it comes to posture," says Dr. Pick. For comparison: In the wild, horses in their herd move around 16 hours a day, primarily at a walk.

Seven start helpers and a mask over the eyes are required here to force the fearful horse into the start machine before the upcoming gallop race.

The proponents of racing argue that racing corresponds exactly to this natural need for movement. The scenes that take place before, during and after the races speak a different language. “Horses are escape animals. If they have to run very fast, they automatically become scared. There is a feedback effect there. Horses that have run many races are in a state of anxiety that is often difficult to explain, ”said Dr. Pick. Before every horse race there are horses that refuse to go into the starting machine. Walking around nervously and wet with sweat, they try to escape what follows. How great can the joy of running be when these animals can only be pushed into the starting machine with the force of several start helpers? “At some point there is fear of fear,” explains Dr. Pick. This is precisely what can be observed not only on the starting machine, but also in the stable. “If you walk through the stable during the race, you will see individual horses that are absolutely over the moon because they can hear the music and the loudspeakers of the racetrack.

They are so afraid of the race that they run around in circles in the pits, are bathed in sweat, have wide eyes, although they don't even have to start that day. ”In contrast to the mental damage, the physical damage is already apparent at first Look recognizable. During his time as an active race track veterinarian, Dr. Pick mostly treats tendon, joint and hoof damage, but also lung diseases that can be traced back to poor posture and the stress of running. Horses keep bleeding from their noses during the race. “90 percent of the nosebleed will come from the lungs. During the race the horses have an insanely high heart rate. Damaged blood vessels in the lungs rupture due to the high blood pressure, ”said Dr. Pick. In addition, veterinarians have now found that many horses have stomach ulcers. “The main behind the stomach ulcers is the catastrophically poor feeding of the racehorses. The animals get an excess of carbohydrate-rich concentrated feed and relatively little roughage. ”However, that should be exactly the other way around.


The cruel scenes on the racetrack and behind the scenes as well as the serious physical and mental damage speak for themselves: racehorses suffer. The animals are tormented, live in fear and in very many cases die far too young. Is a weekend trip to the racetrack really worth it? Not only animal rights activists should answer this question with a clear no. Not even a single cent won through a bet can outweigh or justify the suffering of these animals.



37 Penalties were imposed for excessive use of whips at horse races in 2017 in Germany.

427 Starts by two-year-old horses were counted in Germany in 2017 alone.

33 There were cancellations during the 2017 races only because horses were lame.

18 Horses have been killed on the racetrack for the past two years due to a broken leg.


  • If you would like to find out more about grievances in equestrian sport, you can find background information on training methods and doping in equestrian sport as well as animal welfare problems at rodeo events on the website of the German Animal Welfare Association.
  • Book tip: In the guide "Appropriate keeping of horses", the authors Jutta and Maximilian Pick, Antje Rahn, Hanns Ullstein jun. as well as Norbert Wolff on important principles for the appropriate keeping of horses.