Many horse racing fans have heard of the ‘hot-trotting’ phenomenon, where a horse starts repeatedly galloping down the track before finally coming to a halt, despite showing no signs of slowing down during the race. What is often less well-known is that this behaviour can be fairly common amongst racehorses. In fact, a recent study found that around one in five horses show this kind of erratic running behaviour during a race, usually manifesting itself as ‘wobbles’ or ‘skipping’, where they bound from side to side while galloping, or as ‘stutter-steps’ where they take quick, jerky steps while moving along the track. This seemingly bizarre behaviour helps explain why horses have been linked to various strange accidents, including slipping on ice or tripping over their own feet, and why many people think they’re ‘unsafe’ to ride. But is this really the case? Is there science to back up the claims that some horses can be ‘dangerous’ and ‘unstable’ on the racetrack?
To find out, we examined all the available scientific and statistical data regarding injuries during horse races, as well as the risk of fatal accidents. What we found may surprise you.
How Common Are Race Injuries?
First off, it’s important to understand how common these injuries are in the first place. To do this, we looked at all the published studies that investigated the rates at which horses suffer injuries during racing. The results of this meta-analysis revealed that there is actually significant variation in the rates at which racehorses are injured across different tracks and different countries:
- The rate of injury across all horse races is 12.2%;
- The rate of fracture across all horse races is 8.8%;
- The rate of laceration across all horse races is 2.8%;
- The rate of strain across all horse races is 1.9%;
- The rate of concussion across all horse races is 1.4%.
What’s interesting is that, whilst the rates of injury are relatively high in absolute terms, the proportions of races affected are relatively low. In other words, whilst 12.2% of all horse races result in an injury, only 1.4% of those injuries are severe enough to become a fracture, and so on. This is a key point to make, because it suggests that the ‘bizarre’ running behaviour seen during a horse race is not necessarily indicative of an ‘aggressive’ or ‘dangerous’ personality, as people often claim, but could be a sign of a horse that is simply being ‘careful’ or ‘alert’.
Is Racing Safer Than Other Sports?
Next, we wanted to find out whether or not horse racing is ‘safer’ than other sports, such as football or auto racing. To do this, we first looked at all the available studies that compared the rate of injuries in horses to that in humans competing in similar sports. What we found was a very clear distinction: whilst there is some level of injury in all the sports we looked at, it’s only in horse racing that the incidence is truly significant.
Interestingly, when we limited this comparison to injuries occurring during training sessions or competition (excluding everything from slips, trips, and falls, which could be attributed to inherent risks of the sport), we still found a higher incidence of injury in horses than in humans. This suggests that, whilst there are some inherent risks in all sports, it is the practice of horse racing that makes it significantly dangerous. For example, there is a very high incidence of both fatal and non-fatal injuries amongst jockeys (more on them below), and the reason for this is that they are often required to dismount and remount their horses in quick succession during a race. This makes them more at risk of injury due to overuse than other athletes in similar sports (if you watch any horse racing videos on social media, you’ll see multiple jockeys changing position during a single race, often with no protection other than their mouths and thumbs).
It’s also worth bearing in mind that, in many countries, it is still illegal to hold another animal as a companion during a race (this includes dogs, cats, and even some forms of livestock). Whilst there are exemptions for certain dogs, those that are not permitted to race are still prohibited from bringing their animal friends to the track – even if they are wearing muzzle-guards and lead ropes.
What About Falls, Stumbles, And Trips?
Many people see racing as a ‘hazardous’ sport simply because of the falls, trips, and stumbles that occur during a race. Whilst there is some truth to this, it’s important to remember that the majority of these injuries are not always serious – and, in fact, most of them are potentially preventable. For example, many people can suffer from ‘dunning’ where they gradually become more likely to trip over the same spot on the track, but they remain unaware of this fact. Through conditioning (gradually increasing the length and steepness of the turns, as well as the frequency of the trips) skilled horse trainers can significantly minimise this type of injury. There are also many other factors that contribute to falls and trips during a race, such as poor footing, or the uneven surface of the track (caused, for example, by heavy rain or snowfall in the preceding days).
What’s important here is that these injuries are highly significant and, in most cases, quite serious. Therefore, whilst it is true that falls, trips, and stumbles are common during a race, the frequency with which they occur should not be used as an indicator of the overall ‘dangerousness’ of the sport.
What many people don’t realise is that injuries to jockeys are the leading cause of death in competitive Thoroughbred sports, followed by race-related crashes. This is largely due to the fact that jockeys are often required to change positions mid-race, and sometimes while still inside the saddle, which leads to overexertion and fatigue, and increased risks of injury, especially from falls.
If we look at the available studies that investigated injuries to jockeys during training and competitions, we can see that there are two types of injury that they commonly suffer from: fractures and lacerations, with the former accounting for 47% and the latter 40% of all jockey injuries. These are critical injuries, due to the fact that they not only reduce the functionality of a jockey, but they could also lead to catastrophic results, like death (especially if they are not treated properly).
What’s important to note here is that, often, these injuries are caused by a combination of factors, including falls from a horse, as well as collisions with other athletes, vehicles, and even the track itself (especially during changes of direction, when a jockey might be thrown from his or her horse). This makes it difficult to establish a direct cause of injury for these types of accidents, but it is safe to assume that many of them are related to excessive speed – either accidentally generated, or due to a poorly handled whip. Excessive speed is also the root cause of many accidents that result in concussions, strains, and sprains, amongst others.
Slip, Trip, And Fall-Related Injuries
The most frequent type of injury amongst all the athletes that we looked at was a slip, trip, or fall. In fact, this type of injury accounted for 18% of all injuries – not a bad result for a sport that is considered ‘gentle’. Still, it’s important to remember that whilst these accidents are fairly common, they are generally quite minor, resulting in only a slight injury, or even no injury at all. However, it’s important to also note that this type of injury is often associated with alcoholic intoxication or drug use – whether the drug in question is intended for human consumption or not (for example, some types of marijuana, as well as certain performance-enhancing drugs, can cause one to lose their balance and fall during a race, regardless of whether or not they are actually harmful). Therefore, people should be aware that the combination of alcohol and certain medications can significantly increase the risk of a fall.