Horse racing was long a popular pastime among the royalty in Europe, but in no country did the sport of kings influence the culture as it did in England. Britain was home to horse races as early as the Middle Ages. When King Henry VIII took the throne and founded the royal racing stables, however, the sport became serious business.
The second major event of note in the history of horse racing was the advent of the Thoroughbred in the 1700s. The mothers of this breed were mares in the royal stables, but the fathers hailed from the Middle East. Probably about 160 different stallions were bought or stolen from foreign countries, representing the Barb, the Arabian, and the Turkoman breeds. Three were particularly influential:
- The Byerley Turk.
- The Darley Arabian.
- The Godolphin Arabian.
All of the Oriental horses were light and spirited, while the mares to which they were bred were slow, but sturdy. The result was a horse with the heart and stamina to carry a rider to the finish line.
No sooner had the Thoroughbred come into existence than it found its way to America. The first import was Bulle Rock, brought to Virginia in 1730. Only 15 years later, Governor Samuel Ogle of Maryland established organized horse racing in America. Racing had once been a casual affair, owners matching their Quarter Horses in short sprints down the street. Now it was the sport of the wealthy.
Although the Thoroughbred was first and foremost a racehorse, in America it found additional purposes. It was often an essential ingredient in any other breed that needed to be created, contributing speed and courage to the mix. Also, American cavalry officers prized their Thoroughbred mounts. Officers on both sides of the Civil War rode Thoroughbreds. For example, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati was a descendant of the record-breaking racehorse Lexington, while General Robert E. Lee’s Traveller was probably about 3/4 Thoroughbred. Even after the Civil War, many sires in the United States Army Remount Service were Thoroughbreds.
By the early 1900s, American Thoroughbreds had proven themselves so well that the British decided to eliminate the competition. They closed their studbooks and racetracks to foreigners, a decision that was not repealed until 1949.
Meanwhile, the Thoroughbred as a whole only increased in popularity worldwide. Racing became an industry, with most of the profits coming from the incredible fees charged for the services of top stallions. The demand (and therefore the prices) for good breeding Thoroughbreds reached an all-time high in the mid-1980s thanks to interest from Europe and the Middle East. This was followed by another boom in the early 2000s, with the record price for a Thoroughbred at auction being set in 2006—$16 million for a colt yet unnamed and unraced at the time of the sale.
Horse investments took a major hit when the economy soured in 2008. While some breeders breathed a sigh of relief since prices were coming down to earth, the recession created a major shakeup, with thousands of excess Thoroughbreds being shipped to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
With horror stories about horse slaughter and racetrack injuries hitting the media on a regular basis, it’s little wonder that horse racing is a controversial sport. Nevertheless, the Thoroughbred has a strong presence around the world, with 1.3 million representatives in America alone.
There are two types of Thoroughbred today. The slim, muscular type is a recent development and is typically the type seen on the racetrack today. Unfortunately, this type has many soundness problems that preclude it from starting in more than a handful of races in its lifetime. Retirees will probably need to be ridden lightly to avoid further injury. Recreation and possibly trail riding are the best roles for these horses.
The sturdier old-fashioned type, although increasingly hard to find, is still the epitome of an athlete. It is an excellent choice for polo, dressage, jumping, eventing, and hunting. It can even excel at the Western sport of barrel racing. This type of Thoroughbred is also suitable for mounted police work.
Thoroughbred crosses are preferred for many horse sports due to their stamina and will to win.
The Thoroughbred has a large heart and amazing spirit, but it is a rather delicately balanced creature. It bonds strongly with one person and will give itself fully to that person alone. Its determination to please carries it through tense and painful situations, sometimes at the cost of its life. However, it is also rather flighty and tends to overreact to the unknown.
Retired racehorses need special care. They have been trained to meet the requirements of the racing world, and many concepts of recreational riding are completely new to them (for example, a tug on the reins may be mistaken for the cue to gallop faster). Furthermore, they have often been subjected to enormous stress during their careers. It takes time to retrain them, and until they are fully retrained they can be extremely dangerous. Their confidence must be rebuilt through consistency and by presenting them with a clear path to earn the approval they crave.
Unfortunately, the Thoroughbred has been subjected to many questionable breeding practices, including inbreeding, short-term breeding goals, and using horses with soundness problems as breeding stock. Bone defects, metabolic problems, abnormally small hearts, and reproductive loss syndrome are the result.
Retired racehorses have additional problems caused by their living conditions and trauma on the track:
- Living in a dusty stable may have caused inflammatory airway disease.
- An unnatural diet may have resulted in stomach ulcers.
- Performance-enhancing drugs may affect the horse’s mood for a considerable time after retirement.
- Overexercise may have induced pulmonary hemorrhages.
- Strain and accidents may have injured countless nerves, tendons, and bones.
Some racehorses can be rehabilitated, but it is best to have a vet assess the horse before adoption.
- Affordability of retired racehorses.
- Athletic ability.
- Tremendous speed over long distances.
- Comfortably smooth gait.
- Expense of younger horses.
- Need for expert care due to health and temperament challenges.
- Susceptibility to adverse weather conditions.
- High feed requirements.
- Soundness problems.
- Low fertility.