Knowledgebase > Horses


Last updated 9 January 2018

The horse (Equus ferus caballus) is a type of ‘odd-toed ungulate’, a group of strictly herbivorous mammals that also includes zebras, rhinoceroses and tapirs. Small horse-like animals first appeared in the fossil record around 55 million years ago, and humans began domesticating the species approximately 6,000 years ago.

This article provides examples of horse-related entertainment that Australians participate in professionally, and then outlines some of the key animal welfare issues associated with those pursuits.

Horses in Australian Entertainment

Racing and Gambling

Thoroughbred Racing (‘gallops’): 8-15 horses typically compete per race, each ridden by a jockey. Races are run over a flat surface with distances ranging from approx. 800m to 3,200m. There are 357 Thoroughbred racetracks in operation across Australia, which held 19,154 races in 2016/17[1].

Jumps Racing: this race type also involves a pack of Thoroughbred horses, each ridden by a jockey. Races are run over long distances (approx. 3,200m to 5,500m) and incorporate large fixed obstacles that the horses must jump over[2]. In 2016/17, 81 jumps races were held in South Australia and Victoria[3].

Harness Racing (‘trots’ or ‘paces’): 8-12 Standardbred horses typically compete per race, each pulling a driver sitting in a two-wheeled cart. Races are held over a range of distances from approx. 1,600m to 3,200m. There are 97 harness racing tracks in operation across Australia[4], which held 14,085 races in 2016/17[5].

Competitive Equestrian Sports

Show Jumping: a rider makes a horse complete a set sequence of at least ten jumps, which may be 1.2m to 1.7m in height and have a spread or depth of up to 2.2m[6]. Penalties are incurred if the horses knock any part of an obstacle down or refuse to jump. Elite show-jumpers are typically European Warmbloods, including German, Dutch, Irish and Swiss breeds.

Dressage: a rider makes a horse perform a series of predetermined movements called a ‘test’ in a 20m x 60m arena. Twelve letters are placed around the arena, indicating where specific movements and changes of pace (walk, trot and canter) must start and finish[7]. Elite dressage horses are typically Warmblood breeds, for example Hanoverians and Holsteiners.

Polo: a contact team sport played by people on horseback. Teams consist of four people, each riding a ‘polo pony’, which are typically Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses or Stock Horses. Matches last 45 minutes and the aim is to score goals by hitting a small hard white ball into the other team’s goal. There are approximately 40 polo clubs across Australia[8].


Two out of the six standard Australian rodeo events involve horses: Saddle Bronc Riding and Bareback Bronc Riding. The objective is for a cowboy to stay on a bucking horse for eight seconds, either with or without the help of a saddle. Two judges score these events, awarding points to the human for ‘style’ and use of spurs, and awarding points to the horse for bucking action, strength and degree of difficulty[9].

Horse Welfare

Most human-horse activities involve gaining complete control over the horse’s movement. This physical manipulation of horses is so deeply entrenched in our culture that the exploitative and abusive aspects are frequently overlooked. In addition, many of these activities require horses to be stabled for convenience and risk causing them physical injuries. Racing further involves industrial-scale breeding and wastage.

Tools for Controlling Horses

The bridle is the main device for controlling horses and is used in all activities. It applies pressure to sensitive areas of the horse’s head, particularly the mouth through a bit (metal mouthpiece), noseband and reins (held by the rider). Riders in equestrian sports commonly tighten the noseband to: (1) stop horses from opening their mouths, which is penalized in competitions like dressage; and (2) increase sensitivity to the bit and rein tension. Mouth-opening is thought to be a sign of oral discomfort, and potential effects of excessive noseband tightening include restriction of normal behaviors, stress, pain and tissue damage[10].

The whip is another tool that may be used against horses in a range of activities. Whipping in horseracing has been labeled the most public form of violence to animals in Australia[11]. Those in the industry who defend its use argue the whip is necessary for safety, correction and encouragement, and claim that it doesn’t inflict pain[12]. The ability of the whip to achieve these goals remains unproven[13], while there is evidence that hitting a horse is at least aversive, and at worst, painful. Race footage from NSW shows the whip leaves a visible indentation on the horse’s skin in over 80% of strikes and the unpadded shaft of the whip frequently hits the horse’s sensitive abdomen[14]. There is also increased whipping in the final 200 meters of races when the horses are most fatigued and least able to respond by running faster[15].

Stabling and Diet

Horses are highly social animals that evolved as grazing herbivores; they are adapted to spend up to 18 hours each day foraging on high-fiber fresh foods in a herd. When people keep horses, they are typically stabled (housed in single confinement) for convenience and fed concentrated meals. Stables differ from the free-ranging environment in a number of ways including space, social stimulation, and ability to forage and make controlled environmental choices. This management of horses and low-forage diet has been linked to repetitive, abnormal behaviors such as weaving, box-walking, crib-biting and grasping, and health problems including gastric ulceration, gut dysfunction and colic[16],[17],[18].

Physical Injuries

Horseracing is a notoriously dangerous activity for both horses and humans. A study on 514 Thoroughbred deaths and euthanasias in Victoria found the risk of fatality was 18.9 times greater for jumps races than flat races, and reasons for fatality in both race types included catastrophic limb, cranial and vertebral injuries as well as sudden death[19]. An international study on sudden death in 268 Thoroughbred racehorses revealed causes including cardiac (heart) failure, apparent pulmonary (lungs) failure, pulmonary haemorrhage (bleeding), haemorrhage associated with pelvic fractures or blood vessel ruptures, and spinal cord injury[20].

Racing: Breeding and Wastage

In 2016/17, 3,596 Standardbred foals[21], and 12,632 Thoroughbred foals[22] were registered with the relevant racing industry controlling bodies across Australia.

The Australian racing industry total horse exit rates each year have been estimated at 28% for Standardbreds and 33% for Thoroughbreds (approximating to one-third of the population). Reasons given for racehorses exiting the industry include poor performance/slow, illness/injuries, retiring to breeding duties and unsuitable temperament/behaviour[23].

Australia has two licensed horse abattoirs that export horsemeat for human consumption (located in Queensland and South Australia), and approximately 33 licensed knackeries that process horsemeat for the local pet food market[24]. Ironically, a Sydney knackery that kills wastage from the horseracing industry claimed 95% of its business was supplying meat to the massive population of racing dogs, and said a ban on greyhound racing would effectively close all licensed knackeries in NSW[25]. Footage from an undercover investigation of a Victorian knackery shows horses being shot in front of one another, being struck on the head with metal poles and one sick horse that is shot, dragged 60m and found to still be alive so he is shot once more before having his throat slit[26].


[1] Racing Australia Fact Book 2016/17: A Guide to the Thoroughbred Industry in Australia: Table 1. Australian Racing Statistics, State by State 2016/17, pp. 7.

[2] Australian Jumping Racing Association Inc. ‘Information Pack’: <> (accessed: Jan 2018).

[3] See: Reference 1.

[4] IER Report (2012), “Size and Scope of the Harness Racing Industry in Australia”, pp. 33.

[5] Harness Racing Australia, “Annual On-Line: National Stakemoney Statistics - Starts, Starters, Winners, Licensees 1987-2017”, (accessed: Jan 2018).

[6] Equestrian Australia National Jumping Rules, Chapter 3 - Obstacles, pp. 9.

[7] Equestrian Australia: “Dressage”, <> (accessed: Jan 2018).

[8] Australian Polo Federation “About - Member States and Clubs”, <>, (accessed: Jan 2018).

[9] Australian Professional Rodeo Association “Event Descriptions”, (accessed: Jan 2018).

[10] O. Doherty, V. Casey, P. McGreevy & S. Arkins (2017). Noseband Use in Equestrian Sports - An International Study. PLoS ONE, 12(1): e0169060.

[11] P. McGreevy, “Whips hurt horses - if my leg’s anything to go by”, The Conversation, 29/10/2014, <>.

[12] R. Graham & P. McManus (2016). Changing Human-Animal Relationships in Sport: An Analysis of the UK and Australian Horse Racing Whip Debates. Animals, doi:10.3390/ani6050032.

[13] B. Jones, J. Goodfellow, J. Yeates & P. McGreevy (2015). A critical analysis of the British Horseracing Authority’s Review of the Use of the Whip in Horseracing. Animals, 5: 138-150.

[14] P. McGreevy, R. Corken, H. Salvin & C. Black (2012). Whip Use by Jockeys in a Sample of Australian Thoroughbred Races - An Observational Study. PLoS ONE, 7(3): e33398.

[15] P. McGreevy & L. Ralston (2012). The Distribution of Whipping of Australian Thoroughbred Racehorses in the Penultimate 200 m of Races is Influenced by Jockey’s Experience. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 7: 186-190.

[16] J. Thorne, D. Goodwin, M. Kennedy, H. Davidson & P. Harris (2005). Foraging enrichment for individually housed horses: practicality and effects on behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 94: 149-164.

[17] J. Cooper, N. McAll, S. Johnson & H. Davidson (2005). The short-term effects of increasing meal frequency on stereotypic behaviour of stabled horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 90: 351-364.

[18] J. Cooper & P. McGreevy (2003). “Chapter 5: Stereotypic behaviour in the stabled horse: causes, effects and prevention without compromising horse welfare”, In: The Welfare of Horses, eds: N. Waran, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

[19] L. Boden, G. Anderson, J. Charles, K. Morgan, J. Morton, T. Parkin, R. Slocombe & A. Clarke (2006). Risk of fatality and causes of death of Thoroughbred horses associated with racing in Victoria, Australia: 1989-2004. Equine Veterinary Journal, 38(4): 312-318.

[20] C. Lyle, F. Uzal, B. McGorum, H. Aida, K. Blissitt, J. Case, J. Charles, I. Gardner, N. Horadagoda, K. Kusano, K. Lam, J. Pack, T. Parkin, R. Slocombe, B. Stewart & L. Boden (2011). Sudden death in racing Thoroughbred horses: an international multicenter study of post mortem findings. Equine Veterinary Journal, 43(3): 324-331.

[21] Harness Racing Australia, “Annual On-Line: National Stakemoney Statistics - Starts, Starters, Winners, Licensees 1987-2017”, (accessed: Jan 2018).

[22] Racing Australia Fact Book 2016/17: A Guide to the Thoroughbred Industry in Australia: Table 23. Breeding Distribution by State 2015/16, pp. 40.

[23] P. Thomson, A. Hayek, B. Jones, D. Evans & P. McGreevy (2014). Number, causes and destinations of horses leaving the Australian Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries. The Journal of the Australian Veterinarian Association Ltd, 92(8): 303-311.

[24] See: Reference 23.

[25] “Greyhound ban brings biosecurity issues”, SBS News, 09/07/2016, <>.

[26] View the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses undercover knackery investigation here: <> (accessed: Jan 2018).

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