The Harsh Reality: Broken Legs & Racehorses’ Fate

As an equestrian with years of experience, I’ve enjoyed witnessing the beauty and thrill of thoroughbred racing.

The sight of these majestic creatures in motion is truly awe-inspiring.

However, there’s a harsh reality in this sport that can be difficult to accept: sometimes, a horse gets injured, and often, it’s euthanized on the track.

Seven horses died at Churchill Downs earlier this month, including four that broke down while racing or training.

The death of a horse under the care of trainer Bob Baffert at Pimlico Race Course cast a shadow over the Preakness victory of National Treasure.

Check out this video report:

These incidents have led to questions: Why does a broken leg often lead to a horse’s death? As an equestrian, I’ve often pondered this myself.

Horses are unique creatures. Their ability to run fast, combined with their weight (about 1,100 pounds), puts an immense force on their legs.

According to Dr. Scott E. Palmer, the equine medical director of the New York State Gaming Commission, horses’ lower legs comprise skin, bones, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves.

A break can easily compromise the circulation in the area, making it difficult for a broken leg to heal.

The challenges don’t stop there. Horses are restless and skittish by nature, making immobilization difficult.

They spend most of their time on four feet, even when sleeping. If one leg is injured, the remaining three have to bear the weight, leading to problems like laminitis, a painful condition that develops in the tissue between the hoof and the bone.

The treatment process can be painful for the horse, and it’s often costly.

Most horse owners are unwilling to spend thousands of dollars on a treatment process that might not work and probably won’t get the horse back to the racetrack. Euthanasia is often an unfortunate choice.

There have been cases where owners have tried to save their horses. Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, broke his leg in the Preakness two weeks later.

His owners decided to try to save him, but despite their best efforts, Barbaro only survived for another eight months.

Despite hurdles, progress has been made in horse treatment, including better antibiotics, aluminum splints, and an enhanced understanding of laminitis.

Given the horse’s unique anatomy, prevention may be the most promising way to progress.

Dr. Palmer is hopeful about biometric sensors that can spot horses with gaits that might lead to injury before those injuries happen.

A trial at Saratoga Race Course last year was promising. However, the challenge of caring for horses will always remain.

As an equestrian, I believe in the beauty and thrill of horse racing. But I also believe in the importance of horse welfare.

It’s a delicate balance that we must strive to achieve. After all, without the horses, there would be no racing.

Read: Remembering Fusaichi Pegasus: A Legendary Kentucky Derby Champion


  1. Mather, Victor. “Why Do They Euthanize Racehorses Who Break Their Legs?” The New York Times, May 25, 2023.
  2. Palmer, Dr. Scott E. Interview. New York State Gaming Commission.
Emily Donoho
Emily Donoho

Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.

Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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