The jumps racing debate: Researchers find no common ground

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Debate is polarised in New Zealand around the continuation of jumps racing, researchers have found. The pictured steeplechase occurred in England. Photo: Paul Holloway CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

No common ground appears to exist between supporters and opponents of jumps racing in New Zealand, the findings of recent research suggest.

The risk posed by jumps racing to horses formed a basis for two fundamental arguments, Kylie Legg and her colleagues reported in the journal Animals.

Supporters argued that risks were reasonable, with risk minimisation measures best determined by expertise and care from within the racing industry. Opponents were labelled as naïve extremists.

Opponents of jumps racing tended to personify the horse as a rights-bearing individual to argue that any risk was unacceptable and jumps racing should be banned.

Horses were attributed with rights, and from this perspective, the racing industry exploited horses for entertainment.

“These two different arguments were used to shape claims for and against the continuation of jumps racing,” Legg and her fellow researchers from Massey University said.

Their study involved an investigation of jumps racing articles in the New Zealand media for the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 seasons.

There were 293 jumps races during the two racing seasons. These races comprised 4.9% of the total number of horse races in New Zealand during that period.

During these jumps races, there were 15 horse deaths, for a fatality rate of 5.8 per 1000 starters – a rate which is higher than flat racing.

During this period, 36,204 articles on horse racing were identified in New Zealand. Of these, 1228 (3.4%) related to jumps racing. Of these, 96% were classified as neutral–positive, reporting on the likes of horse form, race results, events and preparation.

The study team found that the volume of discussion about the continuation of jumps racing was minimal, comprising just 2.9% of jumps racing articles. Such discussion was short-lived and tended to be related to horse fatalities.

“There was no common ground between the supporters and opponents of jumps racing, with opponents taking the unyielding view that the sport should be banned,” the authors reported.

“The supporters of jumps racing acknowledged the risks of the sport, deeming them acceptable, and compared them to other accepted horse activities which also have inherent risk. Proponents used this to advocate for adherence to industry safety regulations.

“Jumps racing supporters had the pragmatic position that the traditional benefits of the sport (for both profit and entertainment) alongside industry measures to safeguard the health and welfare of the horses justify the continuation of jumps racing.

“Deaths were argued to be singular aberrations in an otherwise regulated and controlled industry.

“However, the narrative from those opposed to jumps racing was that of exploitation of horses for human profit and entertainment.

“The life of each horse was made significant and likened to human atrocities.”

Horses, they noted, were personalised and attributed with rights.

“Therefore, deaths were argued to be needless, horrific and tragic. Thus, the similar reactions to a horse death in a jumps race — that of a “tragedy” — were given entirely different meanings when considered either as a rare and worrying occurrence inducing stricter welfare guidelines or as an inevitable outcome of a sport which should be banned.”

The authors continued: “This framing of the importance of individual animals, illustrated with graphic images and videos, enabled the media to publicise stories of relatively rare injuries and fatalities to a much larger audience than those present at horse races or involved in the racing industry.”

The researchers suggested that understanding the lines of reasoning behind each position in the jumps racing debate can help to reveal how these arguments can influence and shape public opinion.

“At present, the arguments used prevented any movement towards shared solutions to the danger of jumps racing. This recognition could open avenues for informed and knowledgeable discussion of the risks and reasoning for jumps racing between the racing industry and those who oppose it.

“Such discussion could result in measures being taken that are acceptable to both parties.”

The full study team comprised Kylie Legg, Mary Breheny, Erica Gee and Chris Rogers.

Responding to Risk: Regulation or Prohibition? New Zealand Media Reporting of Thoroughbred Jumps Racing 2016–2018
Kylie A. Legg, Mary Breheny, Erica K. Gee and Chris W. Rogers
Animals 2019, 9(5), 276; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9050276

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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