Thoroughbred racing viewed through two very different lenses

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Perceptions of racing practices were examined in a study. Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia CommonsPhoto: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons
Perceptions of racing practices were examined in a study. Photo: Noah Salzman CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Thoroughbred industry players have a very different view of racing practices and what they mean to the horse when compared to animal advocates, study findings show.

Researcher Iris Bergmann, with the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney,  set out to explore the views of industry participants and animal advocates relating to the naturalness and legitimacy of Thoroughbred racing.

Bergmann, writing in the open-access journal Animals, noted that concern about the public’s perception of Thoroughbred welfare is reverberating throughout the international Thoroughbred racing industry.

The general racing participants’ discourse about what is natural is based within the horse’s emotional realm and encapsulated in the phrase the horse “loves to race”, she says. This view is upheld even in the presence of horse behaviour that does not seem to support this idea.

“There is also a biologically based claim that horses choose to run or race if given the opportunity to move freely. However, if given the choice, horses spend the majority of their time foraging and grazing. The time horses in the wild spend moving mostly involves walking, with some trotting and cantering, but rarely galloping.

“Equating this with a highly regimented training regime where horses are asked repeatedly to perform at and beyond their natural limits appears flawed.”

For her study, Bergman recruited nine Thoroughbred industry participants from seven organisations. Three were from Australia, five from the United States, and one was with an international organisation. All were in senior and executive roles in their organisations.

Individuals from seven animal advocacy organisations whose websites published information about Thoroughbred racing also agreed to take part. Three were based in Australia, two in Britain and two in the United States.

Each took part in a semi-structured interview lasting about an hour, with two taking about 105 minutes. During the interviews, the opinions of the participants were sought on four racing-related images, which appear below.

Bergmann found that Thoroughbred industry players used assumptions of the nature of the Thoroughbred as explanations for their mental and behavioural expressions.

“This nature was used to justify controlling mechanisms and practices they referred to in the photographs.

“There was also a tendency for industry informants to normalise and naturalise and, at times, downplay the Thoroughbreds’ behavioural and mental expressions.

“This implies a naturalisation of the behaviour of the horse that transfers to a naturalisation of the entire process seen in the photographs, meaning a normalisation of the processes and procedures imposed on Thoroughbreds in racing.

“The behavioural and mental expressions of the Thoroughbreds in the photographs were seen more as a visual problem rather than a welfare problem.

“The Thoroughbred was often portrayed as a willing and knowing participant, eager, excited and ready to race.”

This, she says, is consistent with the industry participants’ view that racing is the most natural activity for the Thoroughbred.

“In contrast to the above, where industry informants draw on the idea of the natural, they mostly did not regard the Thoroughbred as natural anymore but as a product of human breeding. This is consistent with their overall low interest in the concept of naturalness in racing.”

Animal advocacy informants also used assumptions about the nature of the horse as an explanation for the Thoroughbreds’ mental and behavioural expressions on race day, Bergman said.

“However, they tended to view the Thoroughbreds’ assumed mental and behavioural predispositions as an explanation for why racing practices are not in the interest of their welfare.

“They mostly saw the Thoroughbreds’ expressions as indicating stress, agitation, being disturbed and experiencing anxiety. They suggested the depicted racing practices are unnatural and have a negative impact on the Thoroughbred.

“Animal advocacy informants tended to notice a broader range of factors impacting the thoroughbreds’ welfare by violating their nature, including a range of aspects of the overall environment and individual horse conformation.

“They tended to pay more attention and assign more welfare relevance to the horse-human interaction.”

This, she says, is consistent with their view that racing was not the most natural activity for the horse; rather, they point out grazing, being with other horses and running as natural.

“In terms of a human-shared activity, leisurely trail riding at most comes close to being natural.

“As did the industry informants, the advocacy informants noticed a visual problem, albeit a very different one. They emphasised the lack of visibility of the breadth of the welfare issues to the public.

“Overall, animal advocacy informants described a more holistic view of naturalness.”

Bergmann said her study found that how naturalness is conceptualised is linked to how the impact of common racing practices on the Thoroughbred are perceived. This, she says, has direct implications for the welfare of thoroughbreds in racing.

“In summary, the problems with Thoroughbred welfare are much broader than the industry currently considers attention-worthy.

“The non-recognition of the compromised health and welfare of the Thoroughbred in racing resulting from common handling, training and racing practices poses significant threats to the Thoroughbred and further questions the legitimacy of the thoroughbred industry.”

The industry, she says, will be increasingly pressured to address those issues with the discourse about common racing practices, animal welfare and naturalness advancing in society at large.

Industry informants often naturalise, normalise, downplay or ignore the horses’ expressions, the impact of handling on the horse and the use of equipment. In contrast, animal advocacy informants tend to describe a horse whose nature is violated.

“The industry informants show limited interest in addressing common racing practices, and this places Thoroughbred welfare at risk.”

Both groups have different ideas about what is natural and what that means for Thoroughbred welfare.

“With society’s understanding of welfare and of racing practices growing, the racing industry may be increasingly questioned about common racing practices.”

Bergmann, I.M. Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Thoroughbred Racing: A Photo-Elicitation Study with Industry and Animal Advocacy Informants. Animals 202010, 1513.

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

11 thoughts on “Thoroughbred racing viewed through two very different lenses

  • August 28, 2020 at 10:32 am
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    As a racing participant, I absolutely agree that racing should be increasingly questioned about it’s practises. The industry is more and more being led by beaurocrats who actively ignore obvious welfare issues whilst claiming it is their “first concern”. If the public were to observe the behaviour of thoroughbreds as they are going onto training tracks [especially artificial surface tracks and sand tracks] they would be shocked at the level of resistance from the horses including throwing themselves down to avoid the pain caused by unsuitable surfaces. I feel thoroughbreds and other horses are happy to gallop but only if they are pain free and fit for task. The slow creep of poor surfaces [almost always due to budgetary concerns] has meant even industry participants who should know better, accept obvious signs of distress as normal. Independent observers must by employed to oversee this industry to initiate change and address what is now industrial size cruelty.

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    • September 2, 2020 at 10:58 am
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      We have also experienced how a horses that we were riding became very angry thinking because the on gap to the main track was closed that he would not have to go gallop on the track that day. He thought he would just be returning to his stall. Once he realized he was to enter through the off gap gate to gallop that day he was very difficult to gallop that day! He really wanted to go back to his stall and not be ridden on the track that day.

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  • August 28, 2020 at 1:46 pm
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    The fact is, we actually know more, these days, about what’s going on inside a horse’s head, and it is this knowledge that is driving the concerns of animal advocacy people. It would be quite wrong to say that all racing people ignore such information, but too many act on outdated assumptions and guesswork when it comes to assessing whether or not their horses are in pain.

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  • August 29, 2020 at 3:36 am
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    This article is long overdue and should be reprinted and publicized frequently. People working in the industry cannot accept the truth about the pain and horror most of the horses endure in the horseracing industry.

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    • August 29, 2020 at 8:42 am
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      Quite agree, Mary. If the techniques of recognising indicators of pain in the face of the horse are good enough for veterinary practice, I don’t see why a sound education in such techniques should not be mandatory for every professional horse handler. The faces of every horse in those photos shows clear distress. The superficial similarities between a happily excited horse and one shying in fear have allowed racehorse handlers to delude themselves about what is going on in their horses’ minds, and this really has to stop.

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      • September 2, 2020 at 11:04 am
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        That poor horse with a tongue tie is clearly in great distress! We have always hated the use of tongue ties. For that reason we never became a race horse track trainer as their demonstrated use was a requirement of becoming a licensed race track trainer in our state of the US!

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  • August 31, 2020 at 2:38 am
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    my god what on EARTH HAVE THEY GOT INTHE POOR HORSES MOUTH if they cant control theming normal bit then they have nonbusiness riding them

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  • September 1, 2020 at 10:19 am
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    its a tongue tie some thoughbreds will suck tongue down their throat when excited and displace
    their flappers and not be able to breathe

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    • September 1, 2020 at 12:09 pm
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      It’s a physical impossibility for a horse to “suck tongue down their throat”. Oddly enough, in other horse sports where horses are required to gallop, such as the cross-country phase in eventing, no such equipment is required. Under extreme stress, a horse’s vocal apparatus can go into spasm, blocking breathing for a moment, but this is not, I suspect, something that tying a horse’s tongue to its lower jaw, potentially (and often actually) damaging the tongue in the process, might be expected to fix. You might regard Sharon’s reaction as ignorant, but it is completely in line with common public perception of the practice of using tongue ties. Telling people these days that race horses are made, by the use of whips, to run so fast that their breathing stops and their legs might break under the strain goes a long way towards getting racing banned altogether.

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  • September 2, 2020 at 4:27 pm
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    Those who did the study don’t know what the question is.

    Nobody supports, or has even considered, racing a horse instead of letting it eat, or racing a horse for hours a day. The horse races competitively a few times a year. The horse racing is also not eating low-energy food, nursing a foal, or pregnant.

    All the horses I’ve observed at liberty have gone for a run ‘once in a while’ and appear to enjoy it immensely. They also race competitively and it establishes the ‘pecking order’–or who comes to the gate first in line.

    In a mixed herd where some young geldings are still a bit studdy, racing among them establishes who gets to herd the mares.

    The observers of horses at liberty seem not to have observed foals. Nobody who had watched young horses could question whether they use themselves physically, rearing, bucking, racing around, jumping, spontaneously for the sheer joy of it.

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  • September 3, 2020 at 4:27 am
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    Dr. Bergman, while attempting to pit “the advocates against the thoroughbred welfare folks,” falls desperately short on the history of horse racing and the sport/business of raising and training the racing horse. While we can only guess of the depth of her research and exposure to the breeding/racing and training of the animal. Breeding and racing the thoroughbred horse is indeed the “welfare” of the animal. Without such activities the thoroughbred horse would border extinction, insofar as a need for such a large and expensive domestic animal. The thoroughbred horse, including other sizable and well conformed breeds of horse are celebrated since the beginning of history! Ghengis Khan, Napoleon, Wellington, Lawrence of Arabia, the American Indian, the great armies of the world required “fast” horses to win battles, flee peditors, pull wagons and endure many surfaces to be victorious. We ask Dr. Bergman whether she has studied the uses of the horses and partucularly thoroughbred horses utilized by many countries in many conflicts.
    The fastest horses were proven to be on the side of victors and not the losers and proved to be spectacular in the first Great War. Breeding and the racing of thoroughbred horses pays a tribute to their origin and development. We invite Dr.Bergman to spend time on some of the leading, producing farms in the U.S. and elsewhere to gain an understanding and to be a witness to the natural tendencies of the thoroughbred horse and not sell it short by inexperienced nuances and modern misunderstandings of the animal.

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