Thoroughbred racing viewed through two very different lenses

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

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

  • August 28, 2020 at 10:32 am

    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.

    • September 2, 2020 at 10:58 am

      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.

  • August 28, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    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.

  • August 29, 2020 at 3:36 am

    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.

    • August 29, 2020 at 8:42 am

      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.

      • September 2, 2020 at 11:04 am

        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!

    • September 11, 2021 at 8:25 pm

      Horses are creatures of habit so if you change there routine they will sometimes resist because you have changed there routine not because they are frightened or in pain
      If you watch horses in the mounting yard most are very placid and accepting of what is about to happen
      They are also normally very relaxed just before entering the starting stalls
      You will never get a horse to do anything by inflicting pain and I am often amazed that they will accept to go into barriers or onto a horse float because I can guarantee you if you tried to push one over a cliff it would be impossible
      I have worked with horses for the past 55 years so I do have some idea what I am talking about

  • August 31, 2020 at 2:38 am

    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

  • September 1, 2020 at 10:19 am

    its a tongue tie some thoughbreds will suck tongue down their throat when excited and displace
    their flappers and not be able to breathe

    • September 1, 2020 at 12:09 pm

      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.

  • September 2, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    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.

  • September 3, 2020 at 4:27 am

    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.

    • November 21, 2020 at 11:58 am

      So what you are saying is that the TB, to avoid extinction, needs to accept whatever ignorant and painful strategies racing people throw at it? great argument

    • November 22, 2020 at 4:10 pm

      “Peditors”? “Partucularly”? Forgive me if I don’t take criticism of an academic article seriously from a man who can’t spell. I’m quite sure Dr Bergman has indeed visited and carefully studied horse breeding centres in many countries. The majority of horses ridden in battle or used for transport in war were not thoroughbreds or anything like it. And an appeal to history is subject to the counter-argument that our ancestors’ attitudes to the infliction of pain and damage on their animals, and often on their fellow humans, were different from ours. They were crueler.
      We all know that horses love to run and play. That’s not under debate. What IS being debated is whether an industry that’s all about gambling money – and you can’t pretend the racing industry is about anything else – can maintain a social license to operate in the face of public awareness of apparent pain inflicted on racehorses in the course of their careers. Whips are, to many in the stands or watching racing on tv, an open admission that the horse would rather not run that fast, and studies have confirmed that being whipped does NOT make a horse run faster. Tongue ties are equally horrifying to many. And then there’s the parade of broken legs. I know that horses are capable of breaking their legs playing in the paddock, but racing puts the equine frame under pressures that play, or even general riding, does not.
      Will the Thoroughbred die out if racing dies? It’s unlikely. The cavalry horses of the European armies at the beginning of the 20th century did not die out after WW2, but became today’s prized sport horses. Thoroughbreds, even those so inbred for precocious speed over a short track as to be nearly useless for anything else, still routinely go on to post-track careers as hacks, showjumpers, eventers and general pleasure horses.

    • November 25, 2020 at 10:58 am

      Okay David: In the first place, this is not a history paper, so if the researcher “falls desperately short” on the history of racing, it’s because she was not addressing it at all. What she has done is seek opinions on four photographs from racing industry people on one side and animal welfare people on the other. The opinions are NOT HERS. She has drawn her conclusions from the opinions expressed by those to whom the pictures were sent, who participated in the study.
      In the second place, you talk about “modern misunderstandings of the animal”. An enormous amount of very respectable research has been done over the last twenty years to increase our knowledge of how the horse’s mind works, what its pain tolerances are, what its stressors are and how they operate, and the development of a workable set of physical indicators in the horse’s face and stance that indicate that the horse is in distress, an index now routinely used in vetinerary practice. To a very large extent, this research has been funded by professional bodies aware that public understanding of horses, and with it public and societal permission for horse sports to continue to operate, has declined. The horse world now has to prove, as it did not fifty years ago, that it is not hurting the animal. Dr Bergman’s study proves that many in the racing industry are yet to catch up with these requirements. This failure puts their entire industry at risk from a public which you may see as ill-informed, but who would probably see you in the same light. The difference between the two sets of respondents is that one side, the animal rights people, have kept closely in touch with the new research, and the other, the racing industry, have shown it a certain amount of contempt or ignored it altogether.
      I agree that horses love to run and play, but I can see the point of those who enquire why, if racing is so natural, the horses need whips, harsh bitting measures, tongue ties or even (dare I say?) riders.

  • November 24, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    My experience of racing people is that they are in love with their horses and care for them meticulously. Unfortunately mistreatment continues and tragic outcomes result in public and unseen both to jockeys and horses.

    I believe the industry employs a great many people and worthy people who would respond favourable to policy standard change influenced by university scientifically evidenced research.

    As a highly qualified citizen of some years with experience eventing and learning from many equestrian advocates inspired by Early 20th century equine handlers like Australia’s Jeffries and USAs Monty Roberts, I feel that there is much that can be advanced to develop horse racing in line with acceptably humane practices.

    Banning horse racing may be a solution 9in the long term however as millions of people are involved and depend on the industry, some simple policy introductions can reshape awareness for a 21 century outlook.

    For example I would like to see 2 and 3 yearolds learning and being educated for life after racing before setting foot on a racing circuit. Funding could be made available for this purpose as it is currently in Australua for OTT horses.

    I believe horses need to finish growing and maturing before experiencing exertion to the extent that racing demands of young equines currently.

    I also believe 16 horses is enough in a race.

    I am aware of rsearch quoting jockeys that confirms that whipping does not achieve a superior performance in a race.

    I would prefer to attend race meetings and see million dollar prizes awarded to Races where whipping is removed from the events.

    • November 22, 2021 at 6:53 am

      Rosalind, I respect your idealism, but as a person with 4+ decades working, riding and showing in multiple breeds and disciplines, I have seen the good, bad and to often ugly side of the equine industry. In my opinion, there is nothing that can justify starting the young Thoroughbreds so young, often before they are 2 years old. How would you characterise disbarred Race Horse Trainer, Jason Servis or Jorge Navarro? Did they show their ‘love’ for horses; or was it an overarching love of money that caused the use of pain killing medications and dangerous drugs? It doesn’t stop with certain trainers or owners either, as some Veterinarians were involved with supplying and/or administering compounds. As far as the longevity of Horse Racing, I see the declining number of TB breedings (here in Canada) and the continued loss of fan support as a precursor to the eventual demise of Thoroughbred Racing. The glory days of what was once considered ‘the sport of Kings’ is gradually sliding down a slippery slope to a denouement. I used to be part of the TB Race horse world, and have lived the experience, first hand,

      • November 22, 2021 at 2:45 pm

        We like you started in 1978 & so have 40+ years experience in almost all facets of the equine industry, racing , breeding sales ,beach ride strings etc. There is much ugliness & down right ripping off of horse liking people! The 2 trainers you mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. It`s always about how much $$$ can be sucked out of horse interested people sadly. Vets, drug companies, trainers , stables are almost all $$$ grubbing outfits one way or another. Insurance companies are just as bad for equine operations too with not taking into account responsible small farms such as ours. Premiums on our small farm have DOUBLED this year with no claims for 25+ years with several carriers. In our state the thoroughbred industry is almost dead with our farm now having 25% of all the sires in our state! Never thought that would happen when we started in 1978.

  • November 24, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    It is young horses who delight in using themselves. I have seen a first-day-of-life filly turned out in a paddock gallop up and pop over an 18-inch jump left set up in the middle. I’ve seen a weanling climb over a post-and-rail as though it was a ladder.

    Do animal rights people think being a racehorse is a fate worse than death? For all their talk about alternate careers, there is no market for 20,000 thoroughbreds annually that retire from racing or never got to start and that are not going to stud.

    Are they kidding themselves or do they think they are kidding us? They are not talking about doing “something else” with the foal crop, they are talking about the extinction of the TB.

    And, btw, they are already given the basics of an after-track career. Starter dressage is the foundation of all horse sports or occupations. Start, faster, slower, stop, left, right, back. They are also perfect with their feet, used to loading and trailering, accustomed to the impertinence of vets.

    • November 25, 2020 at 9:57 am

      ” For all their talk about alternate careers, there is no market for 20,000 thoroughbreds annually that retire from racing or never got to start and that are not going to stud”.
      What you have just said is a cogent argument for the thoroughbred industry working in a more coherent and organised way with the leisure horse industry. Perhaps there could be limits on the number of thoroughbred foals produced, so that no more are foaled than can reasonably be rehomed after racing? Perhaps some serious concerns around the abuse of juvenile physiology – and if it were really harmless to race a two year old then other horse sports would have their horses out and working at that age too, and of course they don’t – could be de-fanged by not allowing a horse to start in his or her first race until three years after their actual date of birth?
      Despite your remarks about “starter dressage” it is perfectly possible for a horse to come out of racing too ill schooled to be at all safe as a sports horse for most riders. Some trainers educate their horses better than others.
      None of these measures will result in “the extinction of the thoroughbred”.

      • November 23, 2021 at 12:35 pm

        Other horse sports are a few months behind young thoroughbreds being prepared to race, whose growth is forced, but other horse sports are also preparing them to carry twice as much weight and work for hours, not two minutes. Maximum weight up for a race rider carrying his/her racing tack is 126, and it never falls on the horse’s back. The race rider is suspended over the horse’s back with the weight distributed through the tack.

        This conversation has some strange ideas about frequency. There is a grudging admission that horses will, once in a while, go for a run, but never often and never for a long time. Compared to what? Race horses are lucky if they get a brief gallop every day, and a brisk one once a week. Horses that perform at their maximum speed do so three or four times a year.

        The rehoming of OTTBs is not a repeat business. If someone has acquired a well-suited new OTTB, he has a partner for his sport for 10 years or so. When we began to seek out and service the very small market for elite sports prospects, it was like the end of the war. Boys were coming home and getting married; the birthrate was playing catchup; everybody was looking to buy a house. It was a spike. They weren’t a repeat market, and neither will be the market for our OTTBs. If our customers are looking for another horse next year, what has happened to their first one?

  • November 24, 2021 at 12:18 pm

    In response to Cass Dean, as an owner, non-pro exhibitor and advocate, I know only too well what can happen ‘to the first horse’ as riders transition, want to move up, sell or even discard their horses. A look at feed lots in States where racing exists, tells a sad story. When I lived in Ontario, Canada I frequented the Waterloo Livestock Exchange where all breeds, disciplines and ages of horses were sold by the pound. The number of Race horses, both Thoroughbred and Standardbreds was alarming. I purchased by first OTTB there, named Old Gunflint, whose pedigree went back to Native Dancer. I have colleagues in the USA , from one end of the Nation to the other, who work tirelessly to rescue unwanted horses, many of which are Thoroughbreds. In contrast, the elite level of horses in Western Performance events such as Cutting and Reining can command astronomically high purchase prices. Their popularity is driven by huge prize money offered at the Futurities and Derbies. And yes, the horses destined for these Show arenas are started at a young age, carry the full weight pf riders on their backs, and put into work well before their bodies and minds have matured. It is a Seller’s market when an AQHA / APHA prospect can bring $125,000.00 +/- USD. But there can be light at the end of the tunnel, as breeding number decline and the balance between supply and demand levels. I maintain hope for the horse industry. We are privileged to associate with these noble animals. It is the human attitudes and perspectives which need a rework.


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