Is Racing ‘Natural?’ Industry Participants And Animal Advocates Respond

Thoroughbred industry participants and animal welfare advocates often have differing views over how natural racing truly is. Those involved in the racing industry often say that “horses love to race,” even when presented with equine behaviors that don’t support this idea. Industry enthusiasts also tend to claim that horses are hardwired to run if given the opportunity. This claim is unsubstantiated as horses in the wild spend the majority of their time grazing and walking, rarely galloping, researchers report.

University of Sydney researcher Dr. Iris Bergmann notes that the equation between horses moving freely and the regimented training protocol many racehorses undergo seems to be flawed. Bergmann created a study, recently published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Animals, in which researchers interviewed nine Thoroughbred senior and executive-level industry participants from the United States and Australia, as well as from one international organization. Seven people affiliated with animal advocacy groups also participated. They were from Australia, Britain and the United States.

Bergmann showed each participant four racing-related images (which can be seen here) and sought their opinions. She found that the people involved in the racing industry used assumptions of Thoroughbred nature as explanations for their expressions and behaviors; for example, that the horses are “hot” and needed various methods and means to control them.

For Bergmann, this implies that those involved in the industry normalize and occasionally downplay the behavior and expression of Thoroughbreds. Industry participants viewed the images they were shown more as visual issues than equine welfare problems, holding to the idea that the horse is actually excited and ready to race. Bergmann notes that this reaction is consistent with the view that racing is a natural activity for Thoroughbreds.

Study participants from the animal welfare organizations felt that Thoroughbreds have become a product of human breeding. These individuals viewed the images as expressions of stress and anxiety. They reported that they felt these horses were “hot” because of the practices used on them to encourage them to race. These advocates also cited a problem with the images, but they feel it involved the lack of public visibility of other welfare issues facing racing Thoroughbreds.

Bergmann’s study concluded that the way “naturalness” for horses is viewed directly impacts the welfare of racing Thoroughbreds; the problem is much broader than what those involved in the industry consider attention-worthy. Bergmann believes that the industry’s limited interest in addressing common handling, training and racing practices poses significant threats to Thoroughbred welfare and questions the legitimacy of the industry as a whole.

Read the full study here.

Read more at HorseTalk.

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