Depending on their connection with horse racing, different people have different views about what’s “natural.” And that, according to one researcher, is having a major impact on the future of the sport.

While racing industry leaders might consider it “natural” for a horse to gape its mouth open under tight bit pressure or to act “eager” when he excitedly moves away from a handler who’s holding him by the bridle, and therefore see no reason for concern; animal advocates tend to disagree. For them, the horse’s behavior is  a cause of unnatural conditions and an expression of stress or pain. And until the horse’s nature is taken into consideration, they believe horseracing lacks respect for who and what horses are, significantly threatening their welfare.

Such “dissonance” between the industry and animal advocates, as well as the general public, puts into question the industry’s legitimacy and its social licence to operate, according to Iris Bergmann, PhD researcher at the University of Sydney.

“We live in an era where the protection of the interests of animals has become the new social justice movement,” Bergmann said.

“Moreover, our knowledge of how horses experience their lifeworlds and what is being done to them is growing constantly. With animal welfare, we express how we see ourselves in relation to others—the horses in this case. And vice versa, we express how we see others—that is, the horses—in relation to ourselves.”

In  her recent study, Bergmann spoke with nine racing industry professionals and seven representatives of animal advocacy groups in English-speaking countries about horseracing practices.

She selected four photos from a stock of nearly 1000 that represented common scenes on a race day. These included one unmounted horse avoiding contact from a handler holding his reins, a close-up of a ridden horse’s face with an open mouth while his rider keeps a tight rein, a mounted horse showing signs of stress while being surrounded by several people on the ground, and a facial close-up of a mounted horse opening his mouth and revealing his tongue attached with a tongue-tie.

Bergmann recorded, analysed, and compared the interview responses between the two groups of respondents. In particular, she viewed them within the “Layers of Engagement with Animal Protection” framework that she had developed in a previous study.

While there were exceptional outliers, racing industry leaders generally normalized what they saw in the photos, according to Bergmann. They either described the situation within the context of a Thoroughbred’s “natural” desire to race, or they qualified the scene as representing the nature of a horse that’s a product of specialised breeding for the industry and that doesn’t fully fit into the category of other horses and what ‘nature’ is, she said.

“They mostly did not regard the Thoroughbred as ‘nature’ anymore but as a product of human breeding, bred to race and wanting to race,” Bergmann said. “This reflects an instrumental view of the horse and allows racing people to rationalise the commonplace practices and interventions and not see the implications for what they are, from the perspective of the horse.”

Bergmann said she was surprised to not have “more subtleties” in the responses from the industry, she said. “The depicted practices were mostly defended and explained as normal and natural. They were trivialised and downplayed or ignored. So here were racing people active in key roles for reform mostly defending the status quo when it came to common racing practices. There were some exceptions (as discussed in the academic publication), but overall, a clear pattern emerged in the data.”

As for the animal advocacy leaders, on the other hand, they expressed concern that the horse’s nature was being violated in each photo and that these violations underscored inherent ethical issues with horseracing, said Bergmann.

As the public fights back against industry practices, calling into question specific techniques such as tongue ties and criticizing high injury and fatality rates, horseracing may find that it’s losing its social licence to operate, if it ever had one, Bergmann said.

“Racing horses as we know it with all that it entails is not consistent with the change required of us to transition toward a sustainable future,” she said. “The very purpose of horseracing is to have horses perform at and beyond their natural limits, which is facilitated with invasive legal and illegal means. This bears high risk of harm for horses, and, therefore, racing’s social licence will always be questioned.”

It’s always possible to make improvements, however, she added. Taking into consideration what’s driving public concern, industry leaders could make changes that that could gain approval in the public eye and reduce current levels of harm inherent in horseracing.

“The industry already knows what it needs to do when it comes to drugs and doping, break-downs, regulation, transparency, enforcement, retirement, and the lot,” she said.

“My research has shown that while the industry persists, there are two other broad areas that also need to be addressed: The culture within racing that facilitates abuse and resists reform, and common racing practices. Attention to common racing practices includes the need to recognise that the horse-human relationship also has profound welfare implications which needs to be addressed for effective change as long as racing exists.”

The notion of racing’s social licence has global relevance as horseracing spreads out into new territories, taking its practices—and reputation—along with it, said Bergmann. “We should also keep in mind that the thoroughbred industry is an industry with global reach,” she explained.

“The industry is investing into exporting breeding and racing into nations where these activities have not been part of the social and cultural fabric before. This globalisation of racing means it has an impact on and is intertwined with many nations, communities and economies.”

Overall, it’s a struggle that inherently involves both culture and an awareness of right and wrong, according to Bergmann.

“Racing is deeply entwined with and reliant on the common good,” she said. “It uses it and it needs the public and public institutions to support its enterprise. Therefore, there is a need to address the dissonances that have become increasingly evident and publicly discussed—that is, the dissonances between the industry’s pursuits and the horses’ interests, and the industry’s treatment of the horses and society’s values.

“We need to protect nature and animals, move away from instrumentalism, and adapt our values and attitudes accordingly,” Bergmann continued.

“We need to understand that we are not separate from nature but deeply intertwined with and dependent on nature. This needs to be reflected in all our activities and decisions impacting animals, and in our horse-human relationships.”

This open access study is published in Animals and titled: Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Thoroughbred Racing: A Photo-Elicitation Study with Industry and Animal Advocacy Informants by Iris M. Bergmann. You can read the full paper here.