Disparate views impact the future of horseracing

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.




Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.


  1. Valuable research by Iris Bergmann – Whether it acknowledges or not, Thoroughbred racing must re-think so many of its practices, many of which are sub-optimal anyway because they are based on anecdotal rather than scientific evidence. As such, these practices should be termed deviant, but in an industry that is so institutionalized that it effectively eschews learning, these practices are normal. Vaughan’s term, the “normalization of deviance” captures the industry’s behaviour rather well I think.

    • Completely agree Gerard. I’m an owner and we train off the farm so our horses have regular turnout and experience a variety of exercise including trail riding. The traditional racetrackers are rather closed -minded to differing approaches of training and care. The tracks have instituted policies that nearly prohibit backyarders to train in our manner and I feel the horses are the ones that suffer from the regulations made by the men in suits that run the racetracks.

    • The Horse Racing Industry now suffers from “Normalization of Deviants”-a phrase which defined the failure within the NASA space program which lead to the Challenger’s blowing up with several astronauts and a school teacher on board. The heat deflecting tiles of the nosecone kept falling off but they did nothing to stop it because, even though they knew it was “wrong” it became accepted as “normal” because it happened all the time. Constant Race horse fatalities absent trainer accountability, administrative authorities manipulation instead of enforcement of rules are primary examples of the corruption (tiles falling off the nosecone) which is accepted as “normal” in the horse racing industry.

      Unless today’s trainers quickly become good enough horsemen to end their dependency on drugs and figure out how to condition horses without destroying their soundness horse racing will continue its downward spiral into HORSE HELL. Every horse which is made unsound or killed from over-training is another tile falling off the nosecone.

  2. It’s the Peter people that do not understand horses and horse racing and training a horse to its top performance who’s work they don’t understand that without who if you have no horse from the ground up injury start they need to learn how to make a hard upcoming of how to make a horse show us true potentials

  3. Garbage in, garbage out. Another study whose outcome was predetermined before it even began.

    We live in a world where too many live in a bubble and spend all their time associating with other fellow travelers.

    Just feed them red meat and keep them happy. In this case, feed them a proper vegetarian snack.

    Wait, plants also have a right to exist and not be groomed to be consumed by self-righteous Social Justice Warriors.

  4. Whips or crops should not be used in any shape or form .merely fining these jockeys is a slap on the wrist if you are serious about protecting these beautiful animals take the whips or crops out of this game forever and make the jockeys do the job they are getting paid so generously to do.i was once a groom for 10 years and I saw what happens to these horses during the race and it should not be allowed.

  5. Maybe Iris Bergmann should petition to ban dog owners from taking their dog for a walk on a lead. When a dog takes fright or tries to get away from the owner should they let it go so it doesn’t get choked by the resistance against it’s neck. ???

  6. The funny thing is it’s a French woman and they eat horses over in France so I can’t believe anything this story says

  7. Ms Bergmann started her study with a preconceived notion about the treatment of racehorses. I’ve spent my entire life with horses, kid’s horses, show horses, pleasure horses, broodmares, foals and stallions of most breeds, as well as racehorses both Standardbred and Thoroughbred.
    She uses a picture of an excited horse moving away from the handler as if that action only happens because the horse is afraid, the truth is horses of all ilks will take that action if they desire to be somewhere else. Stand in a field and hold a normally calm horse when the rest of the herd is playing, racing around you.
    Horses will open their mouths from pain from a bit, they also open their mouths to get away from the bit. A snaffle is the most commonly used bit in race horses, it is considered the mildest bit made, used on many breeds for starting young horses because of that.
    Tongue ties are frequently used on race horses because when excited they will pull their tongues back which can result in them getting the bit under the tongue injuring the bars of their mouth, causing a loss of control, or in extreme cases, that action will result in the tongue blocking their airways stopping them from breathing.
    Riding crops are an aid. They have a flat section at end that makes noise when it strikes the horse or the saddle cloth, that noise is its purpose. U.S. racing officials watch for excessive whip use and a jockey can be set down when caught. One also needs to recognize that although a horse’s skin is sensitive enough to feel the touch of a fly, it is amazingly tough. I have seen the boss mare in a herd who became incensed at an underling’s ignoring her warnings, charge that horse full speed mouth wide open and hit her so hard she knocked her sideways. All that underling lost was a little hair and her arrogance.
    Horses think like horses, equating their thought processes or actions to what a human thinks or feels does them and the people who love them a disservice.

    • I agree whole heartedly I have been in the equine business for 35 years and have seen good and bad in all aspects of the industry. I think most people working in the equine field do it out of love for the horse. God knows it is not to get rich 😊

  8. I owned a thoroughbred for 25years taking her on as a 3 year old, we grew together and learnt from one another our likes and dislikes you can never force a horse to do something if its dead against it, or if it is in pain, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water etc., the thoroughbred was built for speed, any horse loves racing, going out on a hack with friends you can mix with several breeds they all love that canter together.. how many horses have gone to the starting post and just stand there whilst the others are off and away.. it doesn’t suit every horse, and in my experience it will soon let you know!!! This lady needs to get involved for a year in racing at an English yard and get some experience, then she may know what she is writing about….

  9. People outside the track have NO clue. They have no right to judge what they aren’t professional at. That’s like letting children judge adults. Maybe people should start worrying about what they know, not what they THINK they know. I’ve seen more abuse to the horses by the illegal immigrants than the trainers

  10. First 4 pictures out of a thousand. These people need to come work in a racing stable and witness the sacrifice we go through seven days a week taking care of these horses . We will starve ourselves to make sure horses get everything they need. I didn’t go to the dentist for 25 years but my horses didn’t miss a year and most years twice. They are bred to run and the great majority love their work. The ones that don’t we find them homes. I just kept a horse six months before I let him go when the right home came along. These horses are like our kids, we give them great care, come work in a stable before you attack our way of life.

  11. People need to find better things to do with there time. Thorobreeds love to run most of these horses are treated better than half the children of the world. Maybe the so called judges of everything we do look in the mirror and worry about there own lives. I’ll take a line from an old beatles song ” live and let live” after all who died and made you all god. ( My horses love to run and are treated with respect and cared for with the best technologies available.) So go find something else to to bitch about. There’s plenty of things in the world they can fix believe many things are broken but horse racing isn’t one of them.

  12. The people that are screaming the most about the so called mistreatment to thoroughbreds in the racing industry know very little to nothing about horses or the industry, they just want to be heard giving their unsubstantiated views

  13. Thoroughbred horses are the most well taken care of breed on the planet. It’s a Kings Sport. If you do not understand that then you have no business commenting.
    98.9% of all thoroughbreds of racing age lives a kings life. The stature of the 98.9%far outweigh any other percentage.

  14. Why is it that the animal activists get their names in their face everywhere they want to all they want to do is screw everybody else out of what is done with animals including farmers.
    If they have their way, no one breed horses

  15. Everything the racing people is very cruel to the horse, they those people should be treated the same way, I would not be surprised if they treated their children like they do those poor horses.


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