He Loves To Race – Or Does He? Ethics And Welfare In Horseracing
There is a general agreement in animal welfare literature that the horse racing industry is guided by anthropocentric ends, and that poses a problem for welfare advocates. It’s something that we’ve covered to varying degrees in our library, and though horseracing has been on the ropes lately, it still persists.
In this study, researchers interviewed nine people within the horse racing industry in Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, as well as seven horse protection advocates in the same nations. The horseracing workers were people who served in various roles within the industry, including racetracks, breeding organizations, and regulatory bodies. They generally take what the author calls a “stewardship” model, in which it’s reasonable to tame and train animals for human ends as long as the humans involved treat the animals well.
Of course, it’s questionable whether the human end of the relationship is being upheld in mainstream horseracing. As conceptions of animal welfare shift from mere material ends – food, water, shelter, medicine – to holistic ends that include the animals’ mental well-being and agency, horseracing struggles to adapt.
The industry people tended to focus on physical welfare indicators like injury and disease prevention, husbandry conditions, and post-racing care. Mental health, natural behaviors, and animal agency were rarely mentioned, if at all. At least one made the claim that the horses want to run – that racing is a natural behavior for them – which is a claim that’s disputed by animal behavior experts. One industry worker did mention that they try to respect the animals’ individuality – that some horses aren’t born racers, and would be better served by being placed in a home that catered to their nature. This was one example of respecting the autonomy and agency of the horses, but the researchers noted concern that only one person broached the topic.
The problem with broadening conceptions of welfare in the racing industry is quite simple: within the industry, performance comes first. This singular focus not only disrespects the animals’ agency, but creates physical hazards as well. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is common, and some increase the risk of injury by masking symptoms of illness or injury until catastrophe occurs. This drug problem is exacerbated by a lack of uniform rules and regulations, at least in the US.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the animal welfare respondents were far more likely to mention naturalness and agency. They also raised more red flags that were not mentioned by the industry people, such as the overbreeding of horses, which results in a massive surplus of animals that need to be rehomed regularly. Furthermore, breeding focuses on speed and power above all else, which has made horses more injury prone as their bones are unable to handle the increased muscular load.
Overall, there is a clear disconnect between industry people and welfare experts. While all agree that physical well-being is an important part of animal welfare, the industry people were less likely to recognize mental health, agency, and naturalness as needing consideration. The industry presents itself as the premier expert on what is good and right for horses, and uses this perception to strengthen itself against animal welfare criticisms. Animal advocates need to take on this perception by exposing the conflicts of interest inherent in using animals for entertainment in this way, as well as the general lack of knowledge about current animal welfare standards within the industry. With the horseracing industry currently in a precarious state, now would be a good time to push it to an end.