Horseracing And Beliefs About Naturalness
Public concerns about horse racing have brought the industry to a virtual standstill globally (and in decline in some countries), with animal welfare being the theme of an annual international horse racing conference in 2019. Prior interviews with industry representatives revealed their concerns over publicly visible welfare issues, such as injuries and deaths, use of medicinal drugs, and the retirement of horses. In the same study, animal advocates also acknowledged welfare issues to do with everyday training, husbandry, and interactions with humans. All these welfare issues have one theme in common – the extent to which they are natural for the racehorse.
This concept of naturalness is key to animal welfare as it is generally assumed that good welfare is achieved when animals can perform natural behaviours, live a natural lifespan, and live in an environment that resembles their wild counterparts. Indeed, research on public attitudes finds naturalness to be a top welfare priority, including among horse guardians. However, what is considered natural varies from person to person, which can then impact perceptions on acceptable animal-use practices. As such, new research compares ideas of naturalness between horse racing representatives and animal advocates, and investigates how these impact perceptions of horse racing, and consequently, horse welfare.
In this qualitative study, organizations associated with the International Federation of Horeseracing Authorities and animal advocacy organizations, who have published information on the topic of horse racing, were contacted. A total of 16 individuals participated – nine from industry and seven from advocacy. Most of these groups were based in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. No other demographics of the participants were reported. Participants were interviewed about their thoughts on what the racehorse and naturalness mean for them, as well as what the most natural activity for the racehorse is. They were then presented with four photographs of racehorses that portrayed a common practice that potentially compromised the horse’s welfare. Photos were chosen from hundreds of photos from different races for their depiction of a racehorse’s emotional or behavioural response. For instance, photos included a saddled horse being led by a handler, a saddled horse who was mounted by a jockey and surrounded by many handlers, and a close-up of a horse’s face in which a tongue-tie (i.e., an elastic band that ties a horse’s tongue around their lower jaw) was visible. Upon seeing the photo, interviewees were asked to describe what they saw and their immediate reaction to it.
Different responses emerged between the two groups. While industry representatives generally viewed the racehorse as an athlete who was bred to perform, animal advocates saw them as animals who are instead exploited and used as a status symbol for humans. As well, industry participants viewed horse racing as natural while animal advocates saw any riding activity as unnatural. In fact, animal advocates questioned the naturalness of the overall environment of the racehorse, including the human-horse relationship. In response to the photos, industry interviewees typically used positive terms to describe horses’ responses (e.g., eager and excited), as if they were enthusiastic to race. They also viewed the tongue-tie (which is aversive to the horse, as reviewed by the author), as being a visual problem rather than a welfare problem, explaining that the public would not understand its purpose. In contrast, advocates were quick to point out the welfare of the horses and how it could have been impacted by the handlers, tack, and other environmental factors. Moreover, they even said that the public should view photos of tongue-ties to understand their negative impact on horse welfare. Most importantly, the author argued that the industry’s perception of horse racing as being natural then allows them to ignore or tone down any impact of racing on horse welfare.
While the study shows contrasting views between animal advocates and the horse racing industry, the photo-elicitation task was prone to confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret information that is consistent with one’s beliefs. As well, it is unknown how widespread these opposing views are since no data on demographics were reported, aside from the country of the organizations. Regardless, the author argues that the legitimacy of the horse racing industry will continue to be questioned, especially with increasing shifts of public attitudes towards naturalness as a focus of animal welfare. In other words, a holistic notion of naturalness can critique every aspect of the horse racing industry, from strict training regimes, confined conditions, and breeding practices, to the act of racing itself. Indeed, upon seeing a photo or video of horse racing, ask yourself, “what is so natural about this?”