New Publication: Thoroughbred Welfare, Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Racing

Posted on August 28th, 2020

My latest article has just been published: Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Thoroughbred Racing: A Photo-Elicitation Study with Industry and Animal Advocacy Informants. It has always been very interesting to me to see what kind of images of horses involved in racing the racing industry has used for their messaging. I kept wondering: Don’t they really look at the horse? Are they not worried about the kind of story the horse is telling the outside world about common racing practices? Turns out in some cases they are.

My recently published study, “Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Thoroughbred Racing: A Photo-Elicitation Study with Industry and Animal Advocacy Informants”, brings into spotlight the impact of common racing practices and the racing industry’s non-recognition of these impacts. It also brings into spotlight the notion of naturalness that appears to gain prominence in the animal welfare literature, and that is an important marker for what the general public considers to be a good animal life.

The study has also further developed a diagnostic tool that can be used to interrogate a discourse in terms of whose interests the particular discourse serves – the animals’ or any others’ interests. This tool can be important because often, the lines are being blurred and so it can assist conceptual awareness and preparedness. The study concludes that the legitimacy of thoroughbred racing will be increasingly questioned as the discourse about common racing practices, animal welfare and protection, and naturalness advances in society at large.

Have you ever looked at images of thoroughbreds in racing and wondered what it actually is that you see?

It is intriguing to see the nature of the images of horses on raceday racing outlets use for their messaging. One might wonder: Doesn’t anybody really look at the horse? Isn’t anybody worried about the kind of story the horse is telling the outside world about common racing practices?

The international thoroughbred industry is concerned about the public’s perception of racing. Their priorities are to address the publicly most visible and known welfare violations. Their attention is focussed on The Big 3: Drugs and medication in racing, injury and death on the racetrack and “wastage” (the fate of thoroughbreds no longer used in racing). But what about common racing practices? Many common day-to-day racing practices also impact thoroughbred welfare.

In this study, I set out to find out how key stakeholders in thoroughbred welfare view common images of thoroughbreds on raceday who display some kind of response to common racing practices. For this study, key industry informants and animal advocacy informants were invited to participate. For the interviews, photographs of thoroughbreds on raceday were used which the informants were asked to describe. “What is it that you see?”

Mostly, the two groups saw something different in the thoroughbred’s behavioural and emotional expressions. They saw differences in the impact of tack, in particular the bits. They assign different relevance to the horse-human interaction and the potential impact of the human on the horse.

I tried to work out what role ideas of naturalness play in what is seen, the idea that horses “love to race”, whether there is an ontological difference made between the thoroughbred and the horse, and what can be done to better protect horses in racing. Some of the impacts of some common practices on the thoroughbreds that are largely unrecognised as a welfare problem are also discussed.

In this study, the concept of naturalness, the idea of what is natural, was used as a lens for the analysis. I have also applied and further developed an analytical tool, the Eight Layers of Engagement with Animal Protection, to add another level of analysis. Both can be adopted to interrogate other human-animal relationships, multispecies communities and animal industries.

Next time you see a thoroughbred in person or in an image on raceday, perhaps ask yourself what it is that you see, before and after you have read this article…

Bergmann, Iris M. 2020. Naturalness and the Legitimacy of Thoroughbred Racing: A Photo-Elicitation Study with Industry and Animal Advocacy Informants. Animals 10(9): 1513. DOI: 10.3390/ani10091513.


Last edited 01/09/2020

Just published in the journal Sustainability

Posted on October 25th, 2019

So pleased to see this published. What kept me going was the desire to give the horses in the racing industry a voice.

Bergmann, Iris M. 2019. Interspecies Sustainability to Ensure Animal Protection: Lessons from the Thoroughbred Racing Industry. Sustainability 11(19), 5539.

Abstract: There is a disconnect between dominant conceptions of sustainability and the protection of animals arising from the anthropocentric orientation of most conceptualisations of sustainability, including sustainable development. Critiques of this disconnect are primarily based in the context of industrial animal agriculture and a general model of a species-inclusive conception of sustainability has yet to emerge. The original contribution of this article is two-fold: First, it develops a theoretical framework for interspecies sustainability. Second, it applies this to a case study of the thoroughbred racing industry. Interviews were conducted with thoroughbred industry and animal advocacy informants in the US, Australia and Great Britain. While industry informants claim thoroughbred welfare is seminal for industry sustainability, they adopt a market-oriented anthropocentric conception of sustainability and do not consider animal welfare a sustainability domain in its own right. Animal advocacy informants demonstrate a deeper understanding of welfare but some express discomfort about linking sustainability, welfare and racing. Eight analytical layers have been identified in the discourse in the interface of sustainability and animal protection, of which two have transformational potential to advance interspecies sustainability. Interspecies sustainability urgently needs to be advanced to ensure animal protection in the sustainability transition, and to not leave the defining of animal welfare and sustainability to animal industries.

Abstract: He Loves to Race – or Does He? Ethics and Welfare in Racing

Posted on April 29th, 2019

So wonderful to receive this book with my chapter in the mail!

Abstract:  This chapter explores how representatives of the thoroughbred racing industry conceptualise thoroughbred welfare, what their ethical underpinnings are, how this contrasts with welfare conceptions expressed by thoroughbred protection advocates and what this means for thoroughbred welfare. The research presented here is part of a larger study that investigates the future for horses in thoroughbred racing and the sustainability of welfare concepts. Nine industry representatives from the US and Australia, and seven representatives of thoroughbred advocacy organisations from the US, Australia and Great Britain, have been interviewed. Industry informants characterise welfare mainly in terms of basic health and functioning. The welfare dimensions of thoroughbred agency, integrity and telos are largely ignored. Three main groups of welfare issues emerge: the use and potential overuse of drugs and medication; injuries and death on the racetrack; and the aftercare of thoroughbreds exiting the industry. It appears the industry pursues three objectives with their welfare initiatives: to address only the most egregious welfare violations of industry practices on and off the track; to influence the public’s perception of the industry and its treatment of the thoroughbred; and to focus on productivity, efficiency and optimisation of the commodifiable characteristics of the thoroughbred. It is not likely that this will result in net gains for thoroughbred welfare.

(Abstract for indexing purposes, not included in published version.)

Bergmann, Iris. 2019. “He Loves to Race – or Does He? Ethics and Welfare in Racing.” In Equine Cultures in Transition: Ethical Questions, 1st edition, edited by Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson and Ulla Ekström von Essen. Routledge Advances in Sociology. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 117-133.

DOI: 10.4324/9781351002479-9    Pre-proof

Last edited 25.10.2019

Book Chapter in “Equine Cultures in Transition: Ethical Questions”

Posted on November 5th, 2018

Cover of book: Equine Cultures in Transition, Ethical Questions, 1st Edition

The wonderful team of editors in Stockholm, Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson and Ulla Ekström von Essen, have compiled a book titled “Equine Cultures in Transition: Ethical Questions”, in publication by Routledge, with 16 intriguing chapters, mostly drawing on presenters of the Equine Cultures conference in Stockholm in 2016. I am proud to be part of this volume and am looking forward to seeing the finished publication, due in January 2019.

With my chapter: “He Loves to Race – or does He? Ethics and Welfare in Racing”, I present part of the results of my interview study involving nine thoroughbred racing industry representatives from the US and Australia, and seven representatives of thoroughbred advocacy organisations from the US, Australia and Great Britain.

The results of my study published in this chapter show that thoroughbred welfare is conceptualised by the participants in three groups of welfare issues:

  • the use and potential overuse of drugs and medication;
  • injuries and death on the racetrack; and
  • the aftercare of thoroughbreds exiting the industry.

Furthermore, it appears that the thoroughbred racing industry pursues three objectives with their welfare initiatives:

  • to address the most egregious welfare violations of industry practices on and off the track;
  • to influence the public’s perception of the industry and its treatment of the thoroughbred; and
  • to focus on productivity, efficiency and optimisation of the commodifiable characteristics of the thoroughbred.

In conclusion, some of the welfare initiatives can be expected to benefit individual thoroughbreds, but it is not clear whether this will lead to net gains for thoroughbred welfare in the racing industry overall.

The book’s chapters are arranged under five themes, with my chapter included under “Problematic practices?” (the other practice addressed here is dressage). The four other themes are Horses at work; Leadership, power, and training methodology; Negotiations in contemporary dressage; and Horse keeping.

Citation: Bergmann, Iris. 2019. He Loves to Race – or Does He? Ethics and Welfare in Racing. In Equine Cultures in Transition: Ethical Questions, 1st edition, edited by Jonna Bornemark, Petra Andersson and Ulla Ekström von Essen. Routledge Advances in Sociology. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 117-133.  Pre-proof.

Last edited 25.10.2019

Invited Talk – ITBF Congress in Cape Town 6-12.1.2017

Posted on February 14th, 2017

Iris presenting at the ITBF 2017 Congress in Cape Town

Presenting at the ITBF 2017 Congress in Cape Town

I had been given the opportunity to present the first findings of my interview study to an industry group. The International Thoroughbred Breeders Federation (ITBF) had invited me to speak at their Annual Congress in Cape Town 6-12 January 2017. A video recording of my presentation can be viewed online here.

An article with an overview of my talk appeared as a teaser to the event in the Sportingpost of South Africa.

The ITBF has funded my travel and accommodation to Cape Town to deliver the invited presentation. The research however has been independently funded through a University of Sydney Postgraduate Scholarship, out of an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (ARC DP130104933).

In the Media – Epona.tv

Posted on January 31st, 2017

Sustainability, Welfare and Thoroughbred Racing on EponaTV

 

Following my talk in Stockholm at the Equine Cultures in Transition Conference, Julie Taylor from Epona.tv asked for an interview.

In the interview with her, while I was thinking through the issues we were discussing, I have (re-)discovered yet another overlap between the animal welfare and the sustainability debate. As she summarises in her intro:

“How our unacknowledged value systems muddle the debate”

“Sustainability” is something of a buzz word in the horse industries. But it means different things to different people, as does the word “welfare”. And until we each investigate and lay open our values regarding horses, we cannot have a meaningful debate about right and wrong, says University of Sydney’s Dr. Iris Bergman, whose research is mapping out exactly what divides horse welfare advocates and industry stake holders in the animal rights and welfare debate.

Last edited 17.8.2018: Link to interview updated due to migration of Epona.tv site

Equine Cultures in Transition Conference, Stockholm 2016

Posted on November 29th, 2016

Thoroughbred at the starting gate of a race, Iffezheim, 2015. Photo: Iris Bergmann

Thoroughbred at the starting gate of a race, Iffezheim, 2015. Photo: IB

I have attended the Conference “Equine Cultures in Transition – Human-horse relationships in theory and practice: changing concepts of interaction and ethics”, in Stockholm, 27-29 October 2016. The conference had been organised by the Centre for Studies in Practical Knowledge, and was held at the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. Although it was not framed as such, this conference did make a valuable contribution to the range of questions that need to be addressed to advance the transition to a truly sustainable future, where sustainability extends to human-animal relationships. Viewed with that perspective in mind, the conference also demonstrated the seminal role of the social sciences and the humanities in advancing the sustainability transition.

This conference overall presented a rather holistic approach to human-animal relationships. Although the ongoing use of horses for human purposes was still in the foreground and approved, there was a lot of soul searching and questioning of our relationship with horses. The majority of the 60+ presenters were riders (leisure and competition riders), and therapists using horses. There apparently were also some who opposed riding horses (although I have not met one as far as I am aware). One of the therapists had decided to sell her therapy horses as her doubts about this practice had increased during the course of doing her PhD on this topic. (I would like to think she wished she could have been able to retire them at her place.)

I was most intrigued by individuals experimenting with more open, free-form human-horse relationships, where the aim is to facilitate the horse taking a leadership role in horse-human interactions, including in the practice of  horse riding.

In my talk, I presented preliminary results of the interview study of my project. I focused on the mental models of thoroughbred welfare held by industry participants and those held by representatives of animal protection organisations who engage with thoroughbred welfare in racing. I compared the mental models of welfare of these two groups and related them to conceptions of sustainability.

During the wrap-up of the conference, Lynda Birke (Universities of Chester and Glyndwr, UK) summarised the emerging themes as follows:

  • A desire for the horse’s voice to be heard with implications for methodological and ethical issues, and with an acknowledgment of the need for mixed-method approaches.
  • A search for ethical frameworks for our interaction with horses.
  • Accountability: The desire to make research matter, and being accountable to the subjects of the research – in terms of what is the impact on the horses, and humans, involved.

There was plenty of enthusiasm to continue with this conference stream under the same title, with the word going around that the next one might be held at Leeds, UK, in 2018.

Last edited 13.11.2018

Symposium on the Ethics and Business of Thoroughbred Racing held in Germany

Posted on January 27th, 2016

It is about a year ago that the German publisher “Hippiatrika” had invited me onto their conference board to contribute to the planning of the German Equine Veterinary Symposium in 2015. It is not often that ‘the industry’ reaches out to animal studies scholars and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to play a part in this event.

Hippiatrika holds their symposia on Equine Veterinary Medicine annually, and last year, the topic was “Business and Ethics of Racing and The Role of the Veterinarian” (Conference Brochure pdf 400KB). I had attended a seminar held by Racing Victoria of the same title in August 2014, and thus this seminar here in Victoria had unexpectedly provided inspiration across the globe to Germany.

The Hippiatrika Symposium was held in English, with participants and presenters coming from Germany, Ireland, the UK, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. It took place in Baden-Baden, Germany, 28-30 August 2015, and coincided with the races in Iffezheim.

I had been invited to give two talks. The first talk focussed on sustainability as a framework for thoroughbred protection, and the second one on the welfare model espoused by the thoroughbred racing industry, as it emerges from a content analysis of industry websites. The first talk is based on my paper published in the Hippiatrika journal “Pferdeheilkunde”. “Pferdeheilkunde” is the peer-reviewed journal of the Equine Medical Section of the German Veterinary Association. The publisher kindly allowed me to make the article available (pdf 130KB). Abstracts of most of the other talks of the event in Germany are published in the same issue of the journal.

Last edited 16.9.2016

Thoroughbred Welfare and Sustainability at Minding Animals 3

Posted on December 31st, 2014

Bay at a jumpsrace at Bendigo, Australia, 2014

At a jumps race at Bendigo, Australia, 2014

In only 13 days, I will be travelling to Delhi to present a paper at MAC3, the Minding Animals Conference 2015, titled Thoroughbred racing and the sustainability of welfare concepts.

For most of its existence, the thoroughbred racing industry has taken the thoroughbreds and the public for granted. Thoroughbreds die on racetracks and in training and death is accepted as part of the business model of thoroughbred racing. As veteran Australian horse trainer O’Connor states in 2014:

We lose one occasionally, that’s a fact and it can’t be helped. They lose the occasional horse on the flat.

Racing Victoria (2010) is known to have set key performance indicators in the past that included an acceptable death rate for jumps racing. Apart from death, thoroughbreds are exposed to a great number of other serious welfare issues which are an inherent part of training and racing in competition.

The industry claims commitment to welfare but fails to convince in light of recent undercover investigations (NYT 2012), ongoing controversy, reviews and hearings. Social acceptance of certain uses of animals and abusive ways of animal treatment and handling are waning. Accordingly, horse welfare in thoroughbred racing has been identified as a growing concern for the public so much so that it is considered a reason contributing to its decline (The Jockey Club 2011 pdf).

Some racing jurisdictions have moved beyond the stage of seeing the protection of thoroughbreds as part of an extremist agenda. Voices from within the racing industry call for a culture change. Weisbord (2014) puts the urgency for the industry to act most poignantly:

This isn’t the time for a measured response. This isn’t the time for model rules. This isn’t the time to shoot the messenger, and it’s not a time for band aids. This is a time for a radical change of the way we do business. We cannot come at this with a pop bottle rocket. This is the time for shock and awe. […] While we’re at it, let’s lose the whips, too.

Change is afoot, however, there is controversy over what constitutes welfare and what is good for the horse. This situation has been labeled the “horse welfare war”. The question arises what kind of welfare paradigm will prevail over time.

In my presentation, I will discuss welfare paradigms applied to thoroughbred racehorses, whether these models can be considered sustainable, and what constitutes a sustainable welfare concept.

Presentation proposal accepted: Institute of Critical Animal Studies Oceania conference in Melbourne 26-27.4.2014

Posted on March 11th, 2014

This is what my presentation is about:

Sustainability and Animal Protection: How do they intersect, where do they collide?

Parts of the animal protection movement are skeptical of the concept of sustainability. This skepticism is justified in part due to the anthropocentric focus of the mainstream sustainability movement, coupled with a concern of measuring societal well-being primarily in economic value terms, and the pursuit of an economic model that continues to adhere to the growth paradigm. After all, it is these three overriding dimensions that inherently push non-human animals toward the margins (and over the edge) of societal concern, include them only in objectified form and perpetuate their exploitation for economic benefit in most abhorrent ways. However, this characterises only a part of the sustainability movement and there is potential for a deep alliance between sustainability and animal protection to advance both.

To further outline this argument, it is helpful to consider the different conceptualisations of sustainability and their historic roots. In short, we can differentiate between sustainability steeped in deep ecology and systems thinking at one end of a continuum, and the concept of sustainable development somewhat short of its original meaning reflected in the Brundtland report at the other end. In a simplified model, animal protection concerns are placed high on the agenda at the sustainability end of this continuum, and lowest at the sustainable development end. Moreover, the relationship between animal protection and sustainability is complicated based on the existence of a variety of different ethical foundations for sustainability thought as well as animal protection thought.

The concept of sustainable development, rather than sustainability, has been widely adopted by governments, academics and activists, to the detriment of animal protection. In order to illustrate this point, I focus the next part of the discussion on the model of the Green Economy. The Green Economy is an economic model to advance sustainable development and is built in particular on concepts of justice, efficiency, ecosystem services and growth. I outline how these concepts relate to animal protection issues, and how non-human animals are included and excluded from the sustainability transition under this model. It comes apparent, that under the Green Economy, and under the concept of sustainable development in general, sustainability and animal protection are in many ways played out against each other. I present critical examples of how these antagonistic forces come to bear in specific ways in the Asia-Pacific Region.

In the final part of this presentation, I give special consideration to the justice dimension as a normative concern that has significantly shaped advancements in sustainability thinking, as well as in the animal protection discourse. I conclude by carving out this common ground and by applying the spectrum of ecojustice, distributive, participatory and restorative justice to both, animal protection and sustainability.

Slide presentation pdf 0.7MB

Institute for Critical Animal Studies Oceania 2014 Conference.

Last edited 16.5.2014