Sustainability and Thoroughbred Racing – An Oxymoron?

Iris Bergmann asks whether the thoroughbred industry is equipped to transition to a more just and humane model, and what this ‘interspecies sustainability’ might mean for the future of racing.

Image by Neal Cousland on Shutterstock. ID 105425369

Pandemic or not, the Spring Racing Carnival in Australia is in full swing. COVID-19, climate emergency, species extinction, habitat loss, our exceeding of planetary boundaries and reaching tipping points, all are confronting us with our failure at our quest for sustainability.1 2 A marker of this failure is that the dominant conceptions of sustainability, such as sustainable development, do not include the protection of animals.Yet, the evidence is clear that our health and sustainable future depends on the health and protection of nature and other animals.The question arises, what if we applied a theory of interspecies sustainability to all our interactions with other animals such as horseracing? How is the thoroughbred industry positioned to meet such a paradigm and what would it mean for the future of racing?

Building on critiques of existing concepts of sustainability, I have developed a theoretical foundation for interspecies sustainability and used it to conduct original research in the intersection of sustainability and thoroughbred welfare.5 6 I interviewed key informants of the thoroughbred industry, individuals with backgrounds  in executive, administrative, regulatory and governance roles affiliated with industry bodies based in Australia, the US and one international body. What transpired is a deep chasm between thoroughbred protection needs and industry sustainability priorities. Rather than treating the intersection of sustainability and thoroughbred protection as mutually enhancing, it is seen as a competing ground.

“[There] is a deep chasm between thoroughbred protection needs and industry sustainability priorities. Rather than treating the intersection of sustainability and thoroughbred protection as mutually enhancing, it is seen as a competing ground.”

Where the Economic and Socio-cultural Spheres and Thoroughbred Welfare Intersect

Industry informants agreed thoroughbred welfare is indispensable for the sustainability of the industry. However, they generally related welfare to racing integrity (i.e. fair betting and competition) and public perception. Thoroughbred welfare is thus integrated into the socio-cultural sphere in two ways. The informants are concerned that their social license is at risk due to the public’s perception of thoroughbred welfare.Furthermore, some recognised the existing culture within racing as a threat to thoroughbred welfare and thus industry sustainability. Nonetheless, their priorities to address sustainability concerns were not aimed at the socio-cultural sphere but based in the bio-medical and technological realms, and, above all, in the marketing space to attract more owners, breeders and betters. Thoroughbred welfare is not seen as a sustainability domain in its own right.

Engaging for Reform while Maintaining the Status Quo

The industry informants are engaged in aspects of reform to improve the integrity of racing for fair competition for trainers, owners and punters. They are welcoming of improved systems for safety and integrity, and some proactively engaged with instituting better systems to improve retirement prospects for thoroughbreds. They were the supporters, believers in and enablers of technological and bio-medical developments. They aimed at addressing the most visible and publicly known welfare violations such as the use of drugs, injuries and death on the racetrack and retirement of thoroughbreds. They thus can be considered the progressives in the industry. However, these visibilised welfare issues that have entered the public discourse are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. A look around on raceday, observing thoroughbred emotional and physiological expressions demonstrates that the welfare challenges are much broader than the industry is prepared to consider. Mostly, industry informants did not consider common racing practices including human handling, the environment of the track and use of tack as attention-worthy for welfare, even when these practices are linked to further medical and surgical interventions, and in instances where horses’ expressions indicated stress, fear and pain.

Self-defeating Notions of Naturalness

Photograph of a thoroughbred’s head with tongue-tie led around the mounting yard taken by the author. See Bergmann 2019 (CC BY 4.0)

In the racing discourse, welfare is focused on functioning for optimal raceday performance. The nature of the horse is seen as a limiting factor to be overcome through invasive means such as the use of medication and drugs, surgery and tack. Concern for naturalness is reduced to the trope thoroughbreds “love to race”. Despite evidence to the contrary, the industry informants mostly saw thoroughbreds as willing participants. They tended to naturalise, normalise and downplay the thoroughbreds’ expressions of stress, fear and pain in response to some common racing practices. They tended to see these expressions as a result of the thoroughbreds’ nature. This nature was then used to justify and defend common practices including human handling and the use of tack such as bits and tongue-ties (see McGreevy and Franklin’s explanations of the use and impact of tongue-ties8). Some saw a visual problem rather than a welfare problem and the need to educate the public about the practices not impacting welfare, or even being in the interest of welfare, despite conflicting evidence.9 10 These practices go hand in hand with medication and surgical interventions and are so common in racing that the overuse of veterinary interventions has been identified as a welfare challenge in and of itself.11


A model for situating thoroughbred racing in relation to interspecies sustainability (Iris M Bergman CC BY 4.0). For a more detailed discussion of the model see Bergmann 2019.

At the level of reform where the industry informants are situated, they are struggling against forces within the industry itself attempting to maintain the status quo. However, when it comes to certain common racing practices, the industry informants themselves mostly defended the status quo and demonstrated unwillingness to see affiliated far-reaching welfare implications. Their approach to welfare is consistent with the view of nonhuman animals reflected in the Brundtland report which had set the agenda for sustainable development. There, farm animals are seen as living stock. Wild animals are seen as carriers of “genetic variability and germplasm material” who make “contributions to agriculture, medicine, and industry worth many billions of dollars per year”, and providers for “new raw materials for industry”.12 This is an expression of the extractivist mindset that has lead to our sustainability crisis.

In contrast, interspecies sustainability entails a holistic notion of naturalness based on evidence as an ideal to be protected. It means integrating aspects such as animal agency and physiological and psychological integrity. The horse-human relationships need to be considered as part of this and as a factor significantly impacting welfare. This entails a rethinking of human engagement with nonhuman animals on the animals’ own terms. This transformation is part of the project of decolonising the animal which has begun in a variety of fields in the social sciences, political sciences, education, ecology and the humanities.13

While the welfare focus of industry progressives is on techno-bio-medical management, the root problem of most welfare challenges is based in the socio-cultural and political domains, and at the level of the overarching paradigm. Animal protection needs to be a domain of sustainability in its own right, and it needs to be addressed at a systemic level, considering all spheres of sustainability. The transition to interspecies sustainability needs to be supported by the democratic institutions, the judiciary, governance, administration and education. It necessitates animal participation and the institution of proxies for animals.14

“Animal protection needs to be a domain of sustainability in its own right, and it needs to be addressed at a systemic level, considering all spheres of sustainability. The transition to interspecies sustainability needs to be supported by the democratic institutions, the judiciary, governance, administration and education.”

In racing, thoroughbreds will continue to be exposed to unacceptable threats to their welfare and to their lives. At best, some of the most visible egregious practices may be somewhat curtailed some time in the future if racing persists, but the trajectory is set at continued and increasingly refined exploitation guided by the belief in the human right to nonhuman animal use and animals being property rather than sovereign agents. The legitimacy of thoroughbred racing will be increasingly questioned as the discourse on common racing practices, animal protection and sustainability advances in society at large.

1. Steven J. Lade et al., “Human Impacts on Planetary Boundaries Amplified by Earth System Interactions,” Nature Sustainability 3, no. 2 (February 2020): 119–28.
2. Michael Marshall, “The Tipping Points at the Heart of the Climate Crisis,” The Observer, September 19, 2020, sec. Science.
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4. WWF, Living Planet Report 2020 – Bending the Curve of Biodiversity Loss., ed. R.E.A. Almond, M. Grooten, and T. Petersen (Gland, Switzerland: WWF, 2020)
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7. Elizabeth Duncan, Raewyn Graham, and Phil McManus, “‘No One Has Even Seen… Smelt… or Sensed a Social Licence’: Animal Geographies and Social Licence to OperateGeoforum 96. (November 2018): 318–27
8. Paul McGreevy and Samantha Franklin, “Over 20% of Australian Horses Race with Their Tongues Tied to Their Lower Jaw,” The Conversation, July 9, 2018
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10. J.A. Findley, H. Sealy, and S. H. Franklin, “Factors Associated with Tongue Tie Use in Australian Standardbred Racehorses,” Equine Veterinary Journal 48, no. S50 (September 2016): 18–19.
11. Deborah Butler et al., “Living the ‘Best Life’ or ‘One Size Fits All’—Stakeholder Perceptions of Racehorse Welfare,” Animals9, no. 4 (March 31, 2019): 134.
12. WCED, Our Common  Future (Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 1987)
13. Australasian Animal Studies Association, “Decolonizing Animals 2019 – Book of Abstracts,” in Decolonizing Animals 2019 – Book of Abstracts, 2019.
14. Ruth Abbey, “Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights.,” Philosophy in Review33, no. 6 (2013): 446–448.

Iris Bergmann is a PhD Researcher (Under Examination) at the School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney. She investigates the interface of sustainability and animal protection, the sustainability of welfare concepts in the international thoroughbred industry and the future of this industry in light of changing social expectations. Iris has a particular interest in interspecies sustainability, in particular animal integrity, naturalness, ecocentrism, animal agency, interspecies relationships and justice. Iris holds a PhD in Environmental Education and Cognition. She has a background in capacity building for sustainability including green skills for a green economy; youth leadership for sustainable communities; policy development and vocational education and training. Her research was supported by a University of Sydney Postgraduate Scholarship, funded out of an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant.