University of Tasmania
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Horses and human values : the past, present and future of Australian jumps racing

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posted on 2023-05-27, 11:48 authored by Ruse, KA
This thesis investigates how changing values regarding human-animal relationships are reflected in the past, present and future of Australian thoroughbred jumps racing. The inquiry starts with two premises. First, that animal lives matter, in their own right and on their own terms. Second, that human lives are shared with and shaped by the lives of animals in complex entanglements of nature and culture, space and place, time and history. Contributing to the emerging interdisciplinary field of human-animal studies, this research provides insight into the changing ways animals are imagined, experienced, treated and valued. The study examines how the human-thoroughbred horse relationship is experienced, narrated and mediated in the context of Australian jumps racing. Jumps racing was chosen as the focus for this study because it sits at the centre of polarised and very public controversy about horse welfare and the use of animals for human entertainment. This research is timely given the protests, inquiries and bans directed at jumps racing, and the consequent responses of the racing industry, over the past decade. The research offers the first comprehensive account of the underlying and shifting social values in Australia that inform the activity of jumps racing and the human-horse relationships on which it is founded. This study thereby contributes to more constructive engagement across competing value positions and policy responses to this publicly sensitive issue. After an introduction that situates this research in the field of human-animal studies, the first three chapters set the context for the empirical research that follows. Chapter 1 offers a novel historical account of the ways in which humans and horses have coevolved. The ethology of the horse and its combination of power, flight and social behaviours is shown to be a vital constituent of human-horse relationships that are notably different to human relationships with other animals. Chapter 2 lays out the co-evolutionary history of horse racing and introduces the thoroughbred racehorse, an animal shaped for the specific purpose of human entertainment. The evolution of the thoroughbred is charted through a complex mix of politics, nationalism, mercantile trade, class and social identity. Jumps racing is positioned within this narrative as a part of modern horse racing that maintains a strong amateur ethos, notions of bravery and courage by horse and rider and connections to social privilege and class. Chapter 3 investigates the economic, political and cultural origins of Australian thoroughbred racing, and the nineteenth century English model on which it was based. Chapter 3 also uncovers the strong connections of jumps racing to particular places and people and describes the declining popularity of jumps racing in the twentieth century against the background of increasing social concern about the welfare of jumps horses. Chapter 4 outlines the mixed-method research design used to investigate jumps racing in Australia, which is primarily comprised of hurdle and steeplechase races. Quantitative analysis of data collected by the racing industry is combined with thematic and narrative analysis of qualitative interviews with a diverse sample of 23 advocates and opponents of jumps racing, textual analysis of industry and media documents, and participant observation of jumps racing. Chapter 5 explores changes in jumps racing over the second half of the twentieth century through the life-histories of interviewees. For many participants, jumps racing is not simply a sport or a livelihood, but is a life-long preoccupation that is central to their sense of identity, family, community and place. Present day jumps racing is recalled as less vibrant and popular than its historic practice. Chapter 6 integrates empirical and qualitative data to show that jumps racing encompasses a distinct fraternity. Contemporary jumps racing comprises less than 1% of all races in Victoria and South Australia, the only states in which it is still practised. However, jumps racing is of economic, social and cultural significance to its community of practice, being variously regarded as a significant social event, bringing crowds to winter racing and a vital economic boost to local communities. Chapter 6 also considers the competing claims made in political and public debate about the safety of jumps racing in the light of analysis demonstrating that the record of horse injuries and deaths in jumps races has improved since 2008, although the safety risk of its steeplechasing component remains high. Chapter 7 explores how human and horse lives are brought together and configured within jumps racing. Thematic analysis is used to investigate how humans understand and represent their experience of jumps horses. The findings reveal that thoroughbred jumps horses are valued in complex and occasionally contradictory ways, as mates, as members of the family, for their courage and stamina and for what is called 'character'. Jumps horses are also valued as sources of employment, income and status, especially in those regional locations where jumps racing remains an important social hub and economic generator for the community. Using a series of short narratives, Chapter 7 also investigates how participants perceive that horses experience, influence and help to construct relationships with individual humans. These narratives illustrate how horse agency contributes to and influences the human-horse bond in jumps racing. Chapter 8 outlines participants views about the possible futures of Australian jumps racing in the light of continuing fatalities and public opposition to this activity. Chapter 9 summarises key findings about the human-thoroughbred relationship and relates these to the wider questions for, and consequences of, changing values about animals in Australian society. Chapter 9 concludes by suggesting further research on how historical human-animal practices, like horse racing, are socio-culturally normalized, why they are resistant to change and what practices are likely to be valued or tolerated by which sections of society. An understanding of values and attitudes towards horses and the human-horse relationships at the center of thoroughbred racing is needed, as this is an area that has been neglected in previous scholarship. This may help to better explain what is at stake for societies in such debates over how humans relate to, value and regard animals, and inform these social choices.


Publication status

  • Unpublished

Rights statement

Copyright 2017 the author The quantitative data of Chapter 6 was published as Ruse, K., Davison, A., Bridle, K., 2015. Jump horse safety: reconciling public debate and Australian thoroughbred jump racing data, 2012‚Äö-2014. Animals, 5(4), 1072-109

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