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Thoughts On Banning Jumps Racing

By Brad Carroll On July - 2 - 2009

Warning: This article is not intended for closed-minded people who have already made up their minds about the issue and are not prepared to budge from their position.  It contains scientific analysis, conjecture and pure speculation.

Sub-Warning: At just over 5000 words, this is one of the longest articles you will find on this site. 

Before reading any further, please take a moment to study the picture that accompanies this article.  What do you notice?  If you said “Three horses completing a jumping race without their jockeys,” then you can move to the head of the class.

This picture really is worth a thousand words.

As a horse trainer, I have devoted a significant amount of my life to trying to “get inside the horses head” and understand what motivates these wonderful animals.  I would not dare to suggest that I have completely cracked the code, but I can honestly say that I have made some significant progress.

Some of the things I have learned include:

  1. Horses are naturally nervous and fearful creatures.  This is a good thing, because it helps them to survive in the wild, where allowing something unfamiliar to get too close to you can easily result in death.
  2. Horses have natural curiosity.  This is a powerful instinct in the horse, and it can be observed by the fact that when a horse is frightened by something and runs away, he will nearly always return to investigate the thing which frightened him (unless it gives pursuit).  Native Americans in the days of the “Old West” exploited this trait to catch wild mustangs.
  3. Most horses are speed addicts.  I don’t mean they like going to rave parties.  I mean that when given an opportunity to run, they enjoy it, and the faster they are allowed to go, the more they enjoy it.
  4. All horses are inherently lazy and will not do anything unless sufficiently motivated to do it.  For example I could put a stallion in a paddock and he is not likely to jump over the fence unless there is something on the other side that he wants badly enough (like a mare or some very enticing food) to encourage him to do it, or there is a predator chasing him and he is in fear for his life.

Now there are a few things about these statements that could need clarification.  For example, you might ask: “Brad, if most horses naturally like to run fast, then why do jockeys carry whips?”

Well to answer that, I will first say that I wish they did not carry them, and secondly that although what most people are focusing on in a race is the finish where they see jockeys going nuts doing everything possible to urge their mounts on, what the uninformed spectator may not notice is the fact that for most of the race, most of the jockeys are trying to hold their horses back and stop them from going at full speed (which is what the horse really wants to do).

The basic principle is to hold onto that potential for a full speed effort for as long as possible.  Then when the jockey decides it is the right moment, or simply becomes too fatigued to hold the horse back any longer, all that stored up potential is unleashed and if everything goes according to plan then the horse has enough stamina left to sustain that momentum all the way to the finish line.

All that arm flapping, cursing, shouting and whipping is not intended to make the horse run (because he already wants to do that), but to encourage him to run faster than the horse next to him which is also receiving the same treatment!

Having said that, I am not really a great fan of the whip, and I do not employ jockeys who seem tempted to use it inappropriately (at least on the field — I don’t care what they get up to in their bedrooms).

Another very obvious question is: “If horses are speed addicts as you say, then doesn’t this statement contradict the fact that they are inherently lazy?”

Well, it may seem that way, but it is not really quite as simple as that.  You will rarely see an older horse running around for no reason.  They will do it, but usually when you’re not around to witness it.  Younger horses, on the other hand, simply can’t help themselves.

The young of all high-level mammals indulge in play behavior.  Play helps the animal to develop essential skills that it will need when it matures.  This is why kittens play by chasing things and pouncing, and puppies play by seizing things in their teeth and shaking them.  Human children throw things and fight each other, essential skills for our cave-dwelling ancestors.

For a horse, the most essential survival skill is to run.  Thus, running for the horse is a form of play, and of course play is something we do for fun, something enjoyable.  And that is why when you see a group of young horses or lambs in a field, you will often have the pleasure of seeing them race each other.

And so it is the case that just as human athletes get to “be a kid for a bit longer” by being allowed to play their sports as adults, so to is it the case for racehorses.  Their “job” is to do something that they would normally do for play.  The only difference is that they are doing this on somebody else’s schedule rather than their own.

But even that last point I just made is not really controversial, because this fits in with a horses instinctive behavior.  All horses understand the necessity of obeying the leader of the herd, and when humans do their job properly, horses will regard humans as defacto leaders.  So in a wild herd, if the leader suddenly decided it was time to go for a run, then the herd will do so, regardless of whether they had other plans for the day.  Being asked to race is not greatly different to that.

Now the point I am getting to via this long and winding path is that the horses you see in the picture would not be jumping over that hurdle if they did not want to.  There is nobody on their backs forcing them to run and jump.

Yes, it could be argued that they are completing the race out of habit, but that is a hollow argument.  The horse is quite aware that the rider is no longer present, and in fact some horses will go to quite extraordinary lengths to try and arrange such a situation!

The truth is that these horses are continuing to race because they enjoy it.  Just as humans enjoy physical activity once they are made to get up off their lazy backsides and do something, so too do horses.  And if anyone doubts the truth of this, then there is absolutely no question that when the three horses picture above reach the home stretch, they will begin to race each other in earnest.

But how do they know where the end of the race is?

Well, if you have ever watched a greyhound race then you will know that the dogs do not have jockeys on their backs urging them on.  It is a simple matter of dogs running around an oval shaped track, chasing a mechanical lure. 

What is surprising about the way these races are run is that not all of the dogs will be running at their top speed, which is what would happen in a situation with wild dogs chasing a real rabbit.  They would all be trying equally to be the one to catch it.

Some of the dogs are behaving just like horses with human riders, saving their top speed potential for use later in the race.  But this is the thing…. why would they do that, and how do they know when it is time to make their move?  And how can I even suggest such a ridiculous sounding thing?

The only thing I can say in defense of the theory is that if you watch enough greyhound races you will notice that many dogs that win with a come-from-behind effort will get their nose in front at just the right moment to win the race, winning by the barest of margins. 

This happens with amazing frequency, and can involve closely fought-out finishes with three or more dogs all swooping at the same moment to try and overtake the leader.  It seems very unlikely to me that this would happen under natural conditions.

I believe that dogs learn through experience where the winning post is, and their desire to get to it first has nothing to do with the lure.  The lure plays a part in getting the dog to the top of the stretch, but once the winning post is in sight, I believe that the lure takes on a secondary importance. 

Each dog has to learn the technique that will help it to get across the line first and that can only be done through experience.  But once they have perfected it, they will often use consistent tactics from race to race, which seems to confirm the theory.

But we still have not gotten to what is so good about being first across the line that will give the dog an incentive to try.  Nobody can know for sure at the moment exactly what the reason is, but I believe it may be linked to the flash of the photo finish camera.

Something about that sudden flash of very intense light may stimulate some pleasure center in the dog’s brain.  If you have ever seen a child mesmerized by flashing lights or wondered why ever so many animals become roadkill victims as they stand in the road staring fixedly at the headlights swooping toward them, you are seeing this principle in action.

Here is an experiment you can try.  Find an incandescent light bulb ( fluorescent lights are not intense enough), plug it in and switch it on.  Look at it for about ten seconds while blinking rapidly, then look away and shut your eyes.  You should notice a strange effect where you see a glowing shape moving across your eyeball toward your nose and then jumping back to the edge again to start over.  It will do this for some time. 

There is a very complicated scientific explanation for how this works, which deals with stuff like rods and cones and something called  “visual purple”, but I won’t weigh you down with all that here.  If anybody is interested in the details I would be happy to discuss it with them later (drop me a note and I’ll get back to you).

Anyway, the effect that you get is slightly similar to what you get if you spin around with your eyes shut and then open them, but nowhere near as intense, of course.  You may have noticed that children love to do this!  Why?  I suppose for the same reason that some adults like to drink alcohol. 

It is almost like there is some part of us that is aware we do not belong in this rigid and harsh reality; that yearns to be free in a fluid soup of universal energy.  The urge to slightly disengage our physical control mechanisms seems to be very strong amongst humans, and there are indications that other animals may share this trait with us.

Getting back to the point, we have established that in some way or another greyhounds know where the winning post is with some degree of accuracy based on how experienced they are, and that (whether my theory is correct or not) there is at least something which is giving them incentive to try and cross the line ahead of the other dogs and that this does not seem to be entirely related to the lure that is being chased.

I know how silly all of this sounds, and I am sure I am going to get laughed at for these suggestions, but can you honestly think of a better explanation for why a dog will put on a sudden burst of speed in the last 30 yards of a race?  I don’t think it is sufficient to say that it is simply a case of the leader slowing down, because there is clear evidence that the dogs which are following speed up, and not only do they do that, but they often do it at precisely the right moment.

Brief sensory overload is known to induce a sense of euphoria and calm (hypnotists have been using this method to put people into a quick trance, and it is the principle employed by “envangelists” to make people appear to swoon during healing sessions (which I believe to be simply a form of hypnosis which is even more effective because it is combined with strong faith)). 

Sustained sensory overload can be very harmful, even leading to death.  But for some reason, in small doses, we seem to derive some pleasure or benefit from the momentary disengagement of the conscious mind.  If you know what a flashbang is, then you already have at least some familiarity with my subject matter here.

Thus in the case of the racing greyhound who crosses the line ahead of the pack we have the combination of the smell of the lure and the other dogs (who are all perspiring and exhaling stinky dogfood breath!) combined with the roar of the crowd and a brief over-exposure of the visual purple of the retina courtesy of the flash from the photo finish camera.  A nice little cocktail to induce momentary sensory overload!

I don’t think horses have the same motive, but it is certainly possible.  There are some very big differences between dogs and horses.

A training technique that horses respond very well to is “pressure and release”.  This means that some stimuli is applied (“pressure”), and when the horse responds to this in a desirable way, the stimuli is discontinued (“release”).

For example, suppose a horse and trainer are together in an enclosed circular corral of about 50 feet in diameter.  If the trainer waves a plastic bag at the horse, then the predictable equine response is that the horse will be frightened and will run away (he can only run a short distance because of the enclosed space, but his instinct is telling him to run a long way, and unable to overcome this instinct he will gallop around in circles at the perimeter of the yard).

If the trainer just waved the bag once, then the horse would be unlikely to learn anything except that it was smart to run away from a frightening new object.  If the experiment were repeated again a few times, the horse might develop a life-long fear of plastic bags!

But if instead the trainer continues to wave the plastic bag even after the horse has run off, then the horse will come to notice that running away has had no effect on getting him away from the frightening object (since he can only go in circles and remains exactly the same distance away from the object at all times) and he will notice that the object has thus far not hurt him, even though in the horse’s mind it is “following” him.

At this point the horse’s curiosity starts to kick in, and the urge to investigate will start to get the better of it.  It will also be getting a bit tired from running around in circles, and since it is by nature a very lazy creature, it will want to stop.  And so as soon as the fearful tension in the horse dissipates (evident by a change in the horse’s posture, from a high head carriage to a low one, often mistaken for “submission” by ever-so-haughty humans), the trainer stops waving the bag.

Each time the experiment is repeated, it will take fewer laps for the horse to relax.  The reward for the horse is that the pressure is released (bag stops being waved) and the horse eventually gets to the point where it is so accustomed to the bag that it does not run from it all unless the bag is waved with exceptional vigor (in which case he is not running from the stimulus at all, but the energy behind the stimulus, which the horse interprets as a message in horse-language from the alpha member of the herd (of two) that it should get out of the human’s personal space). 

What this has to do with racing is that there is a similar “pressure and release” situation that the horse experiences during the running of a race.  After having been restrained for so long by the jockey from doing what it is naturally inclined to do (gallop flat out), it suddenly finds itself being asked to do just that.  This is the first phase of reward for the horse — the release from the pressure of being restrained.

However intense the pleasure derived from this sudden freedom may be, it is fleeting.  The horse is finally being allowed to run fast at a time when it is least inclined to do so.  As fatigue begins to set in, the horse will think about slowing down.

When the jockey notices this subtle change come over the horse, this is the moment (if he is any good at his job) that he will begin to encourage the horse to go beyond what it naturally feels capable of doing.

The horse’s body is saying “stop” but the rider is saying “go” with great urgency.  So conditioned is the horse by nature and nurture to obey the commands of the dominant partner (since in the horse’s mind survival is linked to this), that unless the horse is overwhelmingly exhausted it will respond by going beyond the limitations that the body is trying to impose, running with renewed energy or what we might call “second wind”.

Throughout all of this, the horse’s heart is beating at nearly 300bpm, or almost five times per second, circulating a huge volume of blood around the horse’s body.  Mixed into this blood is a potent chemical cocktail of cortisol, adrenalin, endorphins, and other substances.

When the volume of “feel bad” chemicals, such as cortisol and lactic acid, reaches a certain level (in excess of 4mmol per litre of blood, if you want me to be specific) then there is a certain mounting sensation of unpleasantness which can even be translated to pain.  Once this reaches a critical threshold that unpleasantness is at its maximum, a phenomenon that human athletes call “hitting the wall”.

In response to this, the body responds by pumping out significantly more “feel good” chemicals, since by this time the brain has finally become convinced that the animal is in survival mode.  When the volume of happy juice in the blood stream exceeds the volume of the unpleasant stuff, the horse will experience the phenomenon that is known as a “runner’s high”.

This is the second phase of reward for the horse, a (temporary) release from the pressure of physical pain and exhaustion, combined with a pleasurable sensation that many human athletes have likened to the experience of orgasm (I can think of more pleasant ways to achieve this feeling than by running for ten miles, but “to each his own”).

The effect is only temporary however, and as it wears off the horse is still aware of the vigorous urging of the rider on its back.  This constant stream of communication also amounts to a form of pressure, much in the same way as if your boss keeps coming up to you every five minutes to ask if the Dobson Report is ready yet.

Horses are not great at logical reasoning.  No horse has yet graduated from a bona fide University, a feat that even Kermit The Frog has achieved.

But horses do have:

  1. Excellent spatial memory, and
  2. Excellent sensorial memory

There are important evolutionary reasons for why the horse has developed these traits, but I won’t go into detail on these reasons here (again, you are welcome to contact me for more information). 

The important thing to know is that the horse is able to recollect how it felt at some particular moment and where it happened.  So, for example, if a horse gets injured while being loaded into a starting gate, it will be much more difficult to load the horse in the future because the horse has associated the painful injury with the gate.

The third and final reward phase for the horse at the end of a race is when the pressure from the jockey is released.  This occurs at the moment the horse passes the winning post or just a fraction of a second afterwards.

So in the horse’s mind, that pressure/release reward is associated with the winning post, since this is the object that they see just before the reward is bestowed.  This creates a desire in the horse to reach that object or place more quickly, in order to receive the reward more quickly.

Anyone who has ever sat on the back of a steeplechase horse can tell you that the horses really seem to enjoy jumping.  Now, I can’t say that I can see anything particularly fun about the activity itself (but who knows?), however I do think that these horses get even more out of their races than do horses that race on the flat.

Each time that a horse approaches a jump, the jockey increases the pressure slightly (via the bit and his own body posture) to help set the horse up for the jump.  Then as the jump is executed, the jockey removes all pressure completely, striving to allow the horse to complete the jump as freely and comfortably as possible.  It is only once the horse has landed and begins to gallop off again that restraining pressure is reapplied.

In consequence, every jump that the horse completes is associated with a pressure/release reward, and it would appear that horses look forward to the jump because they have come to see it as a form of reward.

Contrary to popular opinion, jumps races are also much less physically stressful for the horse.  Studies have shown that horses are much more likely to suffer internal bleeding attacks during flat races than during jumping races, and amongst endurance horses such attacks are virtually unheard of.

It is not the distance or the physical exertion of a race that does the damage, but the high speed.  Sprinters, in consequence, are more likely to sustain such damage than stayers.

More horses die competing in flat races than in jumping races, but this is simply because there are vastly more flat races.  In terms of per-capita deaths, jumps racing is clearly the more dangerous sport, but this should not surprise anyone.

Obviously any sport that involves clearing obstacles is going to be significantly more dangerous than a sport that just involves running around.  Human athletes who compete in track hurdle races probably suffer more injuries than their flat racing counterparts, too.

But just because there is greater potential for danger in the sport does not mean by itself that the sport should be banned.  There are many other factors than simple mortality and/or injury rates which should be considered.

Firstly, of course, there is the fact that as I have shown above, even though horses would not be present at the racecourse without human involvement, most of them do not compete unwillingly.  Running, jumping and even racing are natural activities for a horse and horses enjoy them. 

Even the “rough and tumble” of the horses bumping against each other during the running does not normally cause any great mental distress to the horse because it is no more than they would experience running in a herd of wild horses on the move.

Horses can and do willingly complete races in the absence of any form of coercion on the part of a human rider.  We can therefore discount the idea that horses are being made to race against their will (even in those cases where it could be true that they are being made to race unwillingly, they will perform so poorly that it will artificially shorten their racing career anyway).

Furthermore, however many deaths may result from competition in jumping races, it stands as a fact that only a minority of those who compete will sustain a serious injury.  The number of horses that die in jumping races are less than one percent of those who compete (statistics from one racing district put the number at about one fatality for every 139 starters). 

While this is an unfortunate statistic, compare it with the alternative.  If there were no jumping races then the mortality rate for these horses would be very close to 100 percent.

There are far more horses bred each year than the industry can sustain.  Since there are not enough people with the money, facilities or inclination to take these horses in, many of them end up getting sold for meat.

I know it will bother some people when I say this, but I think it is unfortunate that any animals are killed for meat.  But the idea of killing horses in this way seems particularly barbaric.  It is not so much the killing itself that is the issue, but the inhumane treatment that animals receive at the hands of those who are employed in the industry.

Logic dictates that the longer an owner keeps a horse, and the more success and enjoyment that the horse brings to the owner, the less likely it is that the horse will meet such a fate, even after it has retired from racing.

Jumping races therefore can extend the lifespan for horses that do not make the grade as flat racehorses, and may even save them from befalling a horrific fate that is so much worse than a relatively quick death resulting from an activity that they enjoy.  Even the pain of injury is lessened by the cocktail of endorphins already present in the bloodstream at the time of the accident and the shock of the fall.

In the unfortunate circumstances where horses have fallen and are unable to get up, there are measures in place to provide assistance, and, if necessary, euthanasia, to the horse as quickly as possible.  This is always done by qualified people who genuinely have the welfare of the horse at heart.  Compared to the treatment that horses receive at slaughterhouses, this is a much more dignified and humane way to end the animal’s life.

It just seems more horrible because it is happening right out in public where people can see it, rather than happening on private property where there are no witnesses present to ensure that the animals are treated in a relatively humane manner.

Therefore a decision to ban jumps racing would be an ultimately cruel and evil act, unless a viable alternative is proposed that will help horses to avoid meeting an untimely end at the hands of a slaughterman. Banning the automobile would be a good step in that direction, and would solve some major environmental problems at the same time!

Those who are activists working to have racing banned may not be aware that they are advocating and fighting for cruelty.  Meanwhile they are ignoring the true atrocities taking place all around them.

Now, having said all this, there are a number of things that could be done to make the racing industry safer and would help to lessen the number of serious injuries sustained by horses and humans involved in the sport.

For various reasons, mainly economic and political, industry bodies have largely been unwilling to implement rules and conditions that could help to solve some of these problems.

Horses that fall in jumping races typically do so due to one of the following three reasons:

  1. Racing over distances that they have not been adequately trained to race over, and consequently when they become fatigued they become uncoordinated and make mistakes
  2. The rider (and occasionally the horse) loses situational awareness and makes the jump incorrectly, or fails to avoid an obstacle (such as another horse).
  3. The horse or rider becomes distracted by something just before or during the jump, such as a protesting activist, and being thus distracted does not execute the jump correctly.

I believe that the order I have listed these reasons in is the correct order.  The vast majority of accidents could be avoided if trainers knew what they were doing.  Unfortunately most trainers are still using methods handed down from their great-grandfathers (or somebody’s great-grandfather, anyway).

If I expect a horse to race over two miles, I will have trained it to go four miles, or even eight.  Horses just should not be at that stage of exhaustion that they cannot put their feet down in a co-ordinated way, or that they cannot propel themselves into a jump properly.

The cardiovascular system of the horse should be healthy and well-conditioned, so that the risk of internal bleeding is minimal.  And riders should be “tuned in” enough to the horse that they can detect when the horse is about to falter, and can therefore take preventative action.

Penalties for riders who pull up horses that are subsequently found to have no physical sign of injury are too severe.  This could mean that riders are less willing to err on the side of caution.

It is clear that there are many problems in the sport of jumps racing, and these are problems that will be difficult to solve.  Solutions are not easy to implement and may be costly. 

But however imperfect the current system may be, it is still far better to allow things to continue as they are than to needlessly condemn millions of horses to an untimely and cruel death by banning the very sport that is keeping them alive and well-cared-for.

Thanks for your company.  I hope that I have managed to stimulate some thought on this very serious issue, and that you have gained some useful knowledge or entertainment from reading the thoughts I have shared with you today.

Please feel free to add a comment if you would like to share your own thoughts, opinions, or feedback.  All comments are welcome, but polite comments (even if they disagree with what I have said here) are more likely to receive a response.

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