To Race Or Not To Race

I’ve just discovered a new sport. They strap monkeys to the backs of deer and race them round a track. The deer are clearly showing a flight response, and the monkeys carry little whips that they use to urge them on if they slow down at all. The deer have bits of metal through their mouths that the monkeys use to control them. Ok, so I made that up. No one that I am aware of has tried that… yet. But what were your first thoughts on reading about it? Horror? Bemusement? Or did you think ‘Oh, that’s just like horse racing then’. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. When something has been around for as long as horse racing, it is easy to become immune to what we are seeing on a daily basis.

You see, at the moment, there is a lot of debate about welfare in horse racing. But most of it centres around physical welfare, and the numbers of deaths and injuries in a ‘sport’ in which the horse clearly has no choice over whether or not they participate.

For me, although I agree that there are many questions that should be asked about the physical welfare of racehorses, including the way in which they are bred and managed, the burning issue is psychological welfare. I have a degree in Psychology and did my doctoral research on the horse human relationship. I have been in business for over a decade educating owners and equine professionals about the psychology of horse training, with a particular focus on psychological welfare.

My main focus in that period has been explaining about appetitives and aversives and how they relate to training.

Psychologists know that, in a learning situation, care should be taken when using aversive stimuli to reinforce or punish behaviour. This is because aversives work by acting on the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, more popularly understood as ‘fight or flight’. Aversive stimuli are unpleasant stimuli that create escape or avoidance responses. In other words, in their presence we experience pain, discomfort or fear that we would rather avoid or escape. Our education system has changed dramatically over recent years to reduce a reliance on aversives and to increase the use of appetitives (rewards). Appetitives act on the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, more popularly understood as ‘rest and digest’.

It is widely recognised in animal training that it is more ethical to train using appetitives. Zoo animals are taught to participate in a wide range of husbandry procedures using reward based techniques, as are marine mammals. Regardless of the arguments for and against keeping these animals in captivity, there is no doubt that appetitive training techniques are more conducive to good welfare than those relying on aversives. ‘Clicker training’ has become an increasingly popular approach for training not just dogs, but sheep, rats  and horses.

In fact, animal welfare legislation recognises the importance of promoting ‘Freedom from fear and distress’. Any training system that relies predominantly on the use of aversive stimuli is failing to meet this standard. Although training for other species is increasingly moving away from the use of aversives and towards the use of appetitives, the horse industry is slow to change. However horses are not ‘a special case’, it is not necessary to rely on aversives when training and handling them, so my question is not ‘To Race or Not to Race?’, it is in fact ‘How should we train racing’?

It is possible to teach a horse to gallop a course, including jumping (Here is an example of show jumping being trained using appetitive) using appetitives rather than aversives. Of course we know that conventional racehorse training relies on two things: the horse’s natural urge to stay with the herd (ie their panic to avoid social isolation), and their (also natural) urge to avoid experiencing aversive stimuli by an escape/ avoidance response. Imagine a race that didn’t need whips, bits, or even jockeys. One in which the horse could choose whether or not to participate. Would that not be the truest test of the speed and courage of the horse? I know what I would rather watch.


A contribution by Dr Helen Spence, Equine Psychologist, for PsychLiverpool.

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