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Behind the Tracks: Social and Labor Relations in the United States Horse Racing Industry

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Success in the multi-billion dollar U.S. horse racing industry requires a network of disparate social actors to manage highly-valued racehorses: horse owners; trainers and jockeys; and equine workers, up to 80% of whom are Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants. I have conducted long-term, ethnographic research with communities working in the horse racing industry in Kentucky. As the division of labor in many industries relegates particular jobs to so-called “unskilled” or “low-skilled” immigrants, I find that equine workers develop highly-skilled knowledge and practices. Equine workers reflect and reinforce their role as workers in the United States and assert their right to belong by recognizing the value of their work and ties to the racetrack community. Tracing the segmented racial and gendered history of horse racing reveals the ways in which the horse racing labor structure has consistently maintained a reliance on a racialized laboring group and the mechanisms through which racial and gendered divisions both reproduce and are created by the labor hierarchy. Affective skills allow workers to observe and draw meaning from the nuanced bodily and emotional interactions with the horses. The multispecies lens offered by this study addresses how employees actively manage their emotions with the belief that horses sense emotion itself, not just its expression. I argue that skills required for work with Thoroughbred racehorses are not only performed but are learned through relational conditioning. Racetrack networks often facilitate practices of care even as those forms of care are contested, limited, paternalistic, and problematic. I explore not only equine worker responses to more extreme events such as death (both of horses and humans) but also responses to and experiences of every day working and living conditions. Through a study of the Thoroughbred horse racing industry with attention to affective relations and skills, this research contributes to understandings of immigration, labor, and human-animal relations in the United States. It does so through a discussion of the community, space, and place of the backside; qualities of affective skills in equine labor; learning through relational conditioning in a multispecies context; and experiences of death, injury, “slow death” and care.

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This item is under embargo until December 1, 2026.