Former Breeder/Owner on Racing’s Tools of Cruelty

Jo Anne Normile is a former breeder and owner. Upon becoming disillusioned with the racing industry, she left and founded CANTER – the first organization in the country to take Thoroughbreds right from the track to safe havens. After leaving CANTER, Jo Anne co-founded a second successful horse rescue – Saving Baby Equine Charity. These and other racing-related experiences were put to print in the memoir Saving Baby – How One Woman’s Love for a Racehorse Led to Her Redemption. The book was featured in Reader’s Digest and garnered five stars from Barnes and Noble.

Jo Anne’s dedication to horses includes research on “equine self-mutilation syndrome” and compulsive behavior in formerly feral horses; she coauthored studies that appeared in the prestigious Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and The Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine. In 2012, she coauthored the case study “U.S. Thoroughbreds Slaughtered 2002-2010 Compared to Annual Thoroughbred Foal Crop.” Jo Anne has also provided exhibits for a Congressional hearing on the use of drugs in racehorses and has been a guest speaker at equine safety conferences around the country.

Jo Anne was an early contributor to our “Shedrow Secrets” and is a member of our advisory board. Today, she addresses some of this industry’s tools of the trade.

“It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”

by Jo Anne Normile

If you were watching television in the 1970s, no doubt you remember the threatening voice declaring “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” as thunder roared, lightning flashed and in some versions of the commercial, wild animals stampeded. When we watch a horse race, the same outrage should be evoked as racing takes away from a horse everything natural to his way of life.

Horses are stressed by change. Stress and pain increase the likelihood of ulcers and colic. Every day, racehorses risk their lives as easily disposable gambling objects, no different than a deck of cards in a casino. If they are too slow or injured, it is likely that their first stop is being dumped into cheap claiming races to become someone else’s “problem” or worse – sold by the pound to a slaughterhouse. This unnatural way of life begins when they are taken from pastures to train when they are just babies. 

Driven by greed alone, 18-month-old horses are “broke to ride” and are already in serious race-training at off-track centers or at the racetracks themselves. The sole reason: to get them into the lucrative 2-year-old races. Immature in body and mind, their natural development and ability to learn about the world around them is no longer in a familiar pasture with playful herd mates; on the contrary, they are typically stuck 23 hours in a stall, all alone – day after day after day.   

Racehorses are forced to endure changes in their diets, stable mates, bedding and surroundings. They have changes in owners, trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, grooms and veterinarians. They must train on a set schedule – not the horse’s schedule. That training schedule is maintained with the assistance of whips for enforcement, and devices of control such as metal bits, tongue ties, shadow rolls and blinkers. 

The young horse in training is given an hour outside of his stall, with every minute of that time controlled. A mix of horses are on the track training, but these horses have not interacted. They are not pasture mates nor do they ever get to enjoy romping together, grazing and mutual grooming. Their immature bodies now balance a whip-wielding rider and must maneuver closely-banked turns – not at their chosen speed or of their own volition. Juveniles forced to perform as if they were adults. Galloping hesitantly, scared and confused, weaving or lugging one way or the other, their movement is noted and the tinkering begins. It’s as if the trainers ask themselves: How can I further mess with nature and promote the lie that “horses love to race”?


Bits are pieces of metal – a “bar,” says the Daily Racing Form (DRF) – put in a horse’s mouth with reins attached, “by which he is guided and controlled.” Jerking or pulling the reins can cause painful pressure to the sensitive tissues of the mouth. With the clock ticking (to quickly get the horse into a race), the fastest way to try to win control is not through horsemanship but a more severe bit or other equipment.  

The “run-out bit,” the DRF explains, “[is] a special type of bit to prevent a horse from bearing (or lugging) out (or in).” Why would a horse be “bearing out (or in)”? According to the DRF, “Deviating from a straight course may be due to weariness, infirmity, punishment by rider or rider’s inability to control mount.” There it is, racing’s open admission that they know these actions are the horse’s way of saying: “I am exhausted.” “I am sore.” “I do not want to race.” “I do not want to be here.” Nevertheless, the racers will do and utilize whatever it takes to override the horse’s natural instincts and his ability to react to surroundings.  

Blinkers and Shadow Rolls

Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal and they are set on the sides of the head, which gives the horse amazing peripheral vision. Being prey animals, they rely heavily on this vision. It is critical in assisting them to relax and accept their surroundings. Again, the standard procedure is not to take the time to acclimate a young horse with his surroundings, but add a stronger bit or more equipment such as “blinkers” to force control. DRF: “Blinkers [are] a device to limit a horse’s vision to prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him.” Blinkers are a facemask, with eye cups of various sizes, used to block the horse’s unique vision. There can be the extreme extension blinkers blocking all vision on one side, full cup blinkers, and eye cups that are smaller and considered “cheaters.” But the goal is the same: limit the galloping horse’s vision.  

A “shadow roll” (usually lambswool) also limits the horse’s field of vision. Placed halfway up the face, it is ostensibly used to keep him from seeing and shying from his own shadow. But once again, it is messing with nature and the horse’s ability to react to his surroundings. 

Horseracing is a deadly business. Why do they so severely handicap the horse’s vision? If blinkers are to “prevent him from swerving from objects or other horses on either side of him,” then their goal is to NOT allow the racehorse galloping at breakneck speeds in a crowded field to react as he should with normal vision. Perhaps the deadly bumping, the tripping, the running into the rail, and the clipping of heels would happen less if the horses were simply able to see!    

Tongue Ties

Trained only to gallop counter-clockwise, racehorses do not make a choice on how to best move nor are they symmetrical in development due to only training in one direction. Unnatural movement is compounded by the use of whips, bits, and vision impairments, and all of that is further exacerbated by the “tongue tie.” According to the DRF, a tongue tie is a “strap or tape bandage used to tie down a horse’s tongue to prevent it from choking in a race or workout.” Sounds compassionate, huh? In truth, the tie, which attaches to the lower jaw, is meant to keep the tongue from sliding up over the bit. Why is this important? Well, sliding the tongue over the bit would relieve the painful pressure caused by the bit, and that painful pressure is crucial in maintaining total control of the horse. Not so compassionate after all.

Planning on running in a local marathon? A jog around your gym’s track? I bet you will run free. You won’t be carrying someone on your back with a whip. You won’t have a painful metal bit stuck in your mouth. You won’t have your tongue physically pulled out and tied down. And you won’t be wearing a device that prevents you from seeing everything around you.

Do horses “love to race”? Of course not. They are prey animals running in fear for their lives. All of these tools – including the whip, which reinforces the feel of a predator’s claws raking their flank – are meant to control movement, to force a race. They are unnatural, but more importantly, they are cruel.

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  1. This should (needs to) be published far and wide, in every print, screen, audio and social media outlet, if it’s not a copyright violation. It also should be sent and handed to racing boards during public comment and to decision-makers of local racing venues (tracks, fairs, etc.) at their meetings. What an amazing exposé.
    If there are any restrictions to sharing it, and/or if it’s “officially” published elsewhere, please advise. Thank you!.

    • Marilyn, there is no problem in sharing this far and wide and I appreciate your kind words. All of us at HW thank you, the horses thank you and I commend you for wanting to take further action!

  2. Jo Anne – thanks so much for your lifetime of dedication to racehorses.

    • Gina, your experience knowledge of the industry is invaluable to all of us. Thank you for your unwavering support of the horses!

      • I can’t thank you enough for this important info. We know many of cruel horseracing tools, but I did not realize how contrary the sadistic intentional degree of inflicted pain is to horses’ deep basic instincts and needs. In fact, this explains race horse behaviors that are summarily dismissed as abnormal when in fact they are natural reactions to abusive practices. IMO, if this info can be widely circulated, it should change minds of those reluctant to ban horseracing.

        • Marilyn, you’ve stated it perfectly: “…race behaviors that are summarily dismissed as abnormal when in fact they are natural reactions to abusive practices.”. The abuse of the poor horse bred into this gambling industry is not drugs alone and horseracing cannot be “cleaned up” by stronger monitoring of drugs. It is a life of horror. Period. Thank you for caring and sharing!

  3. An important point about tongue ties. Horses are nose breathers, it is anatomically impossible for them to breathe through their mouths or to swallow and breathe simultaneously so when they breathe they lift their tongue to the roof of their mouth to block the esophagus to prevent themselves from choking. Humans do it too. Close your mouth, take a few deep breaths through your nose, and notice where your tongue is. They are forced to undergo high respiratory demands without the ability to breath efficiently and naturally. They are actually trying to flip their tongue over the bit in an attempt to breath during a race. When they finish foaming at the mouth it’s because they are unable to swallow their own saliva. I’ve actually told trainers that the horse can’t breath with his tongue tied and they look at me like I’m the idiot.

    • Oh, no, they say that horses foam like that because they like the taste of the bit, and trainers will tell you that is a good sign because all that saliva means the horse is soft in the mouth. These morons are just soft in the head. It’s a PIECE OF METAL for cripe’s sake!
      I had a couple of teeth pulled years ago and it still hurts like a mother when something gets jammed in that space the wrong way. I can’t even imagine having a heavy piece of metal against my bare gums and someone yanking down on it. Plus, it’s a proven fact that horses have a much more sensitive oral cavity and skin than humans do.

      • Because they like the taste. I don’t even know what to say about that one, may as well blame it on demonic possession.

        • The trainer reported on Sunday that he had soft palate displacement and the jockey eased him. Would this be what you were explaining?

    • Alan, thank you for your valuable input – explained so well – on equine breathing!

  4. Ah. A dorsal soft palate displacement is when the soft palate flips over the epiglottis and obstructs breathing, resulting in what’s commonly known as roaring. There is significant evidence that the bit contributes.

        • Thanks for posting the link! Was a very informative article.We ride our one Seattle Slew line horse with a Dr. Cook`s bridle as we actually have better speed control with it & besides our horse is smart & won`t always open his mouth even for a gentle snaffle bit! We have ridden on our now redeveloped track with his bridle until the outrider said no after he saw us using it. So glad to see that track GONE.

        • Thank you for your comments and the link, Alan. My own ideas and feelings about putting a metal bar in my horses’ mouths along with reading everything I could find from Dr. Cook prompted me to go bitless (that said, we don’t use bitless bridles but rather just a wide-diameter rope halter without the knots causing pressure over the poll and the nose). I’m including an article by Dr. Cook, too…I think it’s really “lay-friendly”. And the first sentence says it all in a nutshell – “Bitting a horse about to run is akin to muzzling a horse about to eat.”

          I wish I could find another piece by him that has always stuck with me, as well. In regards to the bit causing impaired breathing and “sudden deaths” in racehorses, he said something like this; “Horses can live weeks without food, days without water, but only seconds without oxygen.”

          • Another good article. He also talks about the need to extend the head to breathe. I’m always amazed by harness trainers who use headpoles and check the head high. It’s just dumb.

          • Very interesting article! Thanks for posting the link.The photograph of the horse & rider was beautiful to see with the horse being totally free to breath without restriction.

  5. Thank you, Jo Anne Normile, for sharing your knowledge and experience with Thoroughbred horses!!! From what I have read and experienced, the most compassionate bridle would be a bitless bridle. However, using a bitless bridle requires more horsemanship skills which scares some people. Not having brute force control over a horse in horseracing is not going to fly; so that requires all of these instruments of torture to get brute force control over a racehorse. Tongue ties are inhumane. So many things about horseracing are just outright INHUMANE!!!

    • Riding without a bit requires patience and soft communication with the horse. Not going to find any of that on the track.

      • Exactly, Rebecca! I have ridden horses without a bit, but not on a racetrack and also not a high-strung, nervous and scared to death racing horse. Can you imagine horseracing with NO BITS, NO TONGUE TIES, NO WHIPS, NO “POOL NOODLES” & NO BUZZERS/BATTERIES/SHOCKING DEVICES OF ANY KIND??? I don’t see that happening anytime soon or ever!

    • Wanda, thank you whinnies for caring and never forgetting the need to be the voice of these poor horses. We are their only true advocates. You are so right about the “brute force”. It’s a very common, macho type attitude that sadly prevails.

  6. This post should clear up any confusion that one might have about who exactly the equipment works for: the human exploiters not for the racehorses despite what apologists say.
    There’s another “tool of the trade” that can easily be overlooked and that’s the sound of the bell.
    A very loud bell rings through the starting gate designed to scare the racehorses into a frenzy putting them into their flight or fright mode.
    Most racehorses hate the starting gate probably for many reasons but the bell is one of them and so is the confined space because racehorses, by nature, are claustrophobic.
    Everything about this business is done to increase performance and wagering profits at the detriment of the racehorse.
    It’s a vile business and all racetracks are torture chambers for racehorses.

  7. Thank you Jo Anne Normile. Your compassion and experience with racehorses, and the way they live ( or rather exist ) helps the everyday Joe understand more about the deadly, disgusting sport that has roped people in to spending money most of them never had to begin with. The life of a horse is never worth a $2 bet…. hoping all is well in your life ♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️

  8. One thing that never did make sense to me is eye cups and blinkers (for driving horses). Since a horse has a blind spot directly in front and directly behind, aren’t you in fact asking a horse to preform at least partially blind? And no wonder so many horses on the track bump into each other – with those stupid eye cups they aren’t able to gauge the distance of the other horse properly.

    • We have taught horses to drive & we NEVER used blinders or check reins on any of them! A person MUST have a good relationship of trust between them & any horse to successfully teach them anything new & different.One horse we taught to drive became very handy for when we had to go & get tools & parts to repair our trucks engine.

  9. I hope more people will see the truth about racehorsing, that it is a cruel industry driven by greed.

  10. I have always hated horse racing. It seemed cruel. I had no idea the extent of cruelty.

  11. Thank you, Jo Anne! The “tools of cruelty” plus racehorses’ daily lives equal an existence no horse would choose if he was able. The longer I share my life with my equine family members, watching them, learning about herd interaction, understanding what truly enriches a horse’s life, the sadder I become for racehorses. There is nothing about a racehorse’s life that is physically or psychologically healthy – there is nothing about their lives that prioritizes their physical health or their mental wellbeing.

    I was sent a video of a yearling filly who was alone, without her mother, in a cement block stall (at a training center, I presumed) and it was heartbreaking. The little wide-eyed chestnut baby trembled at the back of the stall, doing what she could to not be touched by the man who “is going to be her jockey”. Her owner, who (proudly) posted the video, could be heard saying “You’re a yearling now! You’re a big girl!” She clearly hasn’t a clue about horses, I thought – which was confirmed when in response to the man saying the yearling needed “a trim” yet that day, she stuttered “ah…trim? ah…what? ah…trim?” How many racing owners are just so incredibly ignorant about horses that they believe anything their trainer tells them? Yea, things like “they love to run”…“they need a job”…“racing strengthens two-year-old’s bones”…“they love being in stalls with Jolly Balls”…“this is royal treatment, these baths and peppermints”. I suppose an owner who doesn’t even know what a TRIM is for her yearling is going to believe anything her trainer tells her. Racing trainers like those types. The ignorant ones. The ones that know nothing about what enriches a horse’s life…because it certainly isn’t racing them.

  12. Thank you for the graphic explanations and pictures of the horses under these device tortures. They should be used on billboards to make fans aware of what’s really going on. They should be sent to our state and national government officials non-stop until they pay attention and finally outlaw these evil practices. A PICTURE SPEAKS MORE THAN A THOUSAND WORDS. Please make these pictures available so advocates can blitzkrieg their representatives.

  13. Please excuse the generic pablum, but a piece on the “sports” segment of the news provoked a renewed disgust in me for this publicly accepted horror show. The announcer was narrating a race, which I would have ignored, except that he was so over-the-top and SCREAMING into his microphone that I was shocked. It was more manic than the final moments of the world series or the super bowl. I had to wonder, WHO really is watching this? I can’t understand how it survives when no one I know watches it or knows who “won” the Kentucky derby. No one I know CARES who won. The races are all exactly the same. So how can this disgusting cruelty survive? Such a low profile keeps it off the radar, for one. But it’s the influence of the wealthy elite…the hogs at the trough of society…that convince us of its validity. “Tradition” is one of the three ugliest words of English. (along with “legacy” and “heritage”) When cruel oppressive behavior by the wealthy or those in power has no justification, “tradition” is used. Upon hearing it, we all are comfortable looking the other way. Of all the ugly, hurtful behaviors unique to mankind, horse racing seems to have the least redeeming aspects to justify it. More accurately, it has NO redeeming aspects. There is no logical answer to how it has survived this long in a self-described, “humane” society. It needs to find its place in history books along with all the other embarrassing “traditions” we have trouble explaining to our children.

    • I agree with everything you said except that I have to say that not all horse races are the same. It’s like saying if you have seen one rodeo, you’ve seen ’em all. That is only an expression to say you’re not a fan and you don’t have enough interest to become a fan or knowledgeable on the details or the rules of the event.
      Who cares who won the Derby? The rich people that have millions of dollars invested into this atrocity of extreme abuse of Thoroughbred racehorses and the gambling addicts who bet money on the horses. Every horse’s life matters!
      In case you missed it, Bob Baffert is well-known for doping the horses he trains. He seems to have been given “a license to cheat” and The Preakness is the second leg of the Triple Crown. The abuse goes on…

    • THANK YOU, Bob! That was so well said and brilliant. It’s obvious to us — and to any thinking person, really — that animal racing should have been made illegal decades ago. Yet it still stumbles and staggers its way along under the sick banner of tradition.
      Reminds me of the Shirley Jackson story, “The Lottery.” Your comment renewed this association for me. Glad to know your voice is out here and that YOU GET IT. So it’s not generic pablum at all:)

      • If you TRULY love someone…”Set them FREE”. And, that’s your Sting reference for a Friday night.

  14. Regarding blinkers and shadow rolls – can you imagine the stress a prey animal endures being made to run in (extremely) close proximity in a “herd” with his vision restricted? He’s got “something” on his back striking him, his herd is running, his instincts tell him to stay with his herd because the horse who doesn’t gets taken down by the predator, and he CAN’T SEE?!? How damn cruel is that? And then some also have another of their senses impaired – their ears stuffed with cotton…I’m actually surprised more racehorses don’t bump and clip heels and go down – I think it’s a testament to how strong that drive to stay within the “safety” of their herd is.

    Horseracing surely exploits the instincts of the equine. “Love to run”? – such BS – it’s simply want to live.

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