Animal Studies Bibliography

Rosecrance, John. 1985. The Invisible Horsemen: The Social World of the Backstretch. Qualitative Sociology 8: 248-265.

Social worlds are groups of people connected by shared discourse and view of reality. They are of varying size and visibility. Backstretch workers, who care for racehorses, comprise one such invisible social world. These workers have had the lowest prestige of any group involved in horseracing since the sport began, at which time the work was performed by slaves. Modern backstretch workers live under similar conditions, fairly powerless and living close to the animals they care for. There is no established system to move up to better jobs, no fringe benefits, and no other benefits from regular work, like sick leave. Trainers, who hire the backstretch workers, have absolute power over the workers and the working conditions, and workers have no way to appeal for help against abusive treatment. Trainers often help the workers, however, in paternalistic ways, because keeping already-trained workers is in the trainers' best interests. Most backstretch workers are black and Latino; others are poor, rural, or uneducated whites and a few are people who just like working with horses. Discontent was apparent but not directed anywhere, because of feelings of powerlessness but also due to 2 myths that kept workers happy: the we take care of our own myth, based on ideas that trainers would help you if you needed it, and the owners don't make any money myth, which helped justify low wages. Three factors work to make the social world of the backstretch invisible to the general or even the racing public. First, they are isolated, spatially (the backstretch is located apart from the racing grounds), and by security (24-hour security keeps out people trying to get betting information but also keeps workers from interacting with any outsiders), job responsibilities (long hours and 7-day-a-week work and the need to be constantly in the area in case needed), a self-contained environment (because they must be in the area so much, most workers live in the backstretch, and it has all necessary facilities--kitchen, grocery store, medical care, social events, etc.), and stigmatization (venturing outside the backstretch often results in negative responses from the people encountered, encouraging the workers not to leave). Second, the lack of media coverage keeps the backstretch workers invisible. Major media only cover the results and the major races, but there is a national daily newspaper read by everyone involved in the racing world. This paper, however, gives nearly no coverage to backstretch work or workers. The only coverage is obituaries of veteran backstretch workers and stories about workers' violations and resulting fines or suspensions. The lack of coverage is because events on the backstretch do not fit into the regular reporter's beat, do not fit into a neat timetable (work follows a natural flow and workers work at their own paces), the work does not appear orderly (because each worker is doing his own thing) and therefore seems unworthy of coverage, and due to concerns that trainers would feel such reporting constituted spying on their horses in order to glean betting information. The paper is also worried about public image and does not want to put forth an unpleasing aspect of the sport. In fact, the paper would do well to talk to backstretch workers, who often know much more about each horse and its health and skills than do trainers and owners, who are usually interviewed. Coverage in the racing paper would give backstretch workers' jobs legitimacy and visibility. Third, their work is considered dirty work, which is always stigmatized in our culture. Trainers, in order to keep the support of the horse owners and to get more clients, must emphasize their own skills and therefore downplay the centrality of the backstretch workers' efforts to the horse's success. This only increases the perception that all the workers do is haul shit. Because backstretch workers are not as independent as workers in some other dirty jobs, like garbage collectors and butchers, they have had less success in creating their own, positive re-interpretation of the work they do. These factors combine to keep the backstretch an invisible social world, and its invisibility has allowed the worker's low status to be perpetuated for centuries.



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