Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2020

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation explores Thoroughbred training and racing in central Kentucky’s “horse country,” the most culturally and economically invested horse racing region in the United States. In recent decades, public interest in horse racing has waned and this sporting industry has intensified the use of biomedical interventions, including pharmaceuticals. This is fueling rising ethical concerns about the welfare and treatment of racehorses and calls for reform, including federal oversight and regulation of the sport. Given these changes and pressures, I have sought to understand what it is like to live and work in this agrarian world. Supported by the Wenner- Gren Foundation, I spent 18 months conducting ethnographic and archival research at farms, barns, and tracks in central Kentucky, including working extensively on a mid-sized training team. Although I spent time with people representing a wide range of positions, this dissertation investigates horseracing from the standpoint of low and middling trainers, their training staff, and their horses—all of whom most acutely feel the heat and pressures of horseracing’s consolidation. This scope has enabled me to provide a unique account of how the decline of an agrarian industry is reshaping human and animal life, work-related identities, social organization, and the present and future of a rural American landscape and culture. In the process of writing, I have worked to capture the feeling of the places I went and worked, and in the region that I come from and consider home. I do this by gauging, tracing, and navigating heat, a humoral folk concept of horse power that I take up and extrapolate as a multisided analytic to convey the various lived vitalities, social intensities, and industrial forces that currently characterize this inflamed cultural climate. This provides a lens into how the contradictory and disorienting inertias, momentums, and frictions—in other words, thermodynamic heats—are lived and borne, particularly by middling people and animals in middle America. I specifically analyze how different forms of heat generate what horsemen call “The Merry-go-round,” the sense of feeling inextricably tied to horses and racetrack life on an entropic ride going nowhere fast but that they cannot seem to escape. In contrast to much contemporary anthropology which narrates multispecies relations in terms of the transformative and open possibilities of continual becoming, I find that affective and social forces entrench horsemen into lives and livelihoods that they know they are economically unsustainable and socially problematic. I argue that this feeling of being caught in an iterative, ever-accelerating loop is broadly indicative of the precarities and difficulties experienced by many middling workers and managers in stagnating contemporary rural America. This offers an important lens into a broader red state American politics under late capitalism in which rural people doubledown on agrarian work and worlds because they feel deeply and inextricably tied to them, unable or unwilling to escape even though they know that such commitments likely entail increasing duress, precarity, and heat.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Peter Benson

Committee Members

Glenn Stone, Kedron Thomas, Talia Dan-Cohen, Kathryn Dudley,