During the week of the Grand National I listened to countless phone-ins on the radio, where those in favour of horse racing ‘ganged up’ on people who can see that the ‘sport’ is so obviously cruel. The tone from the racing fans reminded me of many a religious fanatic I’ve seen in online debates over the years. Unashamedly stating untruths as truths, only listening to each other, talking in clichés, answering moral questions by changing the subject, shouting a lot, claiming they must be respected for their views, claiming they are the victims as opposed to the perpetrators (a further insult to the suffering of the animals involved) and citing the belief that the ‘sport’ can only be reliably regulated from within (a familiar enough claim by those who have something to hide).
So let’s get this straight; horse racing is cruel. There is no question about this, no debate to be had and no opposing opinion worth listening to. This is not irrational, strident anti-equestrianism; it’s just a healthy respect for the facts of the matter. We don’t have to respect every opinion that is out there. If someone said that they thought the holocaust didn’t occur few would feel compelled to respect that person’s view. We should feel exactly the same with regards to torturing animals for entertainment purposes.
We know that horses have a conscious concern for their moment to moment experience of the world. They are motivated to be happy, to be healthy and to reproduce. Furthermore, their mental well-being is perfectly aligned to the extent to which they are achieving these desires. This is the litmus test for human responsibility. Horses are intelligent animals that can suffer and so fall squarely within the realm of our moral and ethical concerns. We have an obligation to do the very best we can for them.
It is impossible to square the above paragraph with the activities that occur within the world of horse racing. Frustratingly, I actually think many people, even some involved in the ‘sport’, know it. Again we can draw an analogy with those who struggle to give up their faith – they simply have too much to lose. Financial greed or a lack of moral courage (often both) prevents people from speaking out.
To briefly touch the shores of some of the issues, the problems begin with the breeding process. Such is the money involved, the purity of blood lines of horses are like gold dust. They are subjected to extreme patterns of inbreeding (which often occurs offshore and out of sight) that cause devastating conditions such as bleeding lungs, gastric ulcers, brittle bones and numerous viral diseases. Consequently, only a small percentage of those bred will be healthy enough to have a chance of making the grade – the rest are killed. The cruelty, suffering and loss of life that goes in to getting that one good horse is a catastrophic moral failure. Just imagine being a part of that process. Deliberately breeding in such a way that is guaranteed to result in most horses being born crippled or disease riddled – and thus disposed of (who knows how). And what for? So the most sinister and moronic in our society can enjoy a day at the races.
The horses’ predicament, hardly improves once they reach the stables of their eventual owners. They are regularly, forcibly run to exhaustion. Some die of exhaustion before they even get to race, some acquire injuries due to over training, and others develop health problems carried over from the breeding process. On race days, we see the horses pushed to their limit under the coercion of a man kicking and whipping them. Should they fall and injure themselves, which is fairly common and becoming increasingly so, again largely due to the weakening of horses bones related to inbreeding, then the horses are shot because they are no longer of economic worth. Shockingly, 151 horses a year die on British race tracks. We should pause to think of what might go on behind the scenes if this is how the horses are treated in public.
If a horse is lucky enough to survive this sick form of Russian roulette, they are rewarded with a lethal injection the moment they are too old to continue racing.
The latter seems to be the only thing that racing fans admit to and openly say is wrong – and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t call into question the actual sport itself, legislation will not affect the ability to win races or take bets, and it is a token gesture towards showing some concern for a horse’s well-being to allay the concerns of those whose concerns are easily allayed. For the rest of us who can see through this false pretence, it only further highlights the lack of character of those involved and no legislative after thought can show otherwise.
The retorts to the above from the world of racing are so hollow that they would barely deserve attention if it wasn’t for the slightly aggravating fact that they seem to be so readily believed by so many. Here are some that I have personally been on the receiving end of:
“The horses love being ridden and jumping over things – it’s what they are built for.”
This is an example of the ‘changing the subject’ technique I spoke of earlier. I’m more than prepared to accept that should the appropriate trust relationship be built, a horse may well enjoy having a rider on its back, having a trot about, perhaps even exerting itself once in a while. What I require a lot more convincing of however, is that they enjoy being forced to jump ridiculously high fences and being shot should they fail to do so. I think it is highly unlikely they would choose this for themselves. Does it not occur to anyone that the whip is necessary for a reason? Clearly the horse doesn’t want to be doing what it’s doing to such an extent that kicking them just isn’t enough.
“The owners and trainers love their horses and take amazing care of them.”
This is just a canned line for the non-thinking. It is an example of knowingly lying. It has no basis in fact and no relation to the meanings of the words ‘love’ and ‘care’ as we commonly understand them. The truth is they love being involved in something that makes them so much money and what they care about is that their horses are healthy enough to earn them their next payday. They may well love the thrill of riding, but subjectively this is not the same thing as loving the horse. No one treats anyone they truly love the way horses are treated in the world of horse racing.
“The few unfortunate deaths are blown out of proportion when put into the context of a great and popular sport.”
This is like saying a date with Ted Bundy is great apart from all the killing and stuff. In any case, 151 deaths per year on race days alone (so not including during training) is not just ‘a few.’ Needless to say, there is no number of deaths that would make it all ok.
The truth is that horse racing will be viewed in the not too distant future in the same manner as everyone currently views bear baiting or dog fighting. The frustrating part is the period of time that elapses between societies really knowing that something is wrong, and actually legislating against it. But as with something like the outlawing of the slave trade, once the leap is made it takes almost no time at all for everyone to agree. This will be the case with horse racing. There will come a time very soon when we all will wonder how intelligent people who lived in a time of truly remarkable scientific and technological advancement could purvey such cruelty upon these beautiful animals.
What I would like is for the delay in most of us realising it is wrong (again, I think we are largely at this stage) and actually doing something about it, to be as minimal as possible. For this to happen, everyone has to stop allowing this ‘sport’ a pass in conversation. When someone mentions it, perhaps as a suggestion for a day out, please explain to them why it is cruel. We must make supporting this awful activity as socially unacceptable as homophobia or racism.