Monday, 11 April 2011

Off I go again


Posted by Tania Kindersley.


What drives me mad about Blogger is the cramped space for comments, and the endless scrolling up and down that is required when I reply to what readers have written. My post yesterday generated a really interesting set of comments, including a spirited dissent by one of the dear readers, and I am going to reply on the main blog rather than in the comment section itself. I also think that it is a fascinating subject, touching on wider areas of how humans view animals and their rights, and so hope some amplification is not too much of a self-indulgence.

Here is Lillyanne’s dissent:

‘Well, I'm not sure about this. Twitter and the Daily Mail make good opponents for your post because they're illogical and sensationalist, but I believe there's more to the arguments than you allow. Set the stupid or easily-dismissed aside, and we're still left with an uncomfortable situation. Yes, of course, racehorses love to race - that's what they're bred for.

But I think you make an illogical point: if horses can die horribly in one group of human-invented activities, you suggest, and if people object to that, then all horse-related activities must logically be banned. There's a big gap between something like the Grand National (which is probably the only race many people watch) and a sweeping statement like "if you want no horse to die or suffer ever again" - not a fair conclusion, Tania.

Every time a horse dies in a jump race, and especially in the GN which has a notoriously difficult course, it's going to upset watchers - both those who don't know anything about horse racing, and - as you also point out - those who do. The Guardian, which you may not read, actually has a very good page about all this today including good comment from their racing correspondent, and good coverage of the jockey in hospital as well. It also points out that Ballabriggs had to be given oxygen and hosed down after the race. I quote one sentence: "Three of the four horses to finish were too exhausted to enter the winner's enclosure..."

Here's the thing: if a horse race like the GN is a great British sporting spectacle, which is how the organisers position it, it's going to have to be safer - for horses and jockeys - than it is. And if it is not, then every time a horse dies or a jockey is injured, there will be public protest, both intemperate and more measured, but both lead to consequences the GN organisers may not desire. And I don't think that ought to surprise anyone.

I love horse racing. But I know - as you point out - that gallant, beautiful horses will indeed do what they are bred and trained to do - attempt the impossible - and some of them will die or be injured doing that. And as long as the impossible remains the target, that doesn't seem right.’


First of all, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the measured courtesy of the disagreement I get on this blog. Unlike other, less polite arenas, no one shouts or makes ad hominem attacks, but offers another, reasoned point of view.

Second of all, there are very good points here. I do absolutely accept that the National should be made as safe as possible and that people watching it will be upset by tragedies such as we saw on Saturday. I also found the evident exhaustion of Ballabriggs upsetting, although readers should know that he is fully recovered and happily at home in his stable.

However, I am going to defend myself against claims of lack of logic. What the critics of the Grand National object to is horses dying. I said this was illogical, since horses die in all manner of activities, from polo to eventing to hacking on a quiet road, and there is no call for those to be stopped. Horses may injure themselves fatally in flat races (this happens more frequently in America, where they race on dirt more often than grass.) Donald McCain, the trainer of the National winner, lost a horse in a hurdle race earlier in the Aintree meeting. Hurdles are small obstacles, made of brush. They are about three feet high and very thin, and, unlike steeplechase fences, will flip forward, almost flat, if a horse hits them. There are no ditches or drops. Yet these innocuous looking things caused a fatality.

The moral position of the critics is: horses die in the Grand National, therefore the race is cruel and should be banned. Yet many, many more horses die in other human-related activity. Thus, the only logical conclusion of their argument can be that humans should not use horses for anything that risks death. It seems to be there can be no other consistent position.

More horses do fall in The Grand National than in other races, and it is also true that as I get older I hate seeing that more and more, and do sometimes wonder if it is such a glorious thing to watch. I have always preferred watching The Gold Cup or the King George as a test of blazing talent, and, until quite recently, the National was not considered an event for good horses, but for those slightly freakish animals who can stay four and half miles and take to the massive obstacles. (There are some horses who oddly love the National fences, and perform much better over them than over regular jumps). But since the race takes place only once a year, its overall risk to horses is much, much lower than all other equine pursuits. This is where the ‘National equals death so must be stopped' argument falls down for me.

Moving away from my reader to a wider point: I find that the Ban the National argument lacks simple utility. No Grand National would not mean there would never again be a dead, injured or exhausted horse. It is just that fewer people would see it. It would not save any lives, it would simply put the risk into a more obscure arena, not watched by eight million ordinary Britons. That is why I brought up the battery chickens. Not only do all the chickens die, but their lives are a terrible hades of dark, crowded, stinking sheds, beaks cut off, and ammonia sores. Yet millions of them are eaten every year, with no public outcry. The reason is that they are not seen. They are not on television. The cruelty exists on an industrial scale, yet is considered unimportant because it is effectively invisible. Most people who buy cheap chicken have little idea what its production entails, because unless they have watched Huge Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme on the subject on Channel Four, they will never have been near a chicken farm. All they know is that they need to feed their families on a shrinking budget, and it is very hard to blame them for that. What I do wonder though is why the vocal advocates against the abuse of animals focus on racing, which contains so much joy and life alongside its occasional tragedies, rather than battery farming, which has no joy at all.

There are moral philosophers who argue that in a hundred years humans shall look back in amazement at the idea of their ancestors eating meat at all. The very notion of munching on other, sentient beings, who share 90% of our DNA, will seem as barbaric as the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. This is a fascinating and entirely consistent ethical position, and if those philosophers were to make an argument against racing I should pay them close attention. In some ways, what disturbs me about the recent outpouring of fury against the Grand National is not so much the objections themselves, some of which have merit and should be debated, but the howling fury, the intemperate language, the whiff of hypocrisy.

Those who call the Grand National ‘ritual animal cruelty’, and ‘on a par with bullfighting’, where, let us not forget, the bull is done to death not by accident, but on purpose, are accusing all the trainers, owners, jockeys, stable lads and lasses, bloodstock agents, vets, clerks of the course, starters, commentators, and spectators of participating in, even revelling in, that so-called cruelty. What a lot of the crossest people on the message boards have been objecting to is the ‘unnatural’ nature of the sport, that poor, free horses are trapped, trussed up with tack, and then booted over fences to their possible death, all so callous humans can enjoy themselves. Again, this carries a seed of illogic. It is an old natural = good, artificial = bad argument. It would only hold if all horses in the wild lived a sunlit life of apples and delight, expiring of natural causes when they were twenty.

In fact, horses who live in herds have to contend with extreme temperatures, no shelter, lack of food, and challenges from rival herds, where stallions with fight each other to the death. Foals born prematurely or animals who have become weak or injured are left behind to die. This is what humans would call ruthless, although it would be anthropomorphic to apply that word to horses. They are merely obeying their Darwinian imperative, and staying true to their survival instincts. They cannot afford sentimentality. Their natural life in the open spaces is consistently harder than anything they would encounter in a domestic setting. Kept by humans, they are fed, watered, sheltered, groomed, and loved. The price they pay for it is that they have a small risk of dying an untimely death. I cannot speak for horses, but if I were one, I would make that bargain.

The other thing that is fascinating about this whole row is what it reveals about the attitude to risk itself. In humans, high-risk pursuits are generally lauded, especially in the male of the species, as a marker of great courage and endurance and even morality. We love our Arctic explorers and our mountain climbers and our transatlantic rowers. Of course the immediate response to this is that these are people, making informed choices. They face death or injury or paralysis knowingly. Yet there is a moral dilemma here too, which is never mentioned. There is someone who has even less choice than those thoroughbreds out on the Aintree course, and that is the small children of those who embrace risk. A six month old baby cannot say: please do not climb Everest, because I really do not want to lose you.  One could make an argument that the moral dilemmas inherent in this are not a million miles away from the current arguments that are raging over the evils of racing. Yet with two legs, risk is good; with four legs, risk is bad.

As you see from my most excellent reader, there are good arguments to be had, for and against. In some ways, I am not so much making my case for racing, although I believe it to be a great sport which brings joy to millions, as making a plea for consistency and logic from the other side. That is why I rather facetiously mentioned cats and vegans yesterday. It is why I think that the furious critics should be able to explain why chickens are less important than horses. It is why I wish that emotive and misleading references to bull-fighting should be dropped.

And, I am slightly ashamed to admit, it is a little bit personal. I say to the people on the message boards and the writers of the tabloids, and the tweeters on Twitter, and the man from the animal rights organisation: make your moral case, calmly and politely, as my reader did, but don’t call my dad and half the people I grew up with cruel barbarians.


Now for some soothing green pictures for you:

11th April 1

11th April 2

11th April 3

11th April 9

11th April 13

And lovely ladyships:

11th April 14




Tomorrow, I promise there shall be pith. I know you have things to do. A couple of lines about beetroot, and no more.


  1. I, too, appreciate your readers polite and well thought out dissent. I also appreciate the good discussion of differing viewpoints. Thank you for sharing all.

  2. I feel rather honoured to have my comments from yesterday featured in your latest post, and gratified that you appreciate the temperate tone in which I expressed my opinions. Temperance does not come easily to me; I tend, by nature and habit, towards the ranting end of argument. And frankly, Tania, I suspect you get polite and measured disagreement because you (mostly) set the tone for that. It's like teachers who shout at their pupils and are surprised if the shouted-at turn into strident shouters themselves.

    Anyway, while we all further consider the rational ends of the arguments, I confess I am looking forward to tomorrow's post and your promise of beetroot thoughts.

  3. Susan - how kind you are, especially after I have been banging on for far too long.Thank you.

    Lillyanne - you are so lovely. I was just this minute thinking you were quite right, and I had been perhaps as guilty of the sweeping statement as the critics I was complaining of. Was filled with angst; and then I got yr most kind comment. Thank you. And thank you for keeping me on my toes: I really had to think a lot after your dissent. Am not at all certain my argument is right, by the way,and shall go on pondering. I think perhaps I am more against dogmatism and iron certainties than anything else. Anyway, thank you again. And you SHALL have beetroot. :)

  4. Maybe I'm being naive but couldn't the course be made easier, to prevent the great suffering of some animals? There'd still be a winning horse!

  5. A very difficult question this, and I think it's very good that readers are discussing this in a calm manner, as so many emotions are involved. I would like to add a few words, if I may.
    I don't think it is quite true that you cannot force a horse to do something it does not want. I too have spent a lot of time around horses and have seen them get beaten, whipped, doped and drugged. Very sharp bits are often used as are all kinds of contraptions to keep the horses' heads in the right position etc. Many horses in this world are forced in horrible ways – such as being made to run with one leg tied up – when still a foal. And unfortunately, the more money is involved (as it is in big races and shows), the greater the temptation for humans to use some kind of force.
    I understand your argument, but at the same time I think it's a bit naive to think that all horse owners (only) love and respect their horses. In the case of race horses the owners.trainers are also financially dependant of their horses; the horses have to earn their keep and preferably a lot more. So there is a lot at stake for many horse owners. I'm not saying it is wrong for humans to use animals. But I think we have to be at least honest about it. No horse would run a GN out of its own free will, I think.
    Well, *sigh*. I certainly do not have the answer, but I agree with other readers that races like this (and other courses – how about eventing?) should be made a bit more horse (and human) friendly.

  6. Hi Tania- I'm not sure which post is best to comment on so I'm going for here!

    I am not as knowledgable about race horses as you are but I worked in a yard from 11 to the end of University every weekend with well bread horses and Thelwell ponies and everything inbetween. I think what you say about not being able to make horses do something they don't want to is all there is to say about this argument.

    This came up at my work on friday as everyone was placing their bets. It is very very sad when horses die or have to be put to sleep as a result of a race, of course it is, and no one feels that more than the staff at the yard and the trainers- they are the ones who know that animal, it's personality and so on. But horses are extremely strong creatures and frankly I have never managed to persuade one to do something it didn't feel it wished to- no carrot, blindfold or clever trick has yet succeeded to get four hooves to go where they do not wish to. Anyone who has ever got to the point of a raised hoof in a disagreement will know the human will back down before the horse every time! those horses could and know exactly how to throw a rider at any time and likewise no whip is going to stop them from standing still if they wish- in the end they'd throw their rider, kick them, bite them, whatever- they are huge beasts that way tons- they love to run and they love the jockeys and the grass and the jumps- but there are so many of them and sad things happen.

    You can see those horses in the National love to run and gallop- you can see a sad or frightened horse if you know what to look for and those are not- those horses are running with their ears pricked and their tails up with excitement and joy.

    There is certainly a question about the ammount of runners in the National and I do think that the field could perhaps be reduced as there are often runners who are not quite up to the standard, but then rank outsiders often place which disproves that theory entirely- and that is part of the legend of the race.


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