Twice per year – in fact, twice in the space of a month – with the assistance of the tabloid press fanning the flames of their argument, anti-horse racing protestors make it their business to complain about how cruel the sport is, and decide that they have the authority to lobby for bans and restrictions. Racing will be referred to as “barbaric” or “unfair” and “against the interests of the horse”, these assertions often put forward by people who have never met a racehorse, nevermind tried to ask it to do something it’s not interested in.
Whether spectators object to the alleged mistreatment of horses within racing, or it offends them on another level – the profit made, perhaps, or the fact that gambling is involved – is not what bothers me. Instead, it is the misinformed opinions they hold, based on speculation rather than experience. Someone recently suggested to me that the best way to positively change a situation is to get to know it – learn how the system works, study it and be part of it, and then you may understand how best to change and improve it.
No industry is perfect: unfortunately, humans and animals alike are subjected to undesirable practices. However, as a fan of and participant in equestrian sports, this much I know: the welfare of horses in professional competition certainly is increasingly important and scrutinised. Any rider will be quick to point out that the horses are far better looked after than the humans, and the reason is simple: we cannot do it without them. It is in our interests that they are cared for and happy, as this enables them to do their jobs. Furthermore, many riders show a genuine affection for their animals – they aren’t often regarded on the same level as domestic pets (there is a natural separation with horses, as we don’t share our homes with them… just every waking hour), but they are important to us. One of the qualities which makes many riders great is their affinity with their animals, and they appreciate what these magnificent creatures do for them.
Grooms in particular spend a lot of time caring for the horses, in racing and other equestrian sports. If a horse is sick or injured, it is they who are called upon to tend to the animal: cleaning and dressing wounds; walking horses to alleviate the symptoms of colic or to ease stiffness in a joint; painstakingly mixing the correct amounts of feed, supplements and medicines several times per day to ensure the correct balance is struck; cleaning out stables and making them comfortable – these are just some of the tasks performed, and may be required at any time of day or night. And they do this day in, day out.
Twice per year, the general public will watch ten minutes of sport on television, log on to Twitter or Facebook, see their friends reacting in horror because a horse has been injured in the name of sport and label it as barbaric. What they have failed to see is the months of preparation, the dedication and care, the panic at every slightest knock, all that it takes to even get to the start line. Before a horse runs four and a half miles, it has already completed a marathon.
The morning after the race, as one horse is paraded like a hero and showered in champagne and flowers, the 39 it passed en route to glory will be carefully tended to by the human beings who sent them out there. The tabloids will print something else, links relating to other scandals will be shared on social media, and racing will again be forgotten by all but the dedicated fans and those who work to make it happen every day.
Feel free to disapprove of an activity, and to voice your opinion, for we are fortunate to live in a free world. But if it really bothers you and you care about it that much, please show your devotion to every animal who doesn’t make the grade, or who is injured in the failed pursuit of glory, rather than the few who are hurt in the most public of ways. Because, sadly, animals are injured every day, and crushingly often it is at the hands of man. Racing isn’t the only time a horse has apparently lost the right to choose: I have heard of incidents where horses and riders have been struck by vehicles whilst out on the roads near their homes – a place that they are entitled to be and should be able to proceed safely; especially in these tough financial times, horses are victims of abuse and neglect, with animal charities being called upon to save them from desperate circumstances.
If you want to change the situation, get to know it properly and be part of something positive, rather than following the uninformed crowd.