Every year I sit down in April and watch the Grand National. In 2015 I spent April 11th with friends and we watched the race together. As The Druid’s Nephew fell and Ballycasey was brought down, with Ruby Walsh diverting the runners around Balthazar King with his broken ribs, they became increasingly horrified. After Many Clouds had crossed the finish line they asked me if I like horses so much, how can I watch such a horrible, cruel race?
There’s no doubt that horse racing is a troubled sport, with claims that the horses are disposable, drugged-up, raced too young and routinely destroyed after all-too-common injuries. Thoroughbred foals might well be described as overproduced: a study by the Equine Fertility Unit in Newmarket found that out of 1,022 TB foals born in 1999, 347 were raced and only 200 remained in training by 2003. Over 100 were dead or untraceable, potentially because at the end of their short working lives or if they fail to win, many racehorses are slaughtered.
The RSPCA continues to campaign to further restrict use of the whip on racehorses, based on not only the whipping itself but a possible link between whip use and likelihood of falling in National Hunt (jump) racing. Another welfare issue is that to achieve high levels of athletic performance, racehorses are fed a high-energy, low-fibre diet at odds with the trickle feeding of forage that equines evolved to eat. A study by Murray et al (1996) found 93% of racehorses to have stomach ulcers. Risk factors for gastric ulcers in horses include medication use, physical and psychological stress (such as confinement and transport) and concentrated feeds, all of which racehorses are exposed to.
And another, often-forgotten problem with the racing industry: it’s not all peachy for the people involved either. Much of the income generated by racing comes from betting. The NHS reports that almost 600,000 people in the UK may have a problem with gambling, which can be addictive and lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Within the industry there are suggestions that drug and alcohol abuse are common; an essay on “the murky undercurrent of vice that is unmistakable to all of us who live [in Newmarket]” won a Martin Wills Racing Writing Award this year.
My friends didn’t know any of this. All they had seen was the fallers and the whipping; so if I know that much more about what’s wrong with racing, how can I possibly turn on Channel 4 to watch the National?
For years I was dead against horse racing. I read the PETA and Animal Aid stories and wanted it stopped. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to realise something: a sport worth £3.7 billion to the UK economy is not going to stop. There is just no way. But it can change.
Picking through the problems with the racing industry, some stand out as having clear room for improvement, whilst others raise parallels with our use of other horses and animal species. Certainly the use of the whip must be regulated more strictly and I do not hesitate to support the RSPCA’s campaigning on this topic. I don’t know enough of the details to comment on use of analgesics to make injured horses race or train, but I’d hazard a guess that any racecourse vet worth their salt is on the lookout for this. Vets, I’ve noticed, generally go into the job because they care about animals and not because of, say, the great hours or pay. Furthermore, failure to pick out an obvious welfare issue like this would probably be malpractice and result in an unpleasant conversation with the RCVS.
One of the most hotly debated issues with racing is what happens to the horses at the end of their useful lives. Undeniably, many of them die in slaughterhouses, destined for human consumption on the continent or pet food. I have written before about the problem of animal welfare during live transport and this absolutely applies to racehorses; this is definitely an issue which needs addressing if they leave the UK alive for slaughter. Humane slaughter is also a must-have. However, unless you are a strict vegetarian who believes we shouldn’t kill animals for food, it strikes me as hypocritical that you could find fault just because the species here is one we usually keep for pleasure. Many farm animals live a far worse life than valuable Thoroughbred horses do before they are killed and eaten – we needn’t go into the details here, but think of battery hens, breeding sows and dairy cattle in intensive systems… As with all animals, my personal opinion has to be that if a creature has lived with a high standard of welfare and is killed humanely for consumption, this is acceptable. I would even imagine that horses are less stressed by the slaughterhouse than other livestock because they are more used to confinement and human handling than other species. Another purely personal observation is that many pleasure horses change hands or end up in less-than-careful homes because of behavioural issues, ill health or simply old age. Horses can go to far worse fates than the knacker man.
The racing industry has a long way to go and any standalone issues of neglect, abuse or cruelty are inexcusable. However, improvements can and are being made to the horses’ welfare; with appropriate campaigning, where charities and welfare groups work with the industry and not against it, this is within our grasp. The use of the whip can be reduced; the fences made less severe. Hopefully in time we can work on the horses “lifestyle” and diet. No lobbying or campaigning is going to end horse racing overnight, and if it did we would see thousands of Thoroughbred horses with nowhere to go but the slaughterhouse. My personal opinion is that steady progress towards improved-welfare racing is the way forwards.
So why do I watch the National? Well, my grandparents loved it, but in all honesty it’s actually a sort of superstition for me. It’s the one day of the year I pray (despite not being religious): a prayer that they all get home safe, as if my watching over them will make any difference. I never bet on it; I’m not a gambling person but even if I was, I don’t feel ready to support racing in its current form. And I still watch the Retraining of Racehorses classes at horse shows with joy that some of them, at least, have been given a second chance. I’ve ridden ex-racehorses and at risk of bringing too many dubious beliefs into this paragraph, I got the impression they knew they were onto a good thing.
Of course, in an ideal world, we would keep animals as happy pets safe from any sort of harm, or maybe we wouldn’t keep them at all; but we don’t live in an ideal world. In our flawed, human world, I think we just have to do the best we can to make things right for the animals we use.
Thanks for reading an absolute essay this week, and please let me know your thoughts in the comments if you’d like to.