Saturday 14 April 2012

Horseracing: Too Cruel?

It's that time of year again: the Grand National happens, and suddenly a lot more people than usual are shouting that horseracing is a bloodsport little better than dogfighting.

Well, I see where they're coming from. But I'm not sure I agree.

First of all, let's get out of the way the idea that horses dying is the big issue. I am not a vegetarian, and no-one who eats meat has any rational grounds to object to the deaths of farm animals. If you are a vegetarian on ethical grounds, and you object to horse racing because horses die, I respect your opinion. But I don't share it, and I have my doubts that all or even most of the people who complain about racing do. For those of us who have questioned eating meat and concluded that it is allowable, it would be hypocritical to raise thoroughbreds above cattle and say you can kill Betsy but not Dobbin.

The issue here is horses suffering.

How much suffering does racing cause horses? Certainly, it's tragic that some are injured. But, compared to the number of injured racehorses, how many horses are abused and neglected by owners who can't or just don't look after them properly every year? A lot: the RSPCA is calling it a crisis. Racehorses are given the best of care from the time they are conceived.

And there are always more measures being put in place to try to minimise injuries. Successful measures: numbers injuries and deaths are generally falling, even though numbers of runners are increasing.

How many horses are injured every year in their stalls or paddocks or on roads and trails or in jumping rings? The only difference if the horse is racing when it gets injured is that there is a specialist team there, ready to jump into action to either start giving it the best possible veterinary care, or to put it out of its pain as soon as possible. And of course that the horse was injured doing something it really enjoys.

Because those who claim that racing is cruel even for horses that finish unscathed, are really grasping at straws.
'Let's all watch abused horses being whipped to win a race'
someone tweeted today.

Do you mean, 'let's all watch beautifully cared-for horses getting slapped on the buttocks - through their pelt, thick hide, and pints of adrenaline - to give them instructions while they are doing what they love to do'.

All horses will instinctively like to run, and thoroughbreds have been selectively bred to run for centuries, and racehorses have been raised and trained to run throughout their lives. And it shows: the riderless horse would not be finishing the race with the rest of them, ears pricked forward, in spite of the run-of areas placed to encourage loose horses to leave the course, if it did not want to be running.

The whip is another thing people object to. Perhaps they are imagining being hit with that kind of force on their own bare behinds. A horse is a thick-skinned animal with a fur coat, plenty of padding that means you have to give a reasonable whack for the animal to feel it. I don't doubt it is possible to hit a horse with a riding crop hard enough to hurt it, but the rules against that, or against beating the animal right through the race, are strict and enforced. And this is a horse running at full speed, focussed on running and pumped full of adrenaline and endorphins and things, and of course it's going to be 'feeling the burn' that work-out enthusiasts enthuse over. It's genuinely not going to notice a tickle.

So the horses enjoy it, they are very well cared for, as much as possible is being done to reduce injuries even further, and they are either treated or euthanased if they are injured.
Doesn't sound like a tremendously indefensible amount of suffering, if you aren't morally opposed to any use of animals by humans - of course if you are, I respect your view.

Oh, and as a postscript: I do believe I have heard people complain that it's too dangerous for the jockeys as well. Certainly the job carries a lot of health risks. But are we really, seriously, suggesting that it's wrong to allow adults to make an informed decision to participate in a dangerous sport?

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