|Home||Question Archive||Your Pets||Biog||Emma's Pets||Missing||in Memory||Pet Talk||Useful Links||Charities|
Nothing Grand about the National.
The Grand National is billed as the greatest steeplechase on Earth but to me it will always be akin to bull fighting or bear baiting or any other sport in which animals are injured or killed in the name of human entertainment. This year, as with every other year that people have questioned the sport, there were the usual arguments put forward from the horse-racing fraternity which I have disputed for many years. I decided to get to the bottom of it all and make sure all my gut feelings were actually correct. So let’s have a look at what the proponents of the race and the sport as a whole have to say and see if any of it makes sense.
Every sport has risks involved. Well, of course obviously this is true. Only this year a jockey was paralysed in a fall and many jockeys are injured every year. Lots of people get injured in the name of sport. But fundamentally, every human participating in a sport does so through their own choice. They have the knowledge of the risks involved and they make an informed choice as to whether to participate. The same is not true for animals. They have no choice. If the mortality rates were the same for humans as for the horses I’m sure there would be far fewer jockeys lining up to ride.
Horses can injure themselves even in a field. Again, a statement that is obviously true. All animals can sustain injuries in day to day life. If all horses have these risks then race horses are additionally exposed to the higher risks associated with injury in the sport and also the far higher mortality rate. The BHA quotes a mortality rate of something like 4/1000 starts in jumps racing but these figures are somewhat misleading. The only deaths counted are those which take place on the premises. If an injured horse is taken home or to a veterinary surgery and then euthanased it will not be counted as a racing death. Surely if the racing fraternity has nothing to hide there should be much greater transparency and honesty where these figures are concerned. Even looking at deaths on the course the Grand National rate is 23 in the last 1000 starts before this year’s race so a horse in the national is five times more likely to be fatally injured than in a normal jumps race.
The course is getting safer. 2013 saw no deaths in the Grand National which was a bonus for everyone concerned, not least of all the horses. The course builders will be quick to say the changes to the fences this year and the new start position were the reason. I honestly hope they are right and that we will not see any more deaths in coming years. Somehow I am not convinced though. Two horses died on the national fences in the days leading up to the big race and there are of course years gone by where no fatalities have been recorded. I suspect time will tell.
There is good evidence to suggest that the size of the field and certain fences like the lethal Becher’s Brook contribute massively to the death and injury rates. If the national is to become anywhere near ‘safe’ enough to quell the concerns of people like me then these must change. For many years now the organisers have said year on year that they are concerned with safety and have made changes but in fact the death rates have risen over time. The field size used to average about 29 but these days 40 horses hurtle towards that 1st fence.
Meanwhile, Becher’s has been shown to be the most dangerous fence on the course without equivocation. Horses are 3 times less likely to get over this fence than any ‘average’ fence on the course and this figure rises to 4 times on the second circuit of the race. It has caused the deaths of many horses over the years including, last year, Synchronised and According to Pete who both fell at Becher’s. Many studies in racing, jumping and eventing show consistently that fences which have landings which are lower than take-off cause more injuries. Becher’s has got to go.
The horses love it. It’s what they were born to do. That’s why they keep running if the jockey is unseated. I’ve saved this until last because it’s one of the favourite things that people who love racing say to people like me. And it’s rubbish. To be sure about this I phoned a friend of mine who is a university lecturer and equine specialist and asked him for the low-down. He quite categorically said that horses do not jump for pleasure. They are capable of jumping, quite obviously, but no horse will jump an obstacle when it could go round it. They have evolved to go round obstacles and always want to see where they are putting their feet whenever possible. This makes absolute sense. Jumping into the unknown makes no sense in evolutionary terms. If horses love it so much then paddock fencing would need to be a good ten foot higher than it is. How many people have seen horses cantering round their field which has show fences up in it and seen them just pop over one for fun? I would wager never unless they were spooked or fleeing from something.
Horses are herd animals. When a jockey comes off the result is a horse in a potentially fearful situation, wanting to get back to its home environment, in a herd of other horses. It’s little wonder they keep running. It is a flight response ingrained by millennia of evolution and honed by a lifetime of training to be a steeplechaser.
You will hear people say that a 10 stone jockey could not make a horse jump if it didn’t want to. Let me tell you I have seen working equines in developing countries doing things they most certainly don’t want to do. Training and beating will make an equid do pretty much anything. In 2011 Ballabriggs was so exhausted by the end of the race that he was given oxygen. His jockey was banned from racing for a paltry 5 days but kept his prize money and his winning title. If horses love to race and jump, prove it to me and completely ban the use of whips. I suspect the horses might not be quite so ‘willing’ in that scenario.
The evidence is clear that jumps racing poses an unacceptable risk of injury and death to the horses involved. It has no purpose other than entertainment and money-making and as such should not be tolerated in an advanced and civilised society which has any knowledge of animal welfare, physiology or behaviour. If this is true of jumps racing then it is most certainly true of the ‘Grand’ National, an oxymoron if ever there was one. It may well be ‘a great tradition, entwined in the very fabric of our nation’ but so were cock fighting, badger baiting and hare coursing and as with those ‘sports’ belongs in the history books.