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Every year around this time there is endless debate about one horse race in particular: the Grand National. On one side, you have those who want to watch horse racing because they enjoy the sport—because they enjoy the adrenaline of watching such a tense race, and because they believe that it is ingrained in our history that the Grand National is a tradition we must upkeep. However, there is an equal or perhaps even larger amount of people on the other side—those who believe this sport is cruel, unnecessary and against animal rights. This side makes the argument that surely a developed country like the United Kingdom is past using animals for sport, and thinking nothing of killing them in the process, all in the name of sport.
From the perspective of a horse lover, this is a particularly tricky debate. Because the truth is that these horses love to run. They love the feeling of freedom they get on that track and the way they are able to soar over those hedges. These are animals which are bred to be fast, bred to be athletes. They know nothing else because this is their life. But of course, seeing them injured is heartbreaking. Racehorses are looked after incredibly well by stable-hands who love them. They are stabled in luxury with the best veterinary care possible. While some people argue that these animals are only given these privileges because they are very valuable and are worth a lot of money to their owners, this doesn't take away from the care they receive. When deaths do occur, they are usually humane and quick. Many animals are put down every day due to illness or injury and this is something we generally accept.
These accidents can happen at any moment, and I find it difficult to understand why people are so quick to criticise the Grand National while ignoring the treatment of the horses which so dutifully put themselves in danger during Olympic showjumping or cross-country trails, or even just in everyday activities. The real truth is that all equine sports are risky to both the horse and the rider, and this is something we need to accept.
Kauto Star was a racehorse for several years before retiring to his field. He died after an injury he obtained whilst in his paddock meant that he had to be put down. He had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and was known to many as a popular, successful racehorse. This goes to show a horse can have an incredible career and then obtain a fatal injury doing something that every other horse in the world does.
The deaths of racehorses are not to be expected, like in the case of perhaps fox hunting where the actual aim is to find and kill an animal. Each time a horse dies going over a fence or stumbling during a gallop, it is a tragic accident. None of their jockeys enter the race expecting to lose their horse. Of course, all good jockeys have a healthy respect for these fences—after all, they are far from safe themselves—and although they prepare for these things, they are not expected. With horses, some injuries such as broken legs or shoulders are very serious and it would be cruel in many cases to keep them alive after this. The reason this is the case is because of the way their bodies are structured. Healing a leg or shoulder injury is incredibly difficult. Keeping weight off a leg for long enough to allow it to heal is nearly impossible. It can be done, but in almost every case—depending on the type of break—even after a successful healing process the horse will be unable to run or jump and may always be in pain.
Many times after the Grand National every year I see people making arguments about adjusting the race to make it safer. People suggest lowering the hedges or adjusting the curves in the track. To me, this seems like a pointless exercise. When accidents can happen at any point, making changes such as these is unlikely to have much of an impact. Not only would it mean the race lost appeal to its audience, it would be useless against incidents which occur because of poor timing, overcrowded tracks, and human error.
So what I see as the main problem is the cultural acceptance of the Grand National. This is a day when people who are never usually interested in equine sports use horses as an excuse to spend money, dress extravagantly and cheer animals over high hedges while they're whipped forward by their jockeys. The idea that people support something that's so dangerous for the animals involved just for sport is sickening; those who prance around in their fuzzy hats laughing about which horse they put money on. This is the problem: the image of the race. You don't hear protest all year round about horse racing, only around the time of the Grand National. Perhaps in a society where there was more respect for the animals running for your entertainment, this would be less of a problem. The dismissiveness and money-orientated nature of those interested in the race are what causes much of the controversy.
But at the end of the day, it's like with people, we can't avoid everything because it might potentially be dangerous to us. Horse racing is not cruel—there are limits in place for how often/hard a horse can be whipped, there are limits on the heights of jumps and lengths of races. Racing culture should not be so economically motivated; however, the horses don't know that it is; they know that they love to run and that there are people cheering them on.
So to conclude, while I disagree with the culture surrounding the Grand National, I do not think that horse racing is an outdated sport, nor do I believe it is cruel. I would happily support the abolishment of the Grand National but I do not believe the whole industry should be tarnished with the same brush.