Hands off the Grand National

For millions of human beings, the National is fun, thrilling and escapist. So who cares what the horses ‘think’?

Barry Curtis

Topics Politics

The climax of the British horse-racing calendar is tomorrow’s Grand National held at Aintree near Liverpool. The three-day meeting attracts large crowds and many thousands of bets. The global viewing figures for the 2009 event were around 500million. Clearly horse racing with jumps is popular.

Yet there is a growing momentum for the Grand National to be banned. In the seven days leading up to the Grand National, ‘Horse Racing Awareness Week’ brought together various zealous groups, including Animal Aid, who want the Grand National stopped on the basis that it is cruel to horses. And this year, the campaigners felt more emboldened than ever, following recent events Down Under.

In Australia there was much to-ing and fro-ing in May 2009 over whether to ban jumps events. Racing minister Rob Hulls said: ‘The death of a horse is not an acceptable by-product of jumps racing. If we continue to have the number of falls and injuries, you’ve got to ask whether jumps racing is sustainable.’ Hulls said he would leave the decision about whether jumps racing is sustainable to the group that regulates racing, Racing Victoria Limited, because they are ‘independent of government’. Any decision they made would therefore not be seen as ‘political’.

Then, after three horses died at a meeting at Warrnambool, the president of Victorian Advocates for Animals, Lawrence Pope, added to the pressure on Racing Victoria: ‘[They are] like a drunken man that believes that just a few more drinks will sober him up. They continue to ask for another season… but there will be no end to the deaths and there’ll be no end to the traumatising of the public. We won’t stop in our campaign to have it ended.’

Whether or not the public are really ‘traumatised’ by a racehorse’s death is a moot point. But, surely, if the public really were wholly behind Victorian Advocates for Animals, then racing minister Hulls would be bending over backwards to court the campaign rather than deferring decision-making to a quango?

Eventually, Racing Victoria said 2010 would be the last year of jumps racing in the Australian state, but seven weeks later they bowed to pressure from the industry and said it could continue if the fall rate was reduced from five per cent to three per cent and if deaths fell to 0.65 per cent of starters. This was in line with recommendations in a report, by former judge David Jones, on the need to mitigate the dangers of jumps racing. These bureaucratic targets could well impact on the quality of the race, as jump heights will probably have to be reduced and all riders will have to agree to go a bit slower.

Back in Britain, in the decade from 1999-2009, an estimated 36 horses died from causes attributed to the conditions of the Grand National. At four-and-a-half miles long, the Grand National is the longest course in Britain and it features 30 uniquely high or awkward obstacles. It also features perilous drops, ditches and sharp turns that spectators and TV viewers regard as adding to the excitement. Forty horses compete each year, so the odds of a horse dying are just over 11-1.

The main argument used by animal welfare activists such as Animal Aid and is that the death of some horses is inevitable, and that this is wrong. Taking horse racing as a whole, 420 horses die each year, and some of those which are bred for racing, but for whatever reason cannot race, are slaughtered for dog food. Campaigners also argue that whipping horses in order to control them and increase speed is cruel.

The horse-racing fraternity counters these accusations by pointing out that horses are treated like kings. While that might be true for those that are successful, it is still the case that a significant percentage die, or will not make the grade for lavish treatment and a luxurious retirement. The horse-racing fraternity also argues that horses enjoy the thrill of the race – hence they continue racing even after the jockey has been thrown off. Animal Aid says that this is because the horse feels safer in a herd, not because he is enjoying it.

I would argue, however, that both sides of the debate focus too much on what the horse gets out of the experience of racing. They should rather be concerning themselves with what people get out of it.

If 500million people watched last year’s Grand National, then we can assume that, around the world, a vast number of people enjoy this sport and see no problem with horse racing. Yes, there are some people who are squeamish about it, but letting their arguments win out means the minority dictates to the majority about what they can and cannot enjoy – all in the name of the horse. It is sad whenever a racehorse is put down, but animal welfarers’ focus on the ‘viewpoint of the horse’ is wrong-headed.

The idea of being cruel to a horse is problematic. It is not as if the horse has said ‘I hate this cruelty inflicted upon me’, since that is clearly beyond its capabilities. This is different to when someone is cruel to another person. In that instance, the perpetrator is morally repugnant because they are ignoring the fact that the other person’s subjectivity is itself being degraded. It is not just that the being is suffering, it’s that he knows he is suffering, which makes it a million times worse. For a human, suffering another’s cruelty has a deeper meaning because we can comprehend the consequences – we have the knowledge that the harm may last a long time, that it will interrupt whatever projects one is undertaking, and we may hate the perpetrator because we know that it is unjust. For the human, suffering becomes a moral problem – that is, it is perceived as something which not only is happening, but which should not be happening.

A horse by contrast does not have this scope of subjectivity – the most we can say is that it is reacting to pain, but we cannot infer from this that the horse understands the pain as an agonising problem. In the consciousness of a horse, it might be feeling pain, but it doesn’t think: ‘This should not be happening to me.’ It is nonsensical to think of the horse as regarding its jockey as ‘cruel’. So if horses cannot understand the concept of cruelty, why should we care about the fact that a horse is whipped or that some might die in a race?

To assess whether an act such as whipping a horse is ‘cruel’, one has to take into account the broader context of the act. For example, if one was riding a horse in India, and you were suddenly pursued by a tiger, whipping the horse to make it run faster is far from ‘cruel’; it could be life-saving. By contrast, if a gang of youths go into a field and start whipping horses just for the heck of it, one would say that they are being sadistic and, yes, cruel.

In the context of a race, however, horses are whipped to increase speed, making the race more exciting – they are whipped for non-sadistic human pleasure. Yet this context is seen as ‘morally irrelevant’ to animal welfare campaigners. Instead they are saying that humans should not use animals for their own advantage. This should be regarded as a highly contentious claim.

It seems to me that what Animal Aid and their ilk really hate is the fact that humanity exploits nature for its own benefit, which is why they are also against eating meat and testing medicines on animals. But good sport, like good nutrition and good health, are all aspects of what makes being human worthwhile. If horse-racing was banned or even curtailed on the welfarists’ grounds, then meat-eating and new medicines would also logically go to the knacker’s yard. Life under these circumstances would be hell – our diets would be impoverished, our health would deteriorate, and we wouldn’t even have a popular sport through which to unleash our emotions. We would become a heavily repressed species. Exploiting nature is not unethical, it is vital to human flourishing, and therefore supremely moral. Although some people are put off by modern life, the rest of us should not accept living under the tyranny of the squeamish.

Barry Curtis blogs for Independent Minds here.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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