OPINION: Please don’t insult the intelligence of horses by alleging they have no choice when it comes to racing.
The Melbourne Cup on Tuesday saw media focus on the death of The Cliffsofmoher, the five-year-old who broke his shoulder and had to be euthanised. Reactions from animal welfare groups ranged from demanding that we ban the use of horses for entertainment, to wanting more transparency in racing, though not much was hidden from public viewing save the actual moment of The Cliffsofmoher’s death.
Put in context, given the speed these horses are travelling, six horse deaths in six years of the Cup is not a “disgrace”. Sad, yes, but not cruel. Thoroughbreds are not forced to gallop; they are bred to race at high speeds and have been for 300 years.
A horse weighs around 500 kilograms and horses have been on earth for 56 million years – a long time to develop instinctive warning systems that man is one of their main predators, and predators kill by jumping on their backs. So why do they let us do that when they could easily kill us? By choosing to trust us. Not all thoroughbreds choose to win races. Some don’t like competing – they’d rather stay home, thanks, have a nice life as a hack. But New Zealand’s great racers made history because of their fierce desire to win.
Like Carbine, foaled in 1885 near Auckland. He won the 1890 Melbourne Cup in a field of 39 (not 24 as now) carrying 66kg, the most weight ever carried by a winner, to this day.
Carbine loved to race. Each time he left the birdcage he’d stop and wouldn’t move until his owner, Australian MP Donald Wallace, waved his brolly.
Grey Way, the Washdyke Wonder, shouldered his way through the pack even if there was just a sliver of a gap, and thrust his nose over the finish line to win, so determined was he not to let any horse beat him. When he retired he was carted around to racecourses because he loved the crowds so much.
We could ban racing but thoroughbreds will continue to gallop madly around their paddocks. They’ll still shatter bones, necessitating euthanasia. Horses do that in the wild. They race bunched up because it’s instinctive – feral horses bunch together because stragglers get eaten first.
Start banning horses for entertainment – rodeos and racing – and where does that end? Next will it be Eventing? Dressage? Stop children learning courage, care, balance at Pony Club? Therapy and joy for those at Riding for Disabled? Horses Helping Humans, an organisation that rehabilitates criminals? All these, in some way, involve horses for “entertainment”.
There are people who inflict unbearable suffering on horses, and the SPCA does a grand job, assisted by the Pro Bono Panel of Prosecutors, in successfully punishing some. This is where we should focus, not on those who would do everything to protect their horses from pain.
* Deborah Coddington, a writer and former MP, is the author of “The New Zealand Horse”, with photographs by Jane Ussher, published by Massey University Press.