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2024 Grand National: Horses, Harm, and Shared Responsibility

Horses have a purpose in life, just like us all. Unfortunately, when people go to work, sometimes bad things happen.

(AP McCoy, former jockey, quoted in The Telegraph)

On Saturday the 13th of April 2024, one of the world’s most famous horse races, the Grand National, is scheduled to take place. The race first took place at Aintree Racecourse in 1839, where it continues to be hosted, and this will be its 176th annual running. The race is very popular in the UK with 70,000 people in attendance last year, and ten million watching on TV. Beyond the UK, its appeal is wide-reaching with an estimated 600 million people watching across the globe. And it’s not just horseracing enthusiasts who get involved. People who usually have no interest in horseracing will watch the event, and workplace or family sweepstakes are common. In sum, the Grand National is an institution that is loved by many and enjoys significant national and global support.

Part of the race’s popularity stems from its unpredictability and the fact that many (if not most) horses do not finish the race. It is a gruelling four-mile course, with 16 fences, 14 of which are jumped twice. The fences vary in height and design, with the most infamous having nicknames. The lowest fence on the course measures 4ft 6” and the highest, known as The Chair, is 5ft 2” with a 6ft wide ditch on the take-off side. The jumps, coupled with the distance, make the Grand National an incredibly demanding course and many horses who run it either pull up (refusing to jump), unseat their riders, or fall at the fences.

The Chair, 2005 Grand National // Image Credit: Charles Fred

Does Horseracing Harm Horses? You Bet It Does!

Though unseated riders and fallen horses add to the drama and excitement for human viewers, the risks to the animals (and humans) are significant. Horses can break necks, backs, and legs, and suffer heart attacks racing in such conditions. Of course, the problem is not unique to the Grand National. In 2023, a total of 175 horses died on British racecourses and, according to Animal Aid, a total of 2077 have died since 2007. Some will have died as a result of their injuries and others will have been “euthanized” because injuries in racehorses are notoriously difficult and expensive to treat. It is also worth stressing that the death of horses while racing is only the tip of the iceberg of harm done to animals in the industry. Horses bred for racing undergo intense training (euphemistically referred to as “breaking in”), are sometimes drugged to improve performance, are whipped during races, and are usually slaughtered when they are no longer of use.

That horseracing harms horses is hardly a surprise. Many of our most cherished practices involving other animals carry significant risks of harm, including death, for the animals involved. (See my previous post on pets.) This is because our use of animals is often lucrative and enjoyable, and the strength of our desires for money and pleasure are unjustifiably assumed to outweigh the fundamental interests of sentient animals not to be made to suffer or be killed. What is worse, when we really enjoy doing something that harms animals, we tell ourselves that it’s somehow good for the animals too or that we cannot do things differently. The quote I opened with from AP McCoy is a perfect illustration of how deeply entrenched the idea is that these creatures are here to perform for us. That is their purpose; it is what they were made for. This logic misleadingly suggests that horseracing is somehow an inevitable fact of the universe as opposed to a social institution created and sustained by humans for our pleasure.  

Who is to Blame? The Activists, Of Course!

Stop the Grand National # 2 // Image Credit: Alisdare Hickson

Not everyone accepts the logic of domination that underpins the human love of racing horses. Last year 118 protestors were arrested for attempting to delay the Grand National. Some protestors managed to get on to the course, but the race went ahead fifteen minutes later than scheduled after they were removed. During the race one horse – Hill Sixteen – died. Another two had died in earlier races that form part of the three-day festival.

At the time, I was struck by the outrage and vitriol directed at the protestors who were widely blamed for the death of the horse. The argument was that if the race had not been delayed, the horses would have not been stressed, and the horse who broke his neck would not have fallen. There is much to say in response to this. As Alex Lockwood, a spokesperson for Animal Rising, said at the time “For those few claiming that [the protestors] actions affected the horses and outcome, we point to the fact we were not taking action for the other 2,601 deaths since 2007”. (Here Lockwood is referencing the number of horse deaths at racing events across the UK, not just the Grand National.) This response is important, but it lets those who do bear responsibility for the death of Hill Sixteen and the risks imposed upon the other horses off the hook. Importantly, the protestors did not force the animals to run. If the jockeys had refused to ride, the owners and trainers had pulled their horses from the race, or the event’s organisers had cancelled the race, then Hill Sixteen would have not died that day. Moreover, if the event organisers, trainers, owners, and jockeys knew that the horses were stressed and in danger of falling, then that should have functioned as a reason to stop the horses from running. But it did not.

What Should You Do?

Image Credit: Animal Aid UK

Of course, the event organisers, owners, trainers, and jockeys do not act in isolation of the public. And the institution that is the Grand National (and all others like it) are maintained because they enjoy wide public support. This support may come in the form of direct participation, but indifference also facilitates the continued existence of deeply entrenched practices. In so far as we directly participate in or allow the Grand National to continue, we share responsibility for what happened to Hill Sixteen and those who have (and will) meet a similar fate.

Bearing this responsibility requires that we work to avoid such tragedy in the future by not enabling those in the horse racing industry who profit from harming animals. At the very least, we should not go to Aintree (or any other course) for a day out at the races. We must also refrain from placing bets on horses (or other animals), including betting in privately organised sweepstakes. And we must not watch the Grand National, or any other race, on TV. Moreover, it is important that we resist the narrative that activists defending the rights of animals are “hypocrites”, “attention-seekers” and “have blood on their hands”. Such claims only serve to obscure who bears ultimate responsibility for putting animals in harm’s way. It is only by meeting these minimal moral requirements that we can bring an end to the abuse of horses in the name of sport – a small but necessary step on the road to achieving justice in our relations with other animals.

Angie Pepper is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. Angie works on issues to do with the rights of nonhuman animals and what we owe to them as a matter of interspecies justice. Her recent work focuses on the normative significance of nonhuman animal agency; in other words, she is interested in what other animals do and why it matters morally, socially, and politically.


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