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Simon Barnes: Why a man who sat on a dead horse became a hate figure

Thursday 1 April 2021

Brits baulk at equine cruelty, but don’t flinch when other animals suffer. Our national obsession has shaped politics and literature – and destroyed a trainer’s career


Gordon Elliott, a mightily successful Irish racehorse trainer, finds his reputation and his career in tatters. He was the subject of a photograph with a horse that the Daily Mail described as “sickening” and The Sun as “horrific”. Last month, he was banned from racing for a year, six months of this to be suspended. 

But what has he been punished for? Certainly not for an act of cruelty, for Morgan, the horse in question was already dead; he had a heart attack on the gallops. Such things happen in the sport, with every trainer. It’s not an everyday matter, but dead horses are part of routine in every yard in the land.

The picture, pushed out on social media in an apparent attempt to discredit Elliott, is two years old. It shows Elliott taking a phone call while sitting on the dead horse. Not just parking his bum, but sitting astride it. Sure, it’s a grotesque image, but I don’t suppose poor old Morgan cared one way or the other.

There was a huge outcry. It was particularly devastating for a sport that’s always hypersensitive about its public image, because jump racing’s biggest event, the Cheltenham Festival, was about to begin. The person who released the image certainly got the timing right. The British Horseracing Authority said they were “appalled” and that image “deeply undermined” their own values when it came to equine welfare. Eight of the horses under Elliott’s care were removed to other stables; two of his sponsors dropped him.

Elliott was punished, then, for the crime of bad taste. As it says at the end of films, no horses were harmed in the making of this image. Elliott wasn’t beating a horse, or starving a horse or keeping a horse in filthy conditions. It just looked bad, even though nothing bad had been done – but was enough to make Elliott a monster of evil in British eyes. He said: “It absolutely breaks my heart to read and hear people say that I have no respect for my horses.” 

So let’s go back to 2013, when Findus beef lasagne, sold in supermarkets in Britain, was found to have a meat content that was between 60 and 100 per cent horse. The same year, Tesco was found to be selling burgers that contained horsemeat: the resulting scandal took £300 million off Tesco’s shares. The then environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said it was “completely unacceptable”. 

There are logical reasons for finding this unsatisfactory: customers have a legal right to accurate labelling; horses are often treated with the anti-inflammatory drug phenylbutazone (bute), which can have an adverse effect on humans. But that wasn’t why the lasagne was a front-page scandal. 

It was as if we had unwittingly become a nation of cannibals. There is no reason to suppose that a cow or a pig or a ten-week old lamb feels any less pain and distress than a horse during the process of transport and slaughter. But this was horses: dead horses in pasta sauce. They may eat horses on the other side of the Channel, but it’s not the sort of thing we do over here. 

Horses go very deep with the British. The idea of cruelty – or even disrespect – to a horse appals us. It’s nothing to do with logic and it has very little to do with personal experience of horses. I have owned and ridden horses most of my life, and I know we live in a nation of horse-lovers. It’s the riders they can’t stand: horse-riders routinely meet a certain amount of hostility because we’re seen as snooty, stupidly rich and dedicated to a life of coercion and cruelty. 

In 1982, the IRA launched a powerful attack on British sensibilities by killing horses. They staged simultaneous bombings in Hyde Park and Regents Park, attacking military ceremonies. The bombs killed 11 humans and seven horses. For the British, there was something especially awful about the horses. It was not that people thought the horses mattered more than the people: rather, there was a feeling that if a soldier must accept the idea of being shot at, a horse does not. It was seen as an attack on innocence: an attack on trust.

But one horse, suffering from a severed jugular, among other injuries from the blast and shrapnel, did not die. Sefton had eight hours of surgery and survived – he returned to active service and became a national love-object. He was showered with get-well cards and mints. Also money: £620,000 donated to the Royal Veterinary College, where there is now a Sefton Surgical Wing: named for the horse who lived. There’s also a statue of him.

It is a part of a long-standing British tradition, and you can find it reflected in literature. Black Beauty is a first person novel narrated by a horse and dominated by a moral of kindness and understanding. You can find the tragic Boxer in Animal Farm, the wise houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, the noble Shadowfax, Gandalf’s mount in Lord of the Rings; Bree is the flawed hero who escaped from oppression and slavery to live peacefully and happily in Narnia.

Michael Morpurgo mined this tradition when he produced his novel War Horse in 1982, the story of Joey, a horse sold to the cavalry to take part in World War One, and his previous owner Albert who searched the world for him. It was made into a play at the National Theatre in 2007, with the horses played by life-size puppets, and was filmed by Stephen Spielberg in 2011.  

We like to see human virtues reflected in horses. The horse is a Christian, I have been told. Honest as the day is long. Totally genuine. He’s a kind horse, a generous horse, a very decent sort. People who work with horses routinely use anthropomorphic turns of speech, not from sentimentality but as a shortcut to understanding horses as individuals with behavioural quirks and powerful emotions – and if you can’t do that you’re going to end up hurt, as everyone who has spent time around horses knows. Horses have been described as the pet that can kill.

This anthropomorphic shorthand has spread out into the wider community. Horses are seen to have powerful, admirable, even noble personalities. That’s why many people find the idea of maltreating horses almost impossible to bear. I have frequently attended horsey events where people have demonstrated against their perceived cruelty: most often the Grand National and Badminton Horse Trials.

I have ridden in horse trials myself and visited many yards run by the top eventers, and I know their horses lead a good, somewhat pampered life. If you seek cruelty, it makes better sense to picket the fried chicken outlet: in battery farms birds that can live for ten years are slaughtered at six weeks, a brief lifetime with 20 birds to the square metre, all in their own ammoniac waste. But they’re not horses, are they? 

If you look for cruelty in racing it’s not at the races or on the gallops but in the wastage rate. In Britain there are about 14,000 racehorses in training at any one time under 550 licensed trainers. Around 5,000 horses every year will be “retired”. What happens to them? A lot of them will be killed. Many suffer injuries in training: the thoroughbred is artificially selected for speed and is prone to the in-breeding problems of a very shallow gene pool; all racehorses trace their ancestry back to one of three historic stallions. They are, in short, very fragile things and they wouldn’t survive long in the wild. A soft tissue injury can end a horse’s racing career before it has begun: and, by extension, its life.

Such wastage is part of all sports: many start, few make it to the top. Football couldn’t exist without countless thousands of children filled with wild hope. “It’s like turtles and the sea,” the former England player Steve Coppell once told me. All sports are cruel: that’s one reason for their fascination. The difference is that many of the horses who don’t make it die.

Some racehorses retire without terminal injuries, generally because they’re not fast enough. Some of these get rehomed and repurposed. I once had an ex-racehorse who came to me aged 11 after eight years on the track; I schooled him to compete in showjumping and eventing. 

But that’s a rare thing. Many retirees die. You can call that cruel, or you call that a sad necessity: your call, dear reader, as with the battery chickens. But we all have to accept that by any rational assessment sitting on a dead horse is not an act of cruelty – and, likewise, that if horses suffer on their way to the slaughterhouse, so do cattle.  

The International League Against the Export of Horses for Butchery was founded in 1927; ten years later live exports were banned under the Exportation of Horses Act. The charity continues as World Horse Welfare; in 2019 they had an income of £9.3 million. Their aim is to create “a world where every horse is treated with respect, compassion and understanding.” In other words, they wish to export the British vision of the horse to the rest of the world.

The Queen rode her favourite horse, Burmese, at the Trooping of the Colour 18 years in succession, including 1981, when someone in the crowd fired six blanks in front of them. Burmese coped as you would expect of a horse that was given to her by the Canadian Mounted Police. In 2015, the magazine Country Life compiled a list of the greatest horses of all time, which was really a list of Britain’s most beloved horses. Would this have been possible in any other nation? The top ten were Arkle, Red Rum, Frankel, Charisma, Milton, Valegro, Warrior (“the horse the Germans couldn’t kill”), Desert Orchid, Priceless and a polo pony called Pirata. (Boast: I have patted three of these and sat on a fourth.)

For the British, horses have a status above almost all other non-human animals. They’re not exactly honorary humans; it’s a traditional but absurd exaggeration to say that the British prefer horses to people. But horses are not considered in the same way as cattle, pigs, sheep, or chickens. Nor are they equated with wild mammals we admire, like dolphins or gorillas; these may share a planet with us, but don’t share our lives.

Horses have been domestic animals for at least 6,000 years. It’s been suggested that rather than measuring human life by the material worked with – stone, iron, bronze – we should divide the periods of civilisation by the uses we had for the horses: consumption, utilisation and status, herding, chariot, cavalry, agriculture and carriage. We are now in the age of leisure. We haven’t needed horses in our lives since the invention of the internal combustion engine at the end of the 19th Century – but we still have them. We have them not from necessity but for love. The British Equestrian Trades Association estimates that there are 847,000 horses in the UK. 

Horsey terms remain fossilised in British speech patterns: put him through his paces, didn’t put a foot wrong, long in the tooth, feeling his oats, hell for leather, fed up, full of beans, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, do the groundwork, take a breather, get the wind up, get the bit between your teeth, home and dry… I’d add some more but that would be flogging a dead horse – and that would be rather bad taste.

We live in the 21st Century and we have machines to transport us, machines to do our agriculture and machines to wage war. Horses have mostly gone from the cities, gone from lives of many of us, but the British retain an atavistic sense of the importance of horses in human life. The idea of abusing or consuming a horse concerns us very deeply. Such acts seem far worse than sins of cruelty: almost, an act of blasphemy.