Put down

So the dust has settled slightly but Saturday’s Grand National caused a bit of a stir. My knowledge of horse racing is somewhat limited – I know the idea is to get over fences and reach the line first and what’s more the rider needs to stay on his steed.  What has caused the furore is the “death” of horses in this race. But let’s examine this a little more.

In this year’s National 2 horses “died” after falling at fences.  In both cases the horses broke legs.  The falls were described as “fatal” in many places. Look in a bit more detail though and you’ll see reference to the horses being “destroyed”. That’s quite a jump, if you excuse the pun. Why should a broken leg be so bad that a horse has to be destroyed?

A non-fatal bone break - Cancellara's collarbone

Let’s put it another way. In this year’s Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara “fell” in the feedzone – cycling’s nearest equivalent to the melee of Beechers Brook – breaking his collarbone in four places, ending his races and potentially placing his season’s aims in jeopardy. Was the green screen brought out on the Flemish roads whilst Spartacus was “put out of his misery”? No. Once helped off the tarmac he was flown back to Switzerland, operated on and allegedly back on the bike on a static trainer by Tuesday.  A slight difference as you can see.

The debate about the Grand National is then not simply the one propagated in the media about the course and its obstacles. The ease with which the decision is made to put down/destroy a horse has failed to feature in this debate.  A leg break requires attention and care but should not be fatal, begging the question that this decision is one of cost and value rather than welfare. Yet even this seems illogical given that one of the horses involved was Synchronised, winner of  the Cheltenham Gold Cup and a horse with supposed pedigree. Why destroy a horse that has the potential to be bred and earn further money? The mind boggles.

What this episode shows is that the focus of so many debates is misplaced. In this case focussing on the features of the race course without sufficient acknowledgement of the cost driven decisions of owners drives a skewed set of solutions to remedy the problem.

He broke his toe, was he put down?

But deeper still it indicates the focus on costs over welfare.  JP McManus may be devestated at the loss of his horse, but he had a choice. Whilst he viewed it solely for making money he chose to cut his losses.  Whilst in some walks of life a broken metatarsal is pampered and cosseted, where in others more debilitating problems – especially stress and depression – are at best overlooked and at worst seen as weaknesses. Unfortunately in so many cases it comes down to whether the benefits outweigh the costs.  It is all about asset management, a simple cost-benefit analysis. If the weakness is too costly, however short-sighted the decision might seem, the asset becomes a liability and it put down on the scrapheap. Welfare and alternative value is too often ignored. And whilst this is the case too many “assets” will be written off, consigned to the scrapheap. What does this mean in the longer-term?


4 thoughts on “Put down

  1. Your general point is well taken Rob, but I was once told that it’s a really difficult balancing act with horses. Sooner or later everything comes down to money, and I gather that the cost of repairing and healing a broken leg on a horse can easily run into 6 figures and that’s a stretch even for some comparatively wealthy people. I’m not sure whether insurance covers that or not, but then you have to consider the (in my opinion) more important humane factor, which is that the weight has to be off the animal’s leg throughout the entire healing process and that this requires the horse being suspended in a sling, with all legs off the ground, for several weeks. During that time they have to be permanently sedated to minimise their distress. Not sure whether horses can manage on three legs like dogs can, but the procedure of fitting an artificial limb is probably as stressful to the animal as the healing process for the break. After all of that there is no guarantee that the injuries will heal properly and that the animals will live happy, pain free lives ever after. When you balance cost AND process euthanasia doesn’t seem quite so callous.

    It would be interesting to hear the view of a real horse lover about this, particularly on the humane treatment issue.

    • Yes, I knew this might open up a whole area of discussion that I am totally unqualified to talk about. But unlike much of the mainstream media, we’re now talking about that. In terms of the Grand National there are a number of issues up for discussion and consideration. But on the case of Synchronised I’m sure the stud value of a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner would cover many of these costs.
      However, the bigger issue here is the disposable nature of significant parts of wider society and the lack of value given to things which cannot be easily and/or quickly quantified.

  2. It is a fair point if broken legs in horses could be treated in the same way as broken legs in humans but as pointed out above, they can’t. The bodyweight of a horse means that a broken leg cannot be put in a cast as it can’t support the weight. Even with pins and superstructures the horse has to be immobilised in a body sling for the full time it takes for the bone to mend and for most horses this is a cruel act in itself as they cannot stand staying still. Also, the mechanism of blood flow in a horse’s leg means that if it is not moving, the blood doesn’t flow and the chances are that gangrene will set in and the horse will suffer anyway. Speaking as someone who has seen two much loved horses put down after breaking legs simply through playing in the field I know how deeply sad the decision is for owners but it is not a case of money but of animal welfare. Smaller bones in the foot can mend, but the bigger bones in the leg simply don’t. Racing is an industry and the horses are bred to race, but very few owners would put a successful chaser down if money could save it. More of a welfare issue is the fate of the unsuccessful animals who never make it to the track and end up in unsuitable homes with people who cannot cope with a thoroughbred.

    I totally understand the sentiment that doesn’t want to see equine athletes disregarded but there really is a bit of a difference. One issue with the National is that since the fences have been made smaller and safer, the race has got faster. The big, old-fashioned stamp of horse has been replaced by a lighter, faster type and this perhaps accounts for the fatalities. In the 1960s only one horse died in the whole decade. In the 1980s it was three. Now since the fences have been made ‘safer’ there have been nine in the past eleven races. It is a tricky one as the racing authorities obviously want to put animal welfare first but perhaps their efforts to do so have not been that successful.

  3. I can’t help thinkin, though, that Wayne Rooney should have been put down after he broke his meta-tarsals 🙂

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