From race tracks to death: Behind glitzy equestrian sports lie a gruesome chain of cruelty

The same people who cry over animals in circuses and donate generously for dog care, and would rather die than attend a cockfight or a dog race, don’t think twice before betting at the horse races or attending polo games (or rather "polo functions" since no one pays attention to the game but only to the people in the audience). They also don't think while buying and selling racehorses. Horse racing is a fashion among rich and silly businessmen who are determined to be in the press for reasons other than the failures of their companies. Unfortunately, they care as little for their horses as they do for their stockholders' money; both are merely conveniences that help them live the "good" life and must be discarded when they fail to deliver.

Equestrian sports are as sick as you can get them. Nothing can disguise the cruelty — both during and after — to the animals whether it's the huge prize money, the fashion show of the spectators, the glittering prizes or the media coverage. What is done to horses to make them show-jump? Butazolidin is a pain-killer which is administered to lame horses to let them carry on jumping long after the limb has given way. Whips and spurs are used frequently. Recently, a top European rider was filmed hitting a horse on its legs with a pole to make it lift its legs higher. Three-day events of polo and long distance riding have their own way of getting the horses to perform. Sticking strips of plastic with sharp protruding points inside a horse’s fetlock boots to make it pick up its legs and application of astringent inside bandages to make the horse restless are some of the tricks used.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

How many horses survive the races intact? Many of them have tubes shoved down their windpipes to make them breathe more oxygen — supposedly to go faster. Try putting a tube your own windpipe!

Many jockeys are fined small sums for "improperly using the whip" on a horse. However, while the jockey may be penalised, the prize and the prize money won still stands. (It's only in Norway that the jockey is allowed to carry a whip but is not allowed to take his hands off the reins at any time to use it). That animal whipping is considered acceptable by the racing fraternity and racing public is an example of how easily institutionalised animal abuse can be ignored if the money is enough. That's not all. Have you heard of firing and blistering? The idea is that applying a hot iron and causing blisters on a horse’s tendon creates a scar tissue that adds support to the weak tendon muscles in the legs. Would you do something like that to a human with knee problems?

When you go to the horse races has it ever occurred to you what happens to those horses when they get old? What happens to the horses that are never going to be winners? Horrible things. No owner keeps his horses after they have lost their racing value and are not needed at stud either. Go to these seedy auction rings around the country, and you will see that horses are sold to smaller and smaller racing clubs till they are finally thrown out of all. Ninety-nine percent of their owners sell them for medical research or to the hill tourist trade where they cart fat tourists up and down hills till they literally drop dead from exhaustion. They are sold to wedding party organisers who make them walk miles in the wedding season from one groom to another, deafened by the noise of the wedding bands.

What happens in medical research? There are two main institutes in Bombay and Calcutta. The horse is taken to develop snake venom antidotes. It is locked up in a small stall and every day a hole is poked in it and a tube goes in to take out blood. This is done without any anaesthesia. I have photographs of terribly scarred horses that have gone mad with the pain and have fought to the death, kicking and rearing, when they see the needle coming.

The tourist trade is no better. Once magnificently kept and used to the best care and diet, the horses are now literally on the road for the rest of their lives. There are no stalls to shelter in, the only food offered is dry straw and maybe a few rotten vegetables and fruit peelings. There is no medical help and the horse trudges up and down, getting weaker every day till it dies. A great "wildlife enthusiast" of Kodaikanal once organised a horse race of these poor horses to attract tourists. They had to run on tarred roads. Three of them died on the spot.

The army shoots its old horses or sells them for use in marriage processions.

Some are sold to amateur riding clubs and again treated like tourist horses. This is the fate of a racehorse.

The thoroughbred is not a hardy breed of horse. It suffers greatly when it finds its special needs are not met. Overgrown hooves, parasitic infestations, pneumonia and sometimes simply exhaustion kills it within a year. Horses have been found tethered with little to eat, nothing to drink, sometimes chained with barbed wire, standing in the hot sun or the rain or even the bitter cold.

The first patient in an army hospital 15 years ago was Lakshmi, a horse I bought from her owners. Her hind legs had been tied together so tightly that she had tripped while crossing the road and one leg had come out of its socket. No medical treatment was given and she was painfully lame, but still. she was being used to bear children.

There are very few shelters in India. In most cases, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) centres don’t work. Some shelters in Delhi, Jaipur, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Bombay take in these old, battered horses when they find them. But what next? What has been needed is a horse sanctuary for all the old racehorses whose small-hearted owners don’t want to keep them and for all those tanga horses that cannot take the burden of people anymore.

One of the wonderful things that have happened since the television series Heads and Tails started is that many people have been writing in with offers to start specialised shelters for all sorts of animals. Each one needs to be encouraged and helped.

To join the animal welfare movement contact,

Updated Date: May 16, 2017 23:44 PM

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