PRESENTATION TO WORLD HORSE WELFARE FORUM
15TH NOVEMBER 2012
SPORT AND THE CENTAUR QUESTION
“Sport and The Centaur Question” – yes I know what you are all going to think – that this is the most ludicrously pretentious of titles but I do like the idea and indeed the danger that a Centaur – the mythical creature that is both man and horse, brings with him – or her – there were female Centaurs too, they were called, and I did not make this up, they were called Centaurides. But I have not got a picture of them – certainly not one with their shirts on.
There were also some very bad Centaurs and if you make the trip from here – which I strongly advise – up past Knightsbridge and Piccadilly to the Royal Academy’s Bronze Exhibition, you will find a fantastic sculpture of Nessus, the naughtiest Centaur of all. He tried to get off; well that’s not quite the right word, with Deianira the wife of Hercules, the strongest man in all mythology. For Nessus it was a big mistake.
Yet the idea that man and horse could be as one remains an abiding image when I have seen the great riders in action and I count myself lucky to have watched the likes of what we will call these “Real Life Centaurs” in the saddle.
Lester Piggott: Didn’t say much but he could talk and do amazing things with horses.
Ryan Moore: He may still be in his twenties and reserved in public but he is a great rider already.
Tony McCoy: Just because he is so unbelievably tough should not stop you recognize his enormous understanding of the horse beneath.
Jon Francome: No one has ever placed a horse at a racing fence better – he is still doing it in the mornings and he is 60 next month.
John Whitaker: Doesn’t talk much more than Lester Piggott but is nearly as wondrous in the saddle.
Charlotte Dujardin: The Queen of Greenwich – go and look at her ride again on YouTube.
William Fox Pitt and Mark Todd: The two long legged Centaurs and Mark the Horseman of the Century.
All of them, Charlotte most recently, have done things on horses that can be so close to perfection that you feel that their destinies are almost intertwined.
But I am getting carried away – let’s return to the title of this presentation:
What is THE CENTAUR QUESTION? And, more importantly, WHAT SHOULD OUR ANSWER BE?
The question is how much should the top half of the Centaur share the same fate as the bottom – particularly when things don’t work out? Certainly they didn’t always work for me. This is at Cheltenham New Year’s Day 1966. Fortunately not many of you were around when I was riding. I did have some good days but I am not sure if they called me a Centaur that often.
However I was unbelievably lucky to have had a stage in my life when riding horses, and in my case racing them, was at the very centre of my being. In every sense it was what I lived for and even now, more than 40 years on, there is not a day that goes by when there are not moments when I remember what it was like to wing down over the railway fences at Sandown or to begin to pick through the field as the race unwinds in front of you at Newbury.
But before, and now long after I lived as a professional jockey, I have also been lucky enough to ride horses of all sorts of disciplines all over the world and for the last twenty years have had an old racehorse at home on whom I have made several films – the only time as a TV presenter that I could be sure that I really caught the eye of the camera – well I didn’t but the bottom half of the Centaur did. Alphard, or Alfie as we call him, won two races for Henry Cecil in 1992, and to borrow one of Sir Henry’s famous phrases, he has become one of my best friends.
Yet he is still a horse. He deserves to be treated and respected as a horse and much as I love him it is my responsibility what he does each day, indeed it will be my decision when his days should be over and when that happens, I will, as I have with all my horses, I will look into his eyes until the moment of the slaughter man’s bullet sends his soul into oblivion.
If that sounds harsh it is deliberately so. Because I believe anthropomorphism is one of the big dangers in getting a proper perspective of how we take welfare forward with horses and in particular with horses in sport. Anthropomorphism is a long word, but a crucially important one. It means treating animals as humans and it clogs up common sense with sentimentality. It always means well but it leads itself into the impossible question “how would you like it if…” In simplest terms its logic leads to giving animals the vote.
Of course people like me are part of the problem. On page and screen we try and personalize horses to get them closer to the public. Why should we be surprised when the public react negatively when they find that the new four legged people they are empathising with are just being treated as animals after all? These are very difficult questions and we need to avoid the hypocrisy which often accompanies the answers just as, except for the sincerest soya milk-drinking, plastic shoe wearing vegetarian, most of us happily wolf down, beef, lamb and chicken without letting our minds rest on the basic fact that the animals we like to look at in the field or in the chicken run are actually only actually there for our dinner plate or as walking shoes.
In Britain, at least, we don’t rear horses for meat although there is a fair level of hypocrisy in that too. But we do use them in sport and we must not pretend either that they always want to do what we ask them, or that what we do together does not carry risk which at times, and you know where I am coming to, can be dramatic. Yes, I have ridden in the Grand National too, here we are – on the left – coming away from the Chair Fence in the 1966 National with the winner Jay Trump and his jockey Tommy Smith in the foreground on the right.
After that first circuit I had my own dreams of being a centaur. My horse Time was in the most beautiful rhythm and he had skipped over The Chair as if it were no more than an upturned dandy brush. But we only had four more fences to dream. For some reason he galloped slap into the guard rail of that big open ditch and did the most spectacular of somersaults. Fortunately Time escaped without a scratch. I was off to Walton hospital with a wing down. It’s a sobering thought that if I had been a horse, euthanasia would have been the only option.
It’s equally sobering that somersaults like Time took can end things there and then as they did so crashingly for Dorney’s Gate at Bechers Brook two years ago. The thought that this sort of thing not only could happen but at times will happen is one none of us who still proclaim to love the game as well as loving horses, should ever lightly dismiss.
But I believe that there is nothing wrong in accepting the challenge provided you have done everything possible to equip yourself and your horse for what lies ahead. There comes a stage, and I think we have now reached it with the Grand National, when the emphasis should not be on lessening the danger, it should be on ensuring that everyone fully realises what they are up against. You don’t lower the Matterhorn but you sure as hell try and get better at mountaineering.
And accidents, as we all know, will always happen to horses. I have had one impaled and dead in the field, I saw a horse snap a foreleg clean in two over ridge and furrow out hunting, and as a jockey, amongst several other fatalities I still remember a filly at Kempton suddenly feel like a punctured car as one of her legs gave way on the flat. In all these cases, the word Euthanasia is the important one and I am very much against those whose attitude is to prolong life at all costs. The horse is a sentient creature but they have no imagination. What we owe them is the best we can manage while they are in our care. If we cannot ensure them another role in life, and thoroughbreds are actually very lucky to be at the top of the second life tree, we are betting ending off ending life for them.
Horses nowadays only come into this world because man planned to bring them there. Don’t start shirking responsibility when it’s time to take them out.
So my answer to the Centaur question and my plea to this conference, and to all who keep and ride horses, is to care for and respect them as horses, not saddle them up with the extra hassles of pretending that they should think and feel like human kind. If we embark on the anthropomorphic route, we deserve a bit of what Nessus got from Hercules.