Let me begin by asking a simple question: how does the photo below make you feel?
This is the “descent of Mombrone”, a six-metre drop from what once was a window of the old ruined Castle of Mombrone. It was a “test of nerve” which every officer was required to do before leaving the Italian Cavalry School in Pinerolo.
So how do you feel about it? Does it send shivers down your spine? Or, does it make you angry?
I first came across it on Facebook, and to me it’s a chilling yet fascinating vintage photograph, commemorating something that thankfully no longer has to be done today. When I read the comments on that post however, I was somewhat surprised by the vast majority of them being negative. When researching the background of this photo, it didn’t take me long to find out that, well, the anger expressed by those commenters was not out of place. Brigadier Philip Ernest Bowden-Smith, cavalry officer and later armoured commander who served in the British Army in both World Wars, noted that “accidents were not unknown and occasionally rather serious, and the practice has rather died out since the war.” We can debate about it all day, but I think that, considering its context, there was a fairly reasonable motive behind this. In those pre-war days, the descent of Mombrone was to test the capabilities of horse and rider. Looking at our times, falls are not unusual in upper level eventing, just as horses falling are a normal sight in jumps races such as The Grand National. Falls that not only result in “rather serious” injuries to both horses and humans, but fatalities too. Not to mention the depressing number of horses that break down on racetracks every year.
The reason why I found those Facebook comments intriguing is because they made me wonder how many of those people are enthusiastic about horse racing, steeplechasing or upper level eventing — all three of which, due to various factors, subject horses and riders to a high risk of injury and even death. I didn’t put my investigator hat on and set out to study their profiles and likes, because I’m not a creep; I’m not ruling out that I could be wrong and that most of those people who commented do dislike these sports as much as they dislike the descent of Mombrone. But the horse world is so full of strange and amusing contradictions, I won’t be surprised if most of those people do like at least one of these sports. Unlike the tests that were required in the cavalry, such as the descent of Mombrone, what reason have we to risk the well-being of horses in eventing, horse racing and steeplechasing? When death in a sport is not a tragic and rare incident but happens with disturbing regularity, to the point it literally has been accepted as the norm, it’s not just awry. It is morally questionable.
Since I might have opened a can of worms, I’m going to stop here. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts.
One thought on “Going to Extremes”
I think when we’re pushing horses to a level of risk that is more likely to cause injury or death than not we’ve gone full circle right back to this dude taking his horse down a straight drop to show the lads what he’s made of.
You are right though in how many will shout and bawl and feel outraged at one particular sports or discipline yet not others. Daft as it sounds horses running in the National are better protected and have all round better checks and safeguards in place now than ever but the world does more shouting every year. I watched some old footage of the National from the 50’s and 60’s recently and was really surprised to see the height of the first fence back then – it was huge. No fallers, no refusals they all got over but due to increased calls from animals rights groups that resulted in fences being lowered that first fence is awful. That said the water jump was horrifying and the falls were brutal.
Looking back over time you see how bad it was for some horses pushed on at all costs by jockeys that didn’t care about anything but being first past the finishing post.
Horrendous how much some were pushed on and just not in any fit state but thankfully jockeys are heavily penalised and fined for that and I think this year saw more pulled up than ever at the decision of jockeys. Foinaven wouldn’t have been allowed to run at all nowadays he looked ready to die when he’d finished.
Interesting that some event riders will push on and expect more from horses that have nothing left in the tank. They should be given harsher punishments than any due to the size and structure of fences that mean if their horse doesn’t have enough to get over he will very likely hurt himself in the effort. That said and to be fair they rarely get themselves or their horses in such danger and will retire when they know the horse has had enough
What does annoy me is talk of horses being forced to run / jump and do all this stuff against their will because it’s nonsense. I’m open to all sensible debate and discussion particularly when it comes to the National but switch off to the same old same old from people that have no idea but like to shout anyway.
Interesting post though surprised nobody else got in before me!
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