The drumming of hooves, the swearing of bet losers, the famous Ascot hat parade – if animal rights activists in Britain have their way, all of this will soon be a thing of the past. Activists are increasingly demanding an end to the British tradition – and point to three dead animals in the recent steeplechase races in Aintree. Horses are now increasingly becoming symbols of a culture war in British society. It is animal traditions that create a rift between critics and preservers, between animal protection and modernity on the one hand and cherished customs on the other.

Tens of thousands recently made the pilgrimage to the three-day event in Aintree near Liverpool, one of the most spectacular events in the country, which is already enthusiastic about equestrian sports. Opponents have long criticized the festival, known for its risky obstacles. Horses die again and again: according to the animal welfare organization League Against Cruel Sports, there have been 62 since 2000. On Saturday, more than 100 activists were arrested during protests against the race, and three animals died as a result of falls.

Now opponents and supporters blame each other. According to the animal rights activists, the demonstrators pointed out exactly such risks. Equestrian fans, on the other hand, believe that the protests, when dozens tried to get onto the racetrack, only got the horses excited. Eight animals fell on the first two obstacles, more than in a long time. The activists are “ignorant” and not interested in animal welfare, just their own notoriety, Sandy Thomson, trainer of the deceased racehorse Hill Sixteen, told BBC Radio 4.

Formerly fox hunting, now horse racing

Until now, animal welfare in Britain has tended to be about quirky customs like fox hunting. Although hunting live animals has been banned for years, the riders in red coats and their dogs rush after a scent trail instead. But animal rights activists criticize that the hunting dogs are distracted by the scent of live animals and kill them. League Against Cruel Sports counted hundreds of violations at the end of 2022 alone and is calling for a complete ban on hunting. In Scotland, the regulations have already been tightened to such an extent that the first traditional hunting clubs have disbanded. The hunters deny the allegations. They emphasize the tradition of secure jobs and income, especially in rural areas.

After Aintree, the discussion now reaches sanctuary. Horse racing is the most popular spectator sport in the UK after football. Many members of the Royal Family make frequent appearances at major races such as Ascot or Cheltenham. Queen Elizabeth II, mother of King Charles III, owned numerous animals and was known as a horse lover and breeder. The betting passion of many Britons contributes to the popularity, as does the “Race Days” with spectacular hat creations and dresses, which attract a great deal of attention from the media.

Accordingly, conservative newspapers such as the “Telegraph” were quick to criticize the protests in Aintree around the main Grand National race. “Grand National defies animal rights saboteurs,” the paper stressed. The protests were the biggest threat to the festival since the IRA terrorist group threatened to bomb them in 1997. “The collective will prevailed that the show just had to go on,” the Telegraph finally judged with satisfaction. In the Times newspaper, prominent commentator Brough Scott, once a jockey himself, warned that stopping the races would endanger horse breeding as a whole and thus “Britain’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom.”

Deeper ditch between traditionalists and opponents

Once again, the gulf between mostly conservative traditionalists and left-liberal opponents is widening in Great Britain. Many critics are not concerned with a complete ban. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is considered the oldest and largest animal welfare organization in the world, called for fewer horses in the field of participants and a ban on whips. Demands that the British Horseracing Authority and trainers are quite receptive to.

But risks remain, as the venerable horse racing association Jockey Club concedes. At the same time, chairman Nevin Truesdale emphasized that horses were “born and bred to run” – so there will always be risky races like Aintree in the future. This is a thorn in the side of critics. Orla Coghlan of the organization Animal Rebellion announced further protests under the motto “Animal Rising” (animal rebellion): “Today does not mark the end, but the beginning of the summer of Animal Rising.”