Listening to Mick Fitzgerald’s emotional response to the infamous Gordon Elliot photograph sums up exactly how I feel about the whole situation – complete and utter sadness.
Sadness for the loss of a horse who as Mick put it “paid the ultimate price” for the sport of racing, but more so for all those who are directly and indirectly affected by the irresponsible and foolish actions of someone who has the privilege of being at the top of horse racing industry.
I have briefly browsed the responses and comments left on the image and on news articles published in the wake of the fallout. It is safe to say that the majority of equestrians are disgusted and shocked that someone of Elliot’s stature would do such a reprehensible act. But there are also those who have voiced their support for him on the basis that “he didn’t kill the horse” or that “the horse was already dead” and that we should just move on and get over it.
While I agree that there are definitely acts of cruelty that are far worse than the image of a world-renowned horse trainer sitting astride a dead horse, but the issues that this image bring to the fore go far deeper than the rationalization of a“sure, the horse was already dead” defence.
Those of us who own and work with horses cannot just get over it. That is because the sadness we feel for this situation is not exclusive to a single photograph. What the photograph of Gordon Elliot really illustrates is that the issue of equine welfare is not exclusive to those from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. The real sadness is that this image depicts an indifference to animal welfare at the very top and amongst the elite of equestrian sport.
While Elliot’s actions to not represent the majority of the racing and equestrian community, his actions have, in a way, glorified an indifference and may reinforce the attitude amongst a minority group that believe horses are a dispensable commodity. This minority is indifferent to the horse’s ability to feel pain and do not realise nor care that all equines are actually sentient beings.
Horses have feelings, thoughts and emotions and those of us who have the had the privilege to work directly with them have witnessed their ability to empathise. It is why horses are used in various therapies. They form bonds, they react to emotions and they have the ability to heal.
That is why they are loved and revered and that is why the whole equestrian community is shocked and saddened by this photograph. But this is where I believe that indirectly, Elliot’s actions have done the equine industry a favour. Only last month I wrote an article on behalf of the My Lovely Horse Rescue, high lighting the equine welfare crisis in Ireland. But my words are no comparison to the damning and alarming image of a champion trainer at the center of an equine welfare investigation.
In the piece I wrote about the My Lovely Horse Rescue I suggested that those who do not act to support the charities who fight for better regulation and animal welfare legislation are silently complicit in the pain and suffering of the very animals that need rescuing. We are shocked and saddened when we hear of the terrible suffering they have endured, but how many of us can say we have been proactive in the support of animal welfare rights?
While my headline may sound controversial, I do believe that this situation has done the equine industry a favour. We live in a social media driven world and this will hopefully make those who have the responsibility of representing equestrian sport reflect on their approach to animal welfare.
I have no doubt that the care of the horse’s at Gordon Elliot’s yard is world class and that those who care for them love them like their own. Most of us put the welfare of our own horses above anything else; but as a community, we all have the collective responsibility to ensure that the horses who serve us so well are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, in life and in death.
To finish, I’d like to say I do not believe that Gordon Elliot is the evil monster that many are labelling him to be. But despite being saddened, maddened and disappointed in his actions I think we all have to remember that he is only human and we all make mistakes.
There is a whole community of staff, owners, riders and not to mention the horses who are being moved from the familiarity of their home, and the humans who care for them, who are also suffering the fallout of this situation. In a world that loves to jump on a bandwagon, I’d like to remind those who so freely cast judgement to look closer at themselves before casting the stones.
Gordon Elliot is suffering the consequences of this actions and has done irreversible damage to his reputation and to the racing industry. There is no punishment that the Horse Racing Authority can implement as effective as that. But I do believe that everyone has the ability to learn from their mistakes. And while we can rightly be angry and disappointed in his actions, we can also show empathy and be kind to a man whose life is lying in ruins.
And while the equestrian community will be reeling from his actions for some time to come, I am hopeful that it will be the catalyst that inadvertently brings the change needed in equine welfare issues.