...and some Fox Hunt
The Steeple Chase Horse Race
The steeplechase horse race is quite possibly one of the most controversial sporting events in the world. This is due to the fact that this type of horse competition is rife with dangers for both horses and riders, and the long history of the steeplechase is littered with harrowing tales of ghastly injuries and even fatalities. Nevertheless, the risks taken during the steeplechase horse race are considered to be worth it not only to the sport’s diehard fans, but also to the competitors. Furthermore, the organized steeplechase often offers competitive riders very large purses, making the risks even more attractive.
The often fanatical participants in today’s steeplechase horse races would probably have quite a laugh if they knew the origins of the event were rooted around a simple bet between two Irish gentlemen more than 250 years ago. This is because modern competitors and spectators take the equine sport very seriously, and typically the event is no laughing matter. Early horse races in the first part of the 19th century involved mounted riders speeding across a 4 mile course of varying terrain with plenty of jumps. The races used church steeples as course landmarks and checkpoints, and thus the name of the sport was born.
Today’s steeplechase horse race has changed very little from the days of its origins. Also known as “jumps racing,” steeplechases are held in numerous countries, with the largest and most prolific racing occurring in Britain, France, Ireland, Australia, and the United States. Nearly all countries utilize the same breed of horse- the Thoroughbred, as they are possibly the most adept jumpers and racers ever developed. France has bred a specialized horse for the steeplechase horse race known as the Autre Que Pur Sang, which is a breed of Thoroughbred crossed with many other useful breeds. Each year there are nearly 8,000 steeplechase events taking place worldwide, utilizing thousands of the types of horses previously mentioned. However, there are some differences in the nuances of each steeplechase. Some events have jumps that range from 4-5 feet high, and may be solid or immobile. This results in the need for horses that move with a very high arch in their jump. Other events feature jumps that are made to collapse, which means that a horse can actually run into the jump and still not lose its stride. In some cases, the jumps are hedges as tall as 8 feet that the horse is required to jump through rather than over. Most steeplechase horse races have varying terrain, and may include the need to run through water, up and down steep hills and embankments, and over various types of natural jumps in the course. A professional course can be anywhere from 1 ¾ - 4 miles in length.
While the rules of each race vary, a steeplechase horse race may have as many as 40 participants on the course at once. This coupled with the daring jumps is where most of the dangers lie. As horses and riders approach a fence, there can be a great deal of jostling for position. Some horses may be forced to the side immediately before the jump, causing them to go off the course. Collisions in midair are common, and even the slightest bump in passing can cause a horse or rider to lose control and fall. Riders and horses that fall at the jump are in grave danger, especially if they fall after clearing the obstacle. Often, courses have poor visibility, and a downed horse may not be seen until it is too late. Riders are often thrown from their horses, and the potential for them to be trampled is high. Variations in the terrain may cause a horse to throw a shoe or trip over a hole or root in the ground, causing a leg to break. When this happens the horse will go down, taking the rider with it. Horses suffer leg fractures in hundreds of equine events each year, and jockeys are prone to broken necks, wrists, collar bones, and noses. While fatalities among jockeys are not common, there are dozens of horse deaths every year. In fact, some years will result in the death of hundreds of horses. This is not typically due to the injuries themselves, but rather the fact that a broken leg often means the end of a horse’s career and ability to survive in the long term, and therefore many horses that are injured are euthanized on the steeplechase course.
Animal rights activists have lobbied for many years to outlaw steeplechase horse races with minimal success. One of their primary arguments is that the horse has no choice in the matter, and as a result they should not be exposed to danger simply for the entertainment whim of competitors and spectators. However, experts in the field and equestrians from all over the globe would counter that these horses are designed to run and jump, and that by outlawing the steeplechase horse race an entire industry would die, and the horses with it. It has also been pointed out by scores of horse lovers that the animals actually appear to enjoy the race- it’s quite literally in their blood. This is evidenced by the very frequent occurrence of horses running the course rider-less. Often, a rider will lose their seat early in the race, and many horses will happily continue running the race on their own, including all of the jumps. Furthermore, horses that do not want to run the race or to jump simply will not do so, and no human is going to make a 1200 pound beast do something they don’t want to do. Proponents of the steeple chase horse race would also argue that a horse is just as easily injured at home in the paddock, while out on leisurely trail rides, or in a breezy pasture. In these cases as well as on the jumps race course, many horses who suffer leg fractures will need to be put down.
Many people “on both sides of the fence” agree that a compromise is probably the best solution. This can include lowering the length of the jumps, extending their width to accommodate more riders simultaneously, and grooming courses in a manner that would ensure better footing for the animals. Regardless of what steps are taken in response to the controversy surrounding the steeplechase horse race, they will probably never be outlawed altogether. Jumps races are exciting for nearly everyone involved, including the horses, and the industry allows thousands of horses and equestrians to have a place to put their skills and athleticism to the test. If you’ve never attended a steeplechase before, there are loads of videos on the internet available to watch, and chances are also great that there may be a horse race located not far from where you live. For more information on races in the United States, the National Steeplechase Association is a superb resource.Find them on the web at: — nationalsteeplechase.com
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