I surprised myself with the visceral repugnance with which I responded to the news that the prominent Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott, had posed for a photograph sitting with an imbecilic grin astride the very dead body of one of the racehorses he had been hired to train. The photograph has been severely and sensitively cropped to cut the body of the horse out of the version published by the mainstream media, but the narrative is shocking enough without need for the full visuals.
I have always felt a particular affinity with horses. The closest I get to an acceptance of the esoteric insights of astrology is via its tendency to suggest that an affinity with horses is often a characteristic of people born under Sagittarius. Centaurs don’t have much option when it comes to that affinity. The highlight of my years in, or in this case out of, junior school were the two months we spent every three years at an uncle’s trading station on the Berea Plateau, in what was then Basutoland, when my father was required as a colonial servant to remove us from boarding school and take us out of what was then Tanganyika to go on ‘long leave’. Those idyllic months were mainly spent with and on Basuto ponies.
At the other end of the career spectrum, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in the very turbulent and stressful ‘transformation’ years after the unbanning of the ANC in the 1990s, being able to spend two hours on Sunday mornings riding the Cyprina of the illustration above was the best possible therapy I could have wished for. My friend Julia Braine lives with her partner, Ros, half a dozen dogs, innumerable cats, a flock of chickens and half a dozen horses on a smallholding in Winterskloof on the hills above Pietermarizburg. Cyprina was a superb Lipizzaner mare whose liveliness belied her 25 years. Her owner had, wholly unaccountably, more or less abandoned her to be stabled by Julia, she needed regular exercise and I could tell myself that I was performing a public service by assisting in that regard. The smallholding gave immediate access to hundreds of hectares of pine and blue-gum plantations above Cedara where we could roam at will. Cyprina was always uncannily sensitive and responsive to my mood and, while Julia who was then Head of the University Student Counselling Centre is a brilliant clinical psychologist, it was Cyprina who was the therapist-in-chief. The painting is a treasured parting present from Julia and Ros when we left South Africa.
The Gordon Elliott photograph and story have been greeted with public outrage and fury, mainly, it seems, by those connected in one way or another with the racing industry who are clearly, and with considerable justification, concerned that it brings the industry into disrepute. The situation wasn’t helped by another report and photograph emerging immediately afterwards about and of an equally insensitive jockey having done exactly the same thing. Gordon Elliott has been banned pending a formal inquiry; I expect the same to happen to the jockey.
With hindsight, I now find myself wondering quite why I responded to the story with such visceral distress. It was no more rational than is the idea that my affinity with horses has to do my having been born under the sign of Sagittarius. The horse was dead; it didn’t mind somebody sitting on it. Any anger would have been better directed at the fact that it could have been ‘trained’ to the point of dropping dead, which suggests that its state of health was not being properly monitored. I have no vested interest whatever in the racing industry, and the question probably needs to be asked as to what proportion of the outrage and anger has been manufactured for fear of negative repercussions for the industry rather than out of genuine compassion and respect for the nameless horse.
Perhaps I should be more worried about my immediate response to yesterday’s BBC news coverage of babies starving to death in Yemen in the context of our contemptible government’s decision to cut our aid budget to Yemen by more than fifty percent. The UK is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia whose proxy war in the Yemen has resulted in famine conditions for tens of thousands of impoverished people. In direct contravention of a Tory manifesto commitment, £4 billion has been cut from our Foreign Aid budget, to the anger even of many Tories on the back-benches, as a contribution towards the hole in our finances caused by, among other things, the many more billions of pounds corruptly handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic without need for a formal tendering process or parliamentary approval. I responded with anger and indignation to the coverage of the starving babies, but not with the same visceral distress. It is too easy to become inured to coverage of children starving to death in our grossly unequal world, and to feel a distanced anger rather than an emotional shock. A stupid man sitting on a dead horse shouldn’t shock one’s sensibility more immediately than the many atrocities with far wider ramifications going on in the world around us.