Francois Doumen – how I regret his going over to racing’s flatter side – when asked if he thought French steeplechasers were more proficient jumpers than their English or Irish counterparts, replied. ‘With a big hesitation, yes. Particularly, I think, our steeplechasers learn a better way of schooling because of the fact that we have proper hurdles. Our hurdles are good-sized, they need to be respected. Your hurdles, I think, only teach horses to neglect them.”
Collectively we were in awe of the way Doumen’s horses jumped, with barely a mistake let alone a fall. His observation was in no way criticism of British and Irish trainers and as by the considered manner in which he replied to the question it is obvious he has great respect and admiration for racing this side of La Manche Tunnel. The problem, if there is a problem, is with the traditional hurdle. To answer my own question. I think there is a problem and it is being ignored simply because it is in plain sight. Swinging hurdles are inherently dangerous.
The brush hurdle races at Haydock are always well supported, with sizeable prize-money and large fields, yet the initiative is not being repeated elsewhere on British racecourses. Why? Is the brush hurdle to be unique to Haydock?
Swinging hurdles are a menace and must account for a significant number of injuries and fatalities. A horse cannot be schooled to learn how to jump a swinging hurdle and if horse welfare is a prime concern surely it is time for a radical rethink on the type of hurdle used on racecourses. Brush hurdles are static, mini versions of the steeplechase fence.
People do not breed horses to jump hurdles. Breeders set out to either breed horses to run on the flat or to jump fences. Hurdle races are a staging post on the road to novice chasing. So why and how has hurdle races become so ingrained in the racing psyche that any talk of changing them to brush hurdles is met with silence? Surely the education of horses born and bred to jump fences would be simplified if they were schooled and raced as novices over obstacles that resembled the sort of fence that is to be their future? It is not rocket science. Show jumpers are trained from young to jump poles. Why would you train a horse with the stature of a steeplechaser to jump an obstacle that requires a completely different style of jumping to the fence that is its future? To the layman it makes no sense.
There is a term I have heard athletes use that might also be attributed to the schooling of young horses – muscle-memory. Surely to train a young horse to jump in a certain way must imprint on the memory a procedure for getting from one side of an obstacle to the other, but to then expect them to learn a new way over a larger obstacle requires the horse to forget the learned procedure that went before. Horses are sentient beings and in their own environment and in their own company can be described as intelligent but their natural-born life-skills are that of smell, sight, instinct and memory. When horse and rider is aware that the stride is not there to jump a fence cleanly, no matter what instruction the jockey issues through the reins, heels or mouth, the horse is going to resort to memory and instinct and in the frenzy of decision making the horse may more often than not resort to what it learned at an early stage of its life and just launch itself, as it would do a hurdle.
I often wonder why when a young point-to-pointer joins a National Hunt yard he or she is invariably started off running in novice hurdles when it must already be proficient over steeplechase fences. To me it seems a case of going backwards in an attempt to go forward. There may well be method but I suspect there might be a tinge of madness, too.
Now, I am not advocating the abolition of hurdle races but I am suggesting a greater use of the brush hurdle for those horses whose future is steeplechasing. All courses should invest in brush hurdles. This will, of course, create a third discipline of the sport, and added expense for racecourses. But on horse welfare grounds it is an unarguable case for reform, for a radical rethink. Hurdle racing is unperceived by the sporting and general public. National Hunt’s image is the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup – steeplechasing. The dangers of hurdle racing, the mortality rate and the danger caused by the swinging hurdle, are unseen and unconsidered by those with agendas to fulfil. Racing was, if only eventually, proactive when it came to making changes to the Grand National course. Now the same radical approach should be applied to the hurdle race.
When teaching the young, be it human or animal, it is always good policy to make things easy to begin with, to encourage enjoyment to be part of the learning process. It is certainly unwise to place danger before the young, traps to unnerve and to serve as bad memories for the future. Yet young horses are sent out to race over an obstacle that encourages flippancy and if unlucky can cause a fall from a swinging hurdle that is no fault of horse or rider.
All of us, I suspect, feel more comfortable with what we know, what we were brought up with, and if traditional hurdles were to be universally replaced by brush hurdles I suspect trainers will issue monumental cries of despair. But in the short term there should be a debate and a far more extended trial than has been so far observed at Haydock. We owe the horse the duty of seeking to ensure its welfare at every level of the sport. We live in enlightened times, with many outlets for the prejudices of organisations such as Animal Aid. When the roustabout Lord Barrymore won a bet that he could find a man who could eat a cat alive, circa 1790, no one, I suggest, was appalled. Nowadays he would be stripped, quite rightly, of his peerage and sent to prison, loathed by all.
The lives and well-being of horses should not be risked when an alternative to the traditional hurdle is readily available, one that is far more beneficial to the education of the horse and less likely to cause injury. Perhaps traditional hurdle racing might remain, catering for horses off the flat that have too much natural speed for steeplechasing. After all, we have the Champion Hurdle to consider, don’t we?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.