Why did we protest at the Grand National? To finally make Britain talk about our treatment of animals | Alex Lockwood

Society is wedded to a belief that it is OK to control animals for profit. We hoped halting the race would make people stop and think

As a country of people who love animals, it shocks and saddens many of us that watching a horse break their neck on national TV is still considered entertainment. That’s why 300 people from Animal Rising went to Aintree on Saturday to stop the Grand National.

We did not fully succeed, and – like last year – more horses died. Hill Sixteen fell at the first fence and died of its injuries. Hill Sixteen’s death followed those of two others at Aintree last week. We mourn the loss of these animals.

These deaths are par for this course, and for racing events overall. The horse racing authorities and betting industry defend slow incremental “welfare” improvements, and yet horses continue to die with awful regularity: 50 so far on the tracks in 2023. On average, a horse dies every other day on the tracks, over jumps and on the flat, with many more dying in training and the paddock. The dangerous institution of the Grand National should have been retired long ago.

The Mail on Sunday’s front page today.
The Mail on Sunday’s front page today. Photograph: Henry Nolan/Mail on Sunday

Where we did succeed is in showing that this is a much bigger problem than just one race. We protested because everywhere we look we see a broken relationship with animals and the natural world.

This broken relationship is at the heart of our climate and nature crisis. We’re devouring nature through animal farming and fishing, killing our rivers with slurry from industrial chicken and pig farms, and watching our beloved wildlife disappear in front of our eyes. All because we are stuck in a pattern of outdated beliefs that it is OK to control animals, using them for profit. The Grand National is emblematic of this uncomfortable and one-sided dominance – that’s why we tried to stop it.

There is a solution: repairing this broken relationship, beginning where most harm is done, in our food system. A food system without animals is already known to be safer, more secure and more sovereign, providing all the calories and nutrients we need and, in fact, using less land. This freed-up land could be rewilded for nature to recover, and we could see wildlife – including wild horses – return and flourish.

It shouldn’t take a committed bunch of caring individuals to put this solution at the centre of national debate. But it has. Up and down the country, everyone is talking about our treatment of animals. This national conversation is essential to challenge the fast decline into climate inaction.

Some prefer to focus on the protests rather than the issues. So let’s talk about them. Animal Rising is a peaceful movement; our actions are focused on stopping harm, particularly in the food system, where we breed and kill more than 1.2bn animals in the UK every year. All of our planned actions on Saturday were nonviolent. That’s different from being disruptive, of course, but the two have long been compatible: just look at Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Horses clear the water jump in the Grand National.
‘On average, a horse dies every other day on the tracks, over jumps and on the flat.’ The water jump at the Grand National. Photograph: Paul Greenwood/Shutterstock

We are a movement for all life and that includes animals exploited elsewhere such as in sports and animal testing. The aim was to stop the race before it began. But sadly it was deemed more important for people to have a bit of fun and a flutter than to stop animals from dying.

For those few claiming that our actions affected the horses and outcome, we point to the fact we were not taking action for the other 2,601 deaths since 2007. Direct action has been part of a healthy democracy for as long as there has been democracy, especially when it is obvious that “business as usual” does not represent the values of most of us. In the UK, according to research by the University of York, more than 80% of people under 40 do not want to attend horse racing events because they know it is unethical.

Returning to the bigger picture, has anyone yet taken any action that is proportionate to the coming social and economic collapse that is likely to result from the climate crisis? Have we persuaded our climate-insane government to take proportionate action? Not yet – if we had, it would have already ended animal farming and fishing and supported farmers into safer, more sustainable practices.

That’s why we’ll be taking more action this year, along with all those acting to challenge the existential threat. We’re not against those who attended Aintree, or the trainers or jockeys. But we accept Saturday was the biggest challenge to horse racing in this country for more than a decade.

Let’s hope that we’ve begun the process of having this crucial conversation about our treatment of animals and the natural world, and that others – our government, and all those who say they love animals – stand with us to tackle the mounting crises we face.

• This article was amended on 18 April 2023 to clarify that Hill Sixteen was not put down or euthanised, but died of its injuries.

  • Alex Lockwood is an Animal Rising spokesperson and volunteer

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Alex Lockwood

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