I've lost count of the number of times I have referenced this topic not only in this blog but in various posts on different social media sites and on equestrian forums, but here I find myself again compelled to write about the subject of harness racing's public image.
Last night I was notified of a thread on the Horse & Hound Facebook page which included a video of a horse pacing in full harness with a sulky on a dual carriageway, travelling at approximately 30mph. The video had been posted by Horse & Hound, a notable equestrian print and online magazine. The reason it was brought to my attention (by a friend) was because amongst the comments posted under the original story were statements such as 'I hate trotting, it's completely cruel', 'the action is unnatural' and 'the horses are being forced to move like that by the straps around their legs'. Now whilst I agreed with some of the remarks about animal welfare and the safety of other road users, I naturally took umbrage with those specific remarks noted above. I found myself trying in vain to educate people about the Standardbred pacer and also about the equipment used, as well as differentiating between harness racing as an official sport, and illegal road racing.
Today I received my weekly email subscription from H&H featuring as
its main story an account of the very same tale, with links to said
video. This was the point at which I realised that until the media stops protraying the sport of harness racing as solely the hammering of horses up and down main roads, amongst traffic, with no regard for the safety of anyone in the vicinity (including those driving, and more importantly the horses), harness racing's public image will never change.
So I contacted Horse & Hound.
Now, I have contacted H&H before and asked if they would give half a page to the sport of harness racing as an introduction to an equestrian discipline which is NEVER written about in mainstream media in the UK. The reply I received was that it was 'too niche' an area to cover. I know it's niche, but it's also bloody awesome, and I'm willing to do the groundwork FREE OF CHARGE, much like the rest of the work I do to try to promote this wonderful sport. Not deterred, I realised there is more than one way to skin a cat and I began writing on here a lot more, and became a more active member on a large equestrian forum with my 'myth-busting' posts and insight into harness racing here in the UK. Even I'm not stupid enough to think that that's enough to convince Joe Public though.
When I contacted H&H this morning it was to politely request that in the interests of fair and responsible journalism, they educate their readers and subscribers about the official sport of harness racing, which is NOT the same as the videos they insist on publishing of illegal road racing and its associated time trials/public workouts on main roads. I had to explain to them that for every person I convince that our sport is a bonafide, genuine discipline which is staged worldwide, their insistence on drawing attention to a separate, albeit associated, 'sport' was convincing 10 people otherwise. With all the will in the world, I just don't have the reach to convince the masses and I am up against the UK media - an impossible opponent.
Interestingly enough, 'Eleanor' from H&H replied to me. She said she intended to write a 'follow-up piece' and wanted to speak to the BHRC as well. She asked if I would be happy to speak to them as well. 'Of course', I said.
I'm a little concerned that 'Eleanor' is looking for someone to speak up and defend the actions of the individual in this specific video. That won't be me. I'm not defending something that I don't believe in nor am associated with. And it's ridiculous enough in itself that I will potentially have to defend the sport of harness racing simply because the media has convinced everyone that this incident, and our sport, are one and the same. However, I won't be cutting my nose off to spite my face. This is an opportunity to educate a lot of people. I can't hope to convince them all, because a lot of these fluffy types don't like any form of horse racing (but ironically keep their own horses so overweight many suffer from a whole host of illnesses and complications which prevent them from being ridden at all). I can still get the word about harness racing out there though.
If the BHRC choose to take the opportunity to speak to a H&H journalist, whether it be to publicly emphasise their rules on individuals who road race and their ineligibility for licences under BHRC rules or to distance themselves from this type of media coverage, I will be delighted. I sincerely hope they do not refuse to enter into conversation for fear of repercussions from some members of our sport who do indeed partake in illegal road racing also.
I'm not a spokesperson for our sport. But I will speak up for it. I know it annoys a lot of people that I get on my high horse about things and always seem to be sticking my nose into matters which don't appear to concern me. Tough. That isn't going to change. The alternative is to sit back and do nothing, and that doesn't appear to have got us very far to date, does it? We have a bad public image and it NEEDS to be altered because personally, I am sick of being attributed for horses left dying in ditches because they were run off their legs on the roads. I don't do that, and just because I partake in a sport which looks a bit similar to the type of thing you see on the road, doesn't mean you can assume I would do it either.
If you're reading this blog and you have absolutely no idea what harness racing is and you want to find out more, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and ask me ANYTHING. What I don't know I can find out, or I can point you in the right direction to find out. Don't listen to Jean from the livery yard who went to Appleby in 1983 and saw someone in a sulky sat behind a 12.2hh black and white pony which was too small to pull the driver's fat backside around who has declared that all sulky racing is cruel and should be banned. Don't watch a video of some idiot dicing with death on a motorway and read Sally's comments about how we trotting people force our horses to move in an unnatural way by tying their legs together and beating them. Don't assume everybody in harness racing is a gypsy and don't assume all gypsies are bad people. Ask questions, open your eyes and your mind, learn something new.
Spread the word people. If you tell one new person each day, and they tell someone, and they tell someone else...well as Smarty says, 1 + 1 = 11.
Here's a video compilation of harness racing as I know it: