Italy's Palios: Siena's medieval bareback race should be banned, say animal activists

The toll of deaths and injuries mean the events are under scrutiny as never before

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The Independent Online

Supporters of Siena’s historic Palio horse race, which is held twice a year in July and August, have hit back at the first large-scale animal rights protest to take place against the event.

But even the heavens appeared to be against the organisers of the medieval competition, after it was rained off on Sunday following the hottest summer for half a century. The bareback race, of which the mid-August Palio dell’Assunta (in honour of the Assumption of Mary) is the most famous, are a throwback to the Middle Ages.

But the past is where they should stay, say activists who organised this weekend’s protest in Siena. The demonstration, was led by the European Animal Rights Party, whose president, Stefan Fuccelli, called for the “immediate and total abolition” of the races.

Events in a nearby Tuscan city just a year ago, which saw two horses break their legs in a matter of minutes, are fresh in the memory of many activists, who screamed abuse while spectators watched in stunned silence as the injured animals were carted off to be destroyed soon after the start of their heats in Pistoia’s 2014 Giostra dell’Orso race.

With the mounting toll of deaths and injuries to horses and riders, the races, which take place in medieval town centres across Italy in the summer months, are under scrutiny as never before. According to Italy’s largest animal rights group, LAV (the Anti-Vivisection League), 50 or more animals have died since 1970 as a result.

 

But on Sunday, Siena’s mayor, Bruno Valentini, led the defence of the Palio, which attract spectators from around Italy and the rest of Europe. “We are the real animal rights people who spend time, energy and resources for the horses,” he said. “Siena is keen to welcome visitors and explain to them what the Palio is really about. I’m not interested in the animal rights activists that came to Siena today.”

Local journalists and intellectuals criticised the animal rights groups and, predictably, so did far-right politicians from the Northern League and the Fratelli d’Italia.

But a regional councillor from the centre-left Democratic Party, Stefano Scaramelli, also came out in support of the Palio. “To allow the demonstration is like allowing a pro-monarch demonstration on Republic Day – a mistake,” he said. Until now, protests in Siena against the Palio have been outlawed on the grounds that they might cause public disorder.

In the event, the rainy, slippery conditions saw the Palio postponed this weekend. Significantly, the calamity in Pistoia last year (which led to the scrapping of the event there this year) was also blamed on wet conditions, although Lorenzo Lombardi, co-president of the Tuscan Greens party, said then that the Pistoia races were, in any case, a “carousel of death which have killed seven horses and made another 17 lame”.

In 2009, Italy’s then Welfare Minister, Francesca Martini, introduced new rules – including breath-tests for riders and doping tests for animals – in an attempt to stem the tide of accidents. Ms Martini said her ministry had made a video of the worst racing incidents, which showed “poor creatures with broken hooves, slipping around on tortuous tracks and then having to be killed”.

The first major protest against the August Palio in Siena went ahead this afternoon in the Acquacalda park – four miles outside the city centre – after the city’s prefect, Renato Saccone, decided it would be easier to police the event there. With better weather forecast today, the Assumption Palio should finally take place. But looking ahead, even the competition’s strongest supporters envisage the protests to come.

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