Safety rules aim to tame the perils of the Palio

Whips banned in attempt to reduce injury toll for riders and horses

The medieval Palio horse races, probably Italy's most celebrated summer spectacles, will soon be governed by strict new rules – including breath-tests – in an attempt to stem the tide of injuries to horses and riders.

The sight of 10 horsemen tearing bare-back around Siena's medieval Piazza del Campo, dressed in the historic colours of the city's different wards, attracts thousands of visitors from around Italy and beyond every year. Some 50,000 people crowd into the middle of the square, while the fortunate few take their reserved seats in front of the 15th-century palazzi that circle it, all to be transported back to the Middle Ages.

But with just two weeks to go this year's Palio, organisers have been told of major changes. Whips will no longer be permitted. Traditionally, these instruments, known as nerbi, have been let loose on horses and even riders, in the no-holds-barred competition.

In addition, horses under four years old will not be allowed to compete, and strict new anti-doping checks will be applied. Riders may also be tested to make sure they have adhered to the alcohol ban. The new rules will pertain to the dozens of other historic horse races across Italy.

The Welfare Minister Francesca Martini said the new regulations had been designed to strike a balance between respect for local cultural traditions and protecting the animals and riders. "The traditions are not going to be done away with," she said. "But the horrifying images of a horseman killed on 6 July on the course at Sedilo must not be repeated." She was referring to the death of 44-year-old Roberto Pisanu in the Sardinian town's annual race.

Mr Pisanu suffered a fractured skull when he fell from his horse shortly after the start, and died in hospital the same night. Three other riders fell, one of whom was treated for a spinal injury, the AGI news agency reported.

Nevertheless, Francesco Putzolu, the Mayor of Sedilo, gave the news of government intervention a cool reception. "Ours is a special competition", he said, that "expressed the true Sardinian identity".

But Siena's Mayor, Maurizio Cenni, welcomed the new regulations. "Siena boosted its safety and animal protection measures some time ago, and we believe this ordinance can only improve the situation further,'' he said.

Animal rights activists, however, are still seeking to get the races banned. They have focused their efforts on the Siena Palio, which attracts thousands of visitors each year. They say the Palio is cruel, has little to do with sporting skill and is dangerous for the horses, jockeys and spectators. According to Italy's largest animal rights group, LAV, 48 animals have died since 1970 as a result of the race.

Mrs Martini told Corriere della Sera that her ministry had made a video of the worst incidents in Palio-type races, which showed "poor creatures with their hooves broken, slipping around on the tortuous track and then having to be killed with a pistol".

Two horses have died since 2001, the last time new safety measures were introduced. These included laying special absorbent sand over the cobblestones, padding dangerous corners of the courses and testing horses to ensure they have not been drugged to improve their performance and mask their pain.

Tradition or cruelty? Siena's Palio

*Believed to date to the 13th century, the Palio is held twice a year, once in July and once in August. The race itself lasts only a few minutes, consisting as it does of just three laps around the Piazza del Campo, but is preceded by hours of processions and rituals. Ten horses take part, each representing one of Siena's 17 districts – those that can race are the seven who did not take part in the previous Palio plus three chosen by a draw. The victor walks off with the Palio itself, a silk banner, resulting in much pride and boasting for the victorious district.

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