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Maniacal journalists and experts are working up a muck sweat over the mutilation of horses. Andrew Calcutt reports

Horsing around

'When I saw her lying there I thought she was ill. But I felt her and she was already cold and stiff. Then I noticed a stab wound in her neck.' Evidence from a murder trial? Extract from a Raymond Chandler novel? No, this is the Daily Telegraph quoting horse-owner Robert Broderick on the death of his mare, Mountbatten.

Never mind the starving or the casualties of war - these are mere humans. The British press has become obsessed with the spate of 30 injuries to horses in Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. From the locals to the nationals, journalists have had a field day.

'Pregnant horse falls victim to mutilators.' (London Evening Standard) 'And he [the attacker] will either be caught in flagrante delicto by a passer-by, or in a pool of his own blood having met his match in the paddock.' (Bucks Herald) 'Sick Ripper maims pregnant mare.' (Daily Express) 'There is talk of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands if the perpetrator is caught.' (Guardian) 'The nocturnal menace in the fields and yards across the south of England.' (Daily Telegraph) 'Horse attackers "could turn on children".' (Independent) 'The most hated men in Britain...uniquely disgusting crimes...a sexual assault on a horse is taboo destruction on an awesome scale.' (Sunday Times).

Mutilation common

'Uniquely disgusting'? Set against the record of barbarism in the twentieth century, that is a remarkable claim. Especially when any rural magistrates' clerk will tell you that mutilation of animals - for sexual and other purposes - is fairly common in the British countryside. The only sceptical article, in the Independent on Sunday, suggested that many of the 'Ripper' wounds could have been caused by horses kicking each other. The hysteria surrounding the recent injuries is the only truly 'awesome' aspect of the affair.

The broadsheets have gone to bizarre lengths to discuss the 'horse Ripper' in seriously heavyweight fashion. The Guardian asked whether the attacks were linked to the occult, and provided a social history of attacks on farm animals. In the manner of Silence of the Lambs, other quality papers built up psychological profiles of the horse attacker(s), although their expert diagnoses were less than convincing.

Dr Colin Brewer: 'He probably has a history of some sort of psychological illness. But then there are lots of weird people in any community.' Clinical psychologist Mike Berry: 'it is quite clearly something between him and the horse.' Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals psychologist Richard Ryder: 'this sort of behaviour can attract followers. On the other hand, he could be a lone operator.' Former Broadmoor chief psychologist Tony Black: 'he could be getting these [messages] from television or telepathy, God, the devil, Mohammed or space people.' Professor David Canter was suitably unimpressed by 'pseudo-psychoanalytic discussion'. 'Perhaps he has just ended a relationship with a goat and has displaced his anger on to horses', he mocked.

Why did the British press ride this story for so much more than its worth? Perhaps they had some encouragement from the more publicity-conscious elements in the police force. Here was a chance for the police to appear alongside wounded horses and distraught owners. Ignoring the advice of a Hampshire Chronicle reader, who said that a flock of geese is the best possible deterrent, they seized the photo-opportunity to pose as defenders of the farmyard. This was the combined 'human interest'/law and order angle which editors jumped fences to print.

Gleefully they informed us that the hunt for the horse attacker(s) had acquired 'the status of a murder inquiry', with incident rooms in Alton, Winchester and Thame. Many papers carried a photofit picture of a man the police wanted to interview. The Daily Telegraph was the only one to admit that the man was thought to have interfered with a cow in October 1990--he may never have been near a horse. Wilfully misleading? Or perhaps the defenders of the farmyard and their pet journalists have not yet learned to distinguish one animal from another.

The hype of the 'horse Ripper' is genuine in one respect: it accurately reflects the mood of disquiet among the British middle classes today.

Paranoia rife

'Everyone's worried now. They're thinking, "could it be the neighbour?"', said owner John Othen. 'Horsey people' are concerned for their womenfolk: 'what would happen to my youngest daughter if she came across somebody with a Stanley knife in the stable?' The Guardian reported that 'people reconsider unusual lesions...once dismissed as innocent injuries'. Paranoia is rife, with the working class as bogey man. The Sunday Times noted 'the prevailing pop-psychological theory...that the assaults are the work of a sacked stableboy'. The Guardian agreed that 'there may be some perverted notion that horse-owning belongs to the privileged minority, especially if it transpires that he or they have been dismissed...'. The vengeful stableboy at the bottom of the garden stalks the fevered imagination of the insecure middle classes.

The 'horse Ripper' panic in the Home Counties is a sign of our times. With everything from the British economy to the royal family apparently falling apart, there is a lot of frustration and bitterness among the British middle classes today. But the decline of political life means that there is no obvious way of expressing it. As a consequence, we are left with a permanent sense of public outrage looking for an outlet. In October, the Cheltenham ladies marched against pit-killer Michael Heseltine. Now the middle classes are expending their nervous energy on the 'horse Ripper'.

They are buying sensor lights, fitting alarms, forming Horsewatch schemes, offering rewards, and sleeping in stables with their horses. Stiff upper lips are much in evidence. 'I'm not going to give in to these people', Mrs Langlands Pearse told the Daily Telegraph after her horses' tails were docked by an intruder. The Daily Express commended 'two terrified horses [which] put up such a struggle that eventually the attackers flwed without sexually assaulting them'. This is surely an example of the Dunkirk spirit that might yet save Britain from the knacker's yard.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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