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