We feel like we need to say something about why we’re publishing these photographs. There are a couple of reasons and to be honest, one of them is “Holy shit, what’s happening in these just looks insane and amazing and disgustingly fascinating.” But then again, we are not Bizarre magazine and we don’t want to publish photos of animals in pain just for the hell of it. Quite the conundrum.
Luckily, the people who took these pictures did so while they were undercover in the world of illegal Filipino horse fighting. They were documenting it for an animal rights charity called Network for Animals. So we’re able not only to show you these photographs, which hold more morbid curiosity than 100 car wrecks around which flaming people are running in circles, but also to tell you that you need to go to networkforanimals.org and make a donation, however small, to shut these horse-torturing motherfuckers down. And don’t nobody try and give us the “It’s another culture, diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks” line. Horse torture is horse torture regardless of how near or far the equator is from you.
OK, enough rationalizing. Besides, we’re not even showing you the worst ones. Anyway, here we go…
A few months ago my wife and I went down to the Philippines to document three days of horse fighting for the animal rights charity organization Network for Animals. There are currently over 1,000 horses bred for fighting in the Philippines. Bets at amateur fights can range from 500 to 5,000 pesos, and bets at larger fights can get up to 150,000 pesos. And yes, sure, there is a law against horse fighting. But have you looked up
in the dictionary lately? Try it. There’s a just a big block of text that says FILIPINO POLITICIANS where there used to be a definition (and the fine for horse fighting starts at a measly 20 American dollars). Professional horse derbies last two to three days, are televised on local sports networks, and are sponsored by the biggest brewing company in the Philippines, which, over here, would be like having the Budwiser Dog Fighting Championships on ESPN.
A big question of ours going into this investigation was: How do they get the horses to fight? The answer, of course, is horse vagina. A mare in heat is tied to the middle of the ring in between two bamboo shafts. The female stays in the ring throughout the day in the sweltering heat. She is never moved, never given any water. They bring one stallion to the female and he gets aroused. Sometimes he jumps on her and rapes her. They either try to stop it or they just let it happen. Sometimes the mare and the horse fight each other as she tries to protect herself.
Once the stallion gets all riled up and aggressive, they pull him to the other side of the ring and restrain him. Then they bring in a second male and get him to the same excited state. Then they bring them to the female at the same time. Then instinctually, they start fighting over her, and, voilá, a vicious, ugly horse fight is born.
When two stallions fight, they rear up on their hind legs and bite and kick. They go for the neck and the back. Sometimes they bite just where the tail connects with the body and clench onto that spot for a minute as the other horse is squirming around trying to break the hold. Fights can last from a minute to almost an hour. To see such huge creatures in combat in front of you is completely surreal. You can feel the ground shake as they run by. When they crash to the ground, it feels like a small bomb has gone off.
Almost stranger than the fighting itself were the reactions of the spectators, who laughed and cheered every time the horses went at it. These people, who were so welcoming and kind to a couple of outsiders like us, were applauding a brutal, abusive blood sport as if it were as innocent as, I don’t know, a bunch of clowns doing somersaults. The incongruity of the whole situation made us dizzy.
Most of these fights happen on the southern island of Mindanao every weekend and usually only in small, remote villages. They’re especially popular during the November-December festival season. Figuring out when and where one is happening is not an easy task. We had no idea if we were even going to see a fight or not when we arrived. But we soon got word from a friend in the region and drove five hours to the annual fiesta of a small town called Maramag. Local amateur fights are usually held in an open area, like a high school soccer field. We saw one where there was no ring and a bunch of men and some children made a human barrier. The horses would sometimes bolt and run through the crowd. It was scary.
There are around eight fights in one day. The less experienced horses go at it a little bit and lose interest fairly quickly. Sometimes the handlers run off and grab them and put them back in or try to get them aroused again. Sometimes it works, there’s a spark of energy, and they get fighting. Sometimes they call it off.
While we were watching the fights we basically had to turn our emotions off to get the job done. Only later, when we started going over the footage, did the gruesomeness of what we’d seen really hit us. But it would be too easy to just be bummed about this situation and say, “What a shame.” Even though we felt helpless watching the horses brutalize each other for entertainment, we knew we had a mission and there was a positive reason we were there.