While some celebrated Chinese New Year last week with family dinners and red paper decorations, a few villages in China carried out a grisly 500-year-old tradition. Members of the Miao ethnic group from the mountains of southern China and southeast Asia hold bouts between horses to ring in each new year, encouraging the animals to fight and betting on the winner. The tournaments can earn the winner 10,000 yuan (around $1,650) and are happening more frequently now, as the Year of the Horse begins. [Warning: Disturbing images]
AFP reports that a common folklore says that the first battle was held to settle a dispute between two brothers who both hoped to marry the same woman.
The stallions are encouraged to fight by the presence of a female horse, who is kept meters away from the clashing pairs by a villager armed with little more than a stick. The horse which successfully defends its position close to the female is declared the winner. Animals Asia has said the female horses are sometimes "induced into season through the injection of hormones."
Horse-fighting has been outlawed in most countries but not in China. Animal activists from the non-profit organization Animals Asia called the tradition a "horrific spectacle," and says that local government officials now actively encourage this cruel event in order to attract tourists to the area.
"Animals Asia opposes this cruelty and will continue to call upon the government to enact animal protection legislation to ban this practice and other ‘traditions' which cause abuse and suffering to animals in the name of entertainment," reads a statement on their website.
Locals argue that horse-fighting is steeped in tradition. "Without horse fighting it wouldn't feel like a new year," Pan Jianming, whose horse won a competition, told AFP. He also added, referring to his horse's bloody bites, "We have medicine to treat his injuries, and he will gradually get better."
Horses are not naturally aggressive and wouldn't normally engage in behavior like this. Says Vetstream:
Horses in the wild show very little overt physical aggression as they normally live in stable social groups. When they do occur, aggressive encounters are normally short-lived and end with one individual retreating away from the situation.
Animals Asia says that the best thing for people to do to stop horse-fighting is to write to the Chinese Government and call for the adoption of animal protection legislation to ban the practice. You can write a letter to the Chinese Ambassador and send it to the main embassy address in your country -- embassy addresses can be found here. You can also sign this petition, led by activists who are trying to end horse-fighting.