Horses have been raced bareback through the Italian city’s streets for hundreds of years, but activists have won permission to rally against the event
More than 30,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s race. The event is said to be one of the oldest community traditions in the world. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
A bareback horse race run twice every summer along the ancient streets of Siena and dating back to the 17th century will be targeted by animal rights activists this weekend, after Italian authorities allowed campaigners to protest during the event.
The Palio di Siena pits 10 jockeys picked from 17 rival neighbourhoods against one another, riding around the Tuscan city’s Piazza del Campo in their district’s bright colours and cheered on by more than 30,000 spectators. To have a chance of winning – and becoming a local hero – competitors must master the notorious San Martino curve, which throws many riders from their horses.
Activists argue the Palio is a cruel event in which horses suffer greatly. Seven horses have died on the course since 2000, with the latest put down in June after crashing during a practice run. This Sunday, about 2,000 people are expected to attend a rally during the race organised by the European Animal Rights party (Partito Animalista Europeo), which aims to consign the Palio to the history
Stefano Fuccelli, the group’s president, said the rally represented the first breakthrough in their campaign against the race: “I don’t know whether we’ll see the end of the Palio, but it’s a start.”
Fuccelli promised not to interrupt the race itself and said activists would stay within the protest area mapped out by city hall. The authorities have cautiously marked out an area far from the city centre, but Fuccelli said activists would nonetheless have a significant impact.
“It’s seen as dangerous by the political forces because they think it sets a precedent. It’s like the campaign to give women the vote, or for the rights of gays; they always started with a few people. It’s this that they’re afraid of,” he said.
But Paolo Mazzini, the councillor responsible for the Palio, remained confident in the future of the famous race. “The Palio is one of the oldest community traditions in the world … it even took place during the invasion of Napoleon,” he said.
Mazzini, whose great-grandfather won 10 Palios, stood by the decision to move protesters away from the event as a matter of public order. “There are very strong emotions during the Palio,” he said, hinting at fears of clashes between locals and protesters.
“It’s a constitutional right [to protest], but Siena is a city which existed before the constitution,” Mazzini added, noting permission for the rally was granted by state rather than city authorities.
A horse and jockey hit the ground at the hazardous San Martino curve during the Palio. Photograph: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
Aware that they are unlikely to see an instant end to the Palio, the animal rights party is in the meantime calling for sturdier and slower horses to be used. While the prospect of horses trotting around the square may not seem nearly as exciting as the current racing pace, Mazzini said the potential change was being discussed in the city.
“Years ago we stopped using pure-blood horses, which are faster but also more fragile. Half-blood [breeds] are the only ones that can run,” he said. He added that a stringent selection process ensured only healthy horses raced, and there was a system in place to quickly remove any injured ones from the race. Injured horses that survived but could no longer race were sent to a “retirement home” where they could rest, Mazzini said.
Orlando Papei, a Palio enthusiast who gathers historical information on the event, argued there were relatively few horse deaths considering the number that compete each year. With ancestry in Siena dating back to the 1500s, he was doubtful that the protest would put an end to the Palio: “It’s always been here, and it always will be.”