A horse was put to sleep and another seriously injured at the latest Palio of Siena, prompting calls to ban the centuries-old race.

Alghero, a six-year sorrel, was kicked by another horse just before the race started on Saturday, 16 August. He was allowed to run, but he went down at the first turn with a broken a leg and had to be destroyed. Another horse, Palio first-timer Big Big, also had to undergo treatment but vets expect he will recover.

A medieval tradition, the Palio sees 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade (districts) face off twice a year (2 July and 16 August) in a furious bareback race run round Piazza del Campo, the town’s main square.

Animal rights activists have long opposed the Palio, which they maintain causes unnecessary suffering to horses. “This is the Palio of shame, a tradition stained with blood,” according to Italian animal welfare organisation LAV, which says that 45 horses have died in the race or had to be destroyed since 1970.

“Unfortunately, this latest death was predictable, given that the course is very dangerous, horses have to run at breakneck speed and there are no rules to govern the race,” said Mauro Bottigelli from the LAV. “It is a known fact that all is fair in the Palio, but sending animals to their death in the name of fun or tradition is not acceptable. If there is no way – or willingness – to guarantee animal safety at Siena’s Palio, the race must be ended.”

By contrast, Palio supporters point out that horses are at the heart of the competition, which is no more dangerous than a three-day event, and that much is done to ensure their safety. Tuff dirt is laid down the cobbles of the Piazza to improve the going and a hospital with operating facilities is available on site.

“Siena entrusts its hopes and dreams to its horses. The entire town lives for the horse and obviously suffers when tragedies such as that which befell Alghero happen,” Siena’s Mayor, Maurizio Cenni told HHO. “The horse is at the centre of the Palio celebration. The barbero [the name give to horses that take part in the Palio] has supper with the members of his contrada and is the real hero of the town.”

The Mayor is keen to point out that the horses’ welfare is paramount to Palio organisers, who strive to reduce the chances of accidents taking place.

“No other community is as much involved in ensuring the horses’ safety as the contradaioli in Siena. We have invested a lot of money to guarantee the highest safety levels. Horses are carefully selected for the race.

“Only crossbreeds are allowed to take part in the Palio because they are the most suited to the race and they are trained and instructed on a track which is exactly the same as Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, horses are checked several times to ensure they are fit. In addition, turf flexibility is tested every day in the run-up to the Palio and special mattresses are placed at the San Martino turn [to prevent accidents].

“We even have a nursing home where former Palio horses who can no longer run enjoy their retirement and are visited by the members of the contrade. We do our best to protect horses and Saturday’s incident is a sad exception, not the rule.”