Horses left behind by the Tiger


The number of starved and abused horses is rising. As winter approaches and charities are forced to turn animals away, is a cull the only way to clean up Ireland's horse welfare mess? Suzanne Campbellreports

IN A STABLE yard in Co Wicklow, a small, emaciated thoroughbred mare stands dejectedly with her head almost touching the straw. Much of her coat has fallen out and her spine and ribs protrude from distended skin resembling the bare timbers of a boat.

“This mare is typical of what we’re seeing at the moment,” says Sharon Newsome, who runs the yard. “She’s starved, but actually she’s a well-bred horse.” In another time the pretty filly would probably have been in training on the Curragh – but not today.

Newsome runs the Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT), a charity under immense pressure to clean up the mess left behind by the Celtic Tiger’s surge in horse ownership. While in the past decade the leisure horse industry flourished, it was racing which really expanded, as hundreds of syndicates of both elite and ordinary folk seized their moment to live the dream. From 2001 to 2006 the number of racehorses in training in Ireland increased by 22 per cent. When the economy collapsed, trainers’ fees weren’t paid and fields full of horses suddenly had no owners. Culling horses may now be the only way to reduce the number of cases of starvation and abuse.

Alongside our banking woes, Ireland’s horse welfare crisis has put us under the gaze of the international media. Earlier this month the Sunday Telegraphjoined Swiss Television (Schweizer Fernsehen) and Horse and Houndmagazine in airing Ireland’s horse welfare problems. To read in a foreign newspaper that a horse in Dublin “was recently found with its legs bound, sunk to the bottom of a river” is to be presented with an image at odds with the sleek and glossy one that the €1 billion Irish horse industry likes to present.

As winter approaches, welfare groups project that hundreds of abandoned and starving horses will be found countrywide. In the case of the thoroughbred mare rescued by the IHWT, her owner was an elderly man who didn’t want to part with her even when a member of the public called gardaí and asked them to seize the horse.

“The problem is that now we have no room for even seized animals – the bad cruelty cases or starved horses like this one,” says Newsome. “I dread answering the phone or looking at our email because there are so many people desperate to get rid of horses.”

Horse ownership “is like a disease in this country”, says Paddy Wall, one of the writers of a UCD report on the welfare problems currently tarnishing the sector. While in the boom years everyone wanted to be part of the sport of kings, the recession hit horses particularly badly.

Over the past two years many animals went to the sales but came home unsold or went for well below their asking price. This brought them into the ownership of people who could afford to buy a horse for a few hundred euro but not the thousands of euro it takes to keep one over its lifetime.

Since 2007, well-bred racehorses and showjumpers have started to change hands for less than it would cost to feed them for a year. A fit thoroughbred was recently sold out of a training yard in Co Kildare for €200. As this reality hit home, some owners trade them on down the chain to those even less capable of looking after them. Then last winter the crisis truly hit.

“Last year was worse than I could have imagined,” says Newsome. “The bad weather meant there was no grazing and animals were left to starve or set loose on bogs or mountains if the owners didn’t want to be prosecuted. There is no facility where they can go. We’re the only dedicated horse charity in the country, and the few local authority pounds can barely cope.”

ISPCA CENTRES HAVE also seen a huge surge in the number of people contacting them about abandoned horses. “In 2008 we had 408 phone calls about horses, then last year we had 1,100,” says the organisation’s chairwoman, Barbara Bent. “Already this year we’ve had hundreds of rescue cases. We can’t take on any more animals and I don’t know what’s going to happen once the summer grass runs out.”

It is not only to welfare groups that the crisis is evident. The UCD report, published this summer, recognises the problem is “a human one, not a horse one”, as Wall puts it. Welfare issues exist across all sections of the industry, from National Hunt racing to horse fairs. The report identifies over-production of horses, lack of traceability in the system, poor understanding of the costs of horse care, all exacerbated by the effects of the economic crash, as the key factors in bringing horse welfare to crisis point.

“This is not a popular message, but it doesn’t get us past the fact that this is a difficult situation,” says Joe Collins, co-author of the UCD report. “Energy can be spent talking about it, but it’s no substitute for action.”

Prosecuting owners for cruelty doesn’t seem to be the way to get people to buy feed for their animals. The courts can take 18 months or more to turn around a cruelty case, and the fines are small. “The legislation is a hundred years old and the penalties are too small,” says Bent. “Unless we really do something about this problem, Ireland is going to lose its good name as a horse producer – and we need to protect that name.”

Three weeks ago, on a housing estate in Co Wicklow, a welfare officer from the IHWT identified a black and white gelding left to starve in the garden of a boarded-up house. It appeared to have been stabbed in the chest. As it was being removed, the horse’s two teenage owners arrived in a highly emotional state. “You’re not taking this horse, get away from my horse,” they yelled, jostling the three gardaí who had arrived to help out the welfare officer.

It emerged the teenagers had bought the animal for €100 from a 10-year-old boy standing in the middle of a roundabout the week before. It was untrained, and neither of them had any experience to turn it into a riding horse. But the lure of horse-owning status outweighed such practical considerations.

Coaxing by the gardaí and the IHWT officer eventually won out and the two lads relented, admitting they wouldn’t be able to feed the animal. As for the stab wound and other scars on the horse’s flanks, the teenagers were adamant it wasn’t them but that some of “the other lads round here” weren’t as nice to their horses as they were.

The gelding is now awaiting a new home. His story may yet end happily, but that’s not the case for the ponies driven in harness on roads, at high speeds, until they drop dead. The over-supply of horses has diminished their value and, in a world where value brings respect, this can be fatal. The Dublin SPCA reports horses changing hands at Smithfield market for as little as €20, or being swapped for mobile phones. When an animal’s life is so cheap it’s not hard to imagine why a teenager might choose to ride it to death for sport.

At an Oireachtas Agriculture Committee meeting this summer, TDs listened to expert opinion from the horse sector predicting a disastrous winter ahead.

Some witnesses, including RTÉ racing pundit Ted Walsh, explained to the committee that euthanasia can cost up to €300 per horse in Ireland, and that many owners will therefore abandon an animal instead. If a horse has a “clean passport” – meaning that it hasn’t received drugs in its lifetime which make it unfit for human consumption – it can go to a meat factory, where it will be humanely killed. Its meat will then go into the food chain destined for Europe. However, few of the horses affected by the current crisis have passports.

One of the solutions is a cull scheme, involving a once-off amnesty whereby the State would absorb the cost of humanely destroying unwanted animals. As draconian as it sounds, to put a horse down in such a way is better than making it endure a slow death by starvation.

Fine Gael’s agriculture spokesman Andrew Doyle is adamant that a cull is needed to take horses out of the system. “There should be some sort of incentive for people to bring unwanted horses forward rather than being prosecuted later for cruelty,” he says.

Another option would be to look for a derogation from the regulations on horses going into the food chain to permit animals without passports to go the meat-factory route.

“If you do a cull for a year or so, the problem is dealt with and you won’t have to do it againsays Doyle. “It’s in our face now – we’ve a whole load of unwanted animals that no one wants to know about and if we don’t so something quickly the outcome won’t be good.”

The Department of Agriculture acknowledges the current welfare problem but its view on a cull is that it’s “not an appropriate approach as such an initiative would not necessarily result in the slaughter of the target population – ie, those horses that are most vulnerable”.

The department has approved five meat plants around the country for horse slaughter, but these facilities can only take animals with clean passports so they can join the food chain. The average horse starving on a bog or a housing estate is not the type of animal that has a passport.

While the TDs on the Agriculture Committee may call for a cull, will they have the appetite to lobby the department after the political brawl caused by recent legislative moves against dog breeding and stag hunting? Cork TD Christy O’Sullivan (FF), for one, is adamant that a cull is the only route to take.

“I’ve cross-party support on this and I want to see the problem addressed rather than get worse,” he says. “We’re all part of the problem.”

A world away from Leinster House, Sharon Newsome views the possibility of such a scheme with scepticism. “We went to the Minister for Agriculture in October 2009, with industry bodies, and told them that this problem was coming. Then we said this problem is here. Now we have a UCD report backing up the evidence we are seeing on the ground, but what is it going to take to get something done?” she says.

Ireland may be the land of the horse, but the horse welfare mess we’ve created has yet to find an owner.