Horses outside: fixing the pony problem


Last winter, the plight of Ireland’s starved and abandoned horses was highlighted by a photo published in The Irish Times,
showing a badly injured horse in Dunsink, in Dublin. A year on, much has changed, but is it enough to solve our horse welfare problem, asks SUZANNE CAMPBELL

‘LAST YEAR it was like something out of the Magnificent Sevenup here,” says John Murtagh from Finglas. Murtagh is one of more than 50 horse lovers from north Dublin who have taken ownership of the horse problem in their area. “We had kids racing up and down housing estates on ponies; horses running out on the roads; and starving animals being dumped up on the Dunsink land.”

Last winter, malnourished and injured animals at the former landfill site in Dunsink drew attention to Ireland’s horse welfare problems. The Irish Timesphotographed an animal at the site with a ruptured abdomen who was subsequently destroyed, and the plight of the Dunsink horses drew film crews and reporters from Al Jazeera and the New York Times.

Ireland’s horse population peaked in 2007 with 25,000 new thoroughbred and sport horse foals registered, but the recession left many owners unable to feed their animals. From 2008 to 2010, the numbers of horses in racing and the top end of the sector had declined and further down the chain, animals were being sold for as little as €20 in Smithfield market. The harsh winter last year was particularly bad, with hundreds of horses impounded, rescued by animal welfare organisations and euthanised.

What had been viewed as an “urban horse” problem in the Finglas area was increased by other horses arriving onto the Dunsink site during 2010. “We were up there one day and this horsebox pulled in,” says Murtagh. “This fella took two skinny horses out of it and put them out loose to fend for themselves.”

For Ruairi O’Dulaing of Fingal County Council, the situation needed some lateral thinking. “We were finding the traditional means of controlling horses – by impounding them – wasn’t having an impact on the horse population here.” The council formed an equine management plan and sought outside expertise while getting the support of local horse owners. “We had to work alongside people who owned horses at Dunsink and with other agencies,” O’Dulaing says. “It’s an unusual approach for a council to take but we needed to do something new about the situation.”

With the Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT), the council organised a round-up of more than 70 horses and ponies from the Dunsink site this spring. Horse owners were contacted by word of mouth to turn up at the site to catch their animals, with most of them willing to co-operate. The horses were checked by vets for health problems and then micro-chipped, with help from the Department of Agriculture and Horse Sport Ireland.

Males were castrated to prevent further breeding and 20 of the more neglected and ownerless animals were taken into care by the trust.

Communication between the local horse owners, the IHWT and the council was central in putting responsibility for the animal and its future care on the owner. “Before this, no one knew each other up there,” says Murtagh. “Once the horses were micro-chipped, we all knew who owned each horse, and we can make sure none are coming there to be dumped”. The success of the round-up led to the formation of the Dunsink Horse Owners Club, which has since availed of Fetac-accredited training in horse care provided by the horse welfare trust.

Leslie Jones tutored 22 people from the club through the training. “The owners ranged from 12-year-old kids to men in their mid-40s who hadn’t been in a classroom in decades,” says Jones. Practical sessions in stable management took place at the IHWT yard in Wicklow and Fingal County Council provided funding and a venue for the classroom sessions.

INCREASED HORSE WELFARE is not the only thing that can emerge from such collaborations. “We’ve worked with kids in Moyross in Limerick and found that providing knowledge in horse care is only part of it,” says Jones. “What it gives people is a way of experiencing their passion through learning, and that learning can bring them back to school, for example, or into further education in the case of the Finglas group,” she adds.

It was the IHWT training that led Graham Murtagh, who had a trotting horse at Dunsink, to a place at Kildalton College to learn stud management. “I wouldn’t have known about this course only for them,” he says.

He is not the only one considering further studies and found the collaboration more rewarding than he expected. “At the beginning, we thought they were like, the snob end of horses,” he says of the partnership with the trust. “But then we learned that some of us were feeding the horses wrong, and they showed us better ways of looking after them.”

“It was an exchange of ideas,” says Jones. “You have to remember a lot of these people had been looking after their horses well and have a real love of horses. There’s a waiting list for a second course but we can’t do more education without funding.”

The council now plans to allocate 16 acres of the Dunsink land to members of the Dunsink Horse Owners Club. The care of this area, plus plans to provide stabling and further facilities, will be managed by the club, which also has its own microchip scanner to keep track of the 58 horses and ponies that belong to members, and to ensure no further horses enter the site.

While the progress in less than a year has been remarkable, at times it has been tricky to reconcile everyone’s vision of the scheme.

“It hasn’t been a honeymoon,” says O’Dulaing. “These are people who often haven’t come together in this kind of way before. They might resist a structured set-up where there is accountability, and sometimes the two don’t meet. But what’s happened since this time last year has been a real success. We’ve established trust, we’re working together and that’s the most important thing.”

The initiative at Dunsink has been viewed positively by those tracking Ireland’s horse welfare issues. Joe Collins was part of a UCD veterinary study on welfare, which was published last year. While he welcomes the outcome at Dunsink, what may have a more profound effect on lessening equine welfare cases is the increased number of animals now being taken out of the system.

“Many more horses are being slaughtered now and they are mainly older horses produced during the Celtic Tiger years. It’s far better that these animals are humanely disposed of with veterinary supervision in licensed abattoirs than ending up in poor circumstances,” Collins says.

Regulated slaughter of horses might sound unattractive, but it means fewer animals likely to arrive into organisations such as the horse welfare trust because of starvation or neglect.

What’s clear is that more owners are taking this option. In 2006, more than 822 horses were slaughtered in licensed slaughter premises in Ireland, but last year that number rose to more than 7,000.

New regulations on mandatory identification of horses by passports and microchips may also discourage owners from “dumping” horses. However its adoption has so far been confined to the upper ends of the sector by breeders of sport horses and thoroughbreds.

“The problem lies with the unregulated sector,” says Collins. “These are the people producing horses, donkeys, dogs, who don’t register the animals and [then] sell them on to anybody they want. And because they are unregulated, we have no idea how many people or horses we are talking about, or how these animals are bought or sold.”

For the charities who clean up the detritus, the legacy of horse overproduction is still evident. Last month, the IHWT took in a mare that had been abandoned in Coillte woodland in Wicklow. Her injuries lead to her being destroyed after a couple of days in care. “We have over 70 horses all needing re-homing and, as a result, little room to take in any more,” says Jones.

Barbara Bent, president of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA), hopes that the negative attention from media reports on the horse welfare issue might have filtered through to those who are still not taking care of their animals

“I hope there is more awareness now,” she says. “The media attention might have been seen as negative for the industry but it made people more motivated to look at what was happening. There were far too many horses in the country, they dropped in value and when things have low value, they have low welfare.”

It remains to be seen whether public awareness and the increased number of horses being destroyed in abattoirs lessens the number of neglected or abandoned animals. “I hope we are past the peak of the problem,” says Bent, “but we will only know what the situation is once we get through the next couple of months.”

“Whatever happens, there won’t be dead horses up at Dunsink this winter,” says Ruairi O’Dulaing. “We’ve worked hard to get things to this stage, and the lads there now have responsibility for keeping track of the horses.” Whether the problems seen at Dunsink move on to other areas of land will be the acid test for whether Ireland is over the worst of its horse welfare issue.