Abandoned horses left exposed to ‘unimaginable suffering’

ISPCA took in eight horses in 2006; this year it has taken in 80

Eighty horses were seized or surrendered to ISPCA inspectors this year

Eighty horses were seized or surrendered to ISPCA inspectors this year


An abandoned horse is found dead in a forest with a gaping wound caused by a tight head collar. A stallion donkey is withdrawn from sale when the auctioneer can’t even get an offer of €5.

These are just two recent incidents recalled by Conor Dowling, the ISPCA’s chief inspector, when he talks about the problem of unwanted horses. He has seen herds of horses in fields and on disused development land and regularly hears of emaciated horses being found in places such as forests. The horse found in a Laois forest must have gone through “unimaginable suffering”, he says, so horrific were the maggot-infested wounds on its head.

Six years ago, it was a rare event when the ISPCA received a call about an abandoned horse. The animal rescue charity took in eight horses in 2006. Already this year, it has taken in 10 times that number. And the winter hasn’t started yet.

“Eighty horses were seized or surrendered to ISPCA inspectors this year but the figure could be far higher,” he says. “We’re just under so much pressure for space that we have to focus on the most in need. The figures have gone through the roof.”

The Irish Farmers’ Association horse committee chairman James Murphy says people “went crazy” spending money on horses and ponies in the Celtic Tiger years. “Unfortunately they became almost a fashion accessory in some places,” he says. “For the people breeding horses, there was a very good trade so instead of keeping two or three brood mares, they ended up keeping six or eight brood mares. And when the crash came, there was a sharp decline in prices and guys were left with six or eight mares breeding foals every year that there wasn’t a market for.”

Up until this year, it appears that many of these unwanted horses were slaughtered for their meat, even if they shouldn’t have been. Unlike the livestock sector, regulations were lax, so horses ineligible for the food chain because of a lack of a passport, or because they received certain medication, still found their way into the meat plants.

All that changed after January 15th when horse meat and beef burgers appeared in the same sentence for the first time. The spotlight went on to these plants, regulations were tightened up and some meat plants no longer wanted to be associated with horses. At that time, five meat plants were slaughtering horses. Now there are just two – Ossory Meats in Banagher and B&F Meats in Straffan.

Some 24,000 horses were slaughtered last year, compared with about 6,000 this year. So where are the other 18,000 horses? Owners of unwanted horses could send them to a knackery but they would have to pay between €140- €200 to have the carcasses disposed of. That’s a hefty bill for someone owning dozens of unwanted horses. A horse could be buried on the owner’s land but this requires a licence from the Minister for Agriculture and isn’t commonly granted.

This is why calls are mounting for a State-funded disposal scheme. But if owners were foolish enough to breed or buy too many horses, shouldn’t they be forced to bear the consequences? Dowling says it’s the animals that are suffering and he reluctantly feels a disposal scheme is necessary.

“Nobody wants to see it coming in but there are just too many horses out there,” he says. “Going by last year’s figures, we’re looking at 18,000 surplus horses. Where are they going to go? Who’s going to feed them? When animals have no value, that’s when they are likely to suffer.”

Potential costs
When Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney met the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture for a pre-budget briefing earlier this month, he drew attention to potential costs arising from horse welfare considerations, fuelling speculation that such a disposal scheme was on the way.

“If people have horses that they cannot feed and they have no market for those horses and there is likely to be a welfare problem as a result, we must and will act on that, and we are willing to allocate funding to ensure it is done in the most appropriate way,” he told Fine Gael deputy Pat Deering.

However, The Irish Times understands a horse disposal scheme will not be included in this week’s budget announcements.

The IFA says there is an urgent need for action with winter looming. “I have no doubt that for many of these horses a disposal scheme would be a blessed relief,” Mr Murphy says.