Horse charity’s plan to focus only on thoroughbreds caused major turmoil

Irish Horse Welfare Trust failed to build education centre at its farm despite continuously having the plan in grant applications

A prominent horse welfare charity has abandoned plans to focus entirely on retraining retired racehorses despite warning the absence of such an organisation is a “key weakness and potential risk” to the industry.

The Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) was set up in 1999 to rescue and rehome abandoned and neglected horses, and is based on a 68-acre farm at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow.

A plan to rebrand the charity to focus solely on thoroughbreds created major internal turmoil, leading to its entire board stepping down and being replaced in recent months.

Correspondence from September 2018, seen by The Irish Times, shows Jane Myerscough, then-chair of the charity's board, proposed rebranding to focus entirely on thoroughbred horses.

The charity has received €670,000 from Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the national authority for thoroughbred racing, between 2009 and 2017.

The charity would be renamed Irish Racehorse Trust, and focus on retraining retired racehorses, Ms Myerscough told HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh.

“Unlike France, the UK, and other racing strongholds, Ireland has never had an organisation singularly focused on the welfare and retraining of retired racehorses. Many in the industry have identified this as a key weakness and a potential risk to our sport,” Ms Myerscough said.

The plan was drawn up in conjunction with former TD Lucinda Creighton’s firm Vulcan Consulting, at a cost of €10,000, which was largely funded by HRI.

This year the greyhound industry faced sharp criticism over revelations thousands of greyhounds are culled each year as they are deemed not fast enough to race, leading to several sponsors pulling support for racing events.

The IHWT rebrand never materialised, and in February all five board members resigned following disagreements over the direction of the charity. Most of the board had close ties to the racing industry.

Operating grants

Separately, the IHWT has failed to build a promised education centre at its farm despite continuously including the plan as one of several objectives for the coming year on annual Department of Agriculture grant applications.

The charity’s applications from 2011 to 2018 were released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information act.

The charity has received over €400,000 in general operating grants from the department since 2011. Despite listing the education centre as an objective for the year as far back as 2014, work on the project has not begun.

In a statement the charity's chief executive Sharon Power said building the centre "continues to be an objective" but would cost an estimated €150,000.

An analysis of the charity’s grant applications also shows the number of horses it has in its care has nearly halved over the last decade.

In 2011 it told department officials it had maximum capacity for 90 horses; this had dropped to between 45 and 50 by last year, the records show.

The charity reported income of €352,700 in 2011, nearly identical to income of €349,100 recorded it its most recent 2017 accounts.

In the first six months of 2013, it reduced the number of horses in its care from 98 down to 67 through euthanasia and rehoming. “A board decision was made to humanely euthanise any equines with long term injuries or illnesses due to the inability to meet the costs of their care,” the charity’s 2013 grant application stated.

However, its operating profit increased over the same year to €90,000, for a retained surplus of over €44,000, according to financial accounts.

From January to June last year, records show the charity rehomed nine horses, and euthanised eight.

Large intake

Ms Power, chief executive since 2015, said the number of horses only reached more than 90 on one occasion following a large intake from an animal cruelty case. The current capacity for less than 50 horses was due to the charity’s “skeleton staff”.

She said the charity’s euthanisation policy was in line with similar British charities, and it was “extremely difficult” to rehome horses with long-term health problems.

“The farm would fill up with equines not suitable for rehoming and space for rescue horses would become unavailable” if unfit animals were not euthanised, she said.

On the organisation’s income, Ms Power said the charity had no reserve funding and “cashflow throughout the year can be very tight at times”.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times