Horse owners, and I count myself, are partly to blame for welfare crisis

On all levels of breeding – hairy cobs on the side of the road to elite thoroughbred studs - we are producing too many horses. Once something is ubiquitous, it loses value, and the results are distressing

Protesters at Shannonside Foods equine abbatoir in Straffan, Co Kildare, tied ribbons to the gates of the facility following the RTÉ Investigates documentary. Photograph: My Lovely Horse Rescue

We don’t have a horse welfare problem in Ireland. We have a human problem.

As the dust settles on the revelations of last week’s RTÉ Investigates programme Horses – Making a Killing, it is evident we are no nearer in safeguarding horses from abuse than decades ago when revelations of horse cruelty, abandonment and passport fraud were first widely documented.

Watching it was a reminder of what I documented as a reporter on farming and horses in Ireland following the financial crash in 2009 and again during the horsemeat crisis of 2013. Horses packed on to lorries boarding ferries for the UK; animals sent for slaughter (against regulation) in poor condition or with injuries; Irish horses abandoned to die as owners could not or would not pay for humane slaughter; passport fraud and ultimately food fraud affecting the entire European food system; large gaps in traceability; a lack of assurance that equine medication is not entering the human food chain.

RTÉ Investigates: Horrifying scenes of horse cruelty shows racing needs to actOpens in new window ]

Back then we identified failings that allowed individuals in Ireland and across Europe to exploit horses and commit passport fraud for financial gain. So why are we here again?


The answer involves the behaviour of horse owners (I count myself in this) and the failure of agencies that have still not developed ways to effectively track lifetime traceability in horses.

Many of us want a horse, but do not think about what we will do at the end of their life when they can’t be ridden or are no longer healthy. If you ride horses or own one, you’re likely to be already captured by their spell; their ears locking on to you in recognition as you walk towards them; the coil of energy as they gather themselves to jump a fence. It’s addictive. And if you have access to grass, you may as well have two horses as one. And maybe put the mare in foal, so now you have three. As anyone who owns horses will attest, it’s easy to collect them but harder to let them go.

Living in the countryside where I am able to rent grass, I’m frequently contacted by people asking if I would take a horse which for some reason – usually financial – they can’t keep it. Of 14 horses and ponies I’ve had over the last 20 years, I owned just four. Eleven animals were “loans” and a further three rehomed from the Irish Horse Welfare Trust. Some of the loan horses came having never had a passport, and with no plan for what would happen at the end of their working life or who would pay for it.

Putting down your beloved dog or cat is heartbreaking and expensive, but ending a horse’s life is more complicated. If a horse has been injured, they are usually given time off and rehabilitated, if the owner can afford the stabling or grass livery required. But if the owner can’t afford to keep a horse, they may have their horse put down by a vet’s injection. This can cost up to €600 for the vet to administer the injection and a truck to come to collect the carcass, and bring it to a rendering facility where it is destroyed. The other option is to bring it to a knackery yourself and get it put down there with a bolt gun to the head (around €150), or bring it to Ireland’s last remaining equine slaughterhouse – Shannonside Foods in Straffan – where you might get upwards of €300 for the food value of the animal depending on its weight.

Operations suspended at equine abbatoir at centre of investigation into mistreatment of horsesOpens in new window ]

Until recent years when rumours began to circulate about the care of horses at Shannonside Foods, it was believed to be a well-run facility. In 2021, BBC’s Panorama programme revealed a selection of cruelty and poor welfare in equine slaughter in the UK. In response to those revelations, Ireland’s deputy chief veterinary officer Michael Sheahan told an Oireachtas Committee in July of that year, that he was “satisfied with the way things operate in the slaughter plant ... They are operated and regulated in pretty much the same way as beef or sheep slaughter plants”.

This has proved to be far from the case, as the RTÉ documentary distressingly outlined. It showed horses being beaten with lengths of pipe; horses injured and heavily in foal going for slaughter; what appeared to be microchips being inserted into horses going for slaughter, all of which are illegal. Department of Agriculture vets were on duty in this plant but only on killing days, and not in the particular shed where the hidden cameras were placed.

John Joe Fitzpatrick, the operator of the Shannonside Foods plants, had a previous conviction in 2012 for animal welfare abuse. How he was allowed to operate a highly sensitive location regarding animal welfare beggars belief. Some other individuals featured in the RTÉ Investigates trading Irish horses in Europe also had previous convictions. Would this be allowed in the agriculture sector?

It’s arguable that on all levels of breeding – hairy cobs on the side of the road to elite thoroughbred studs – we are producing too many horses. Once something is ubiquitous, it loses value. And there are plenty of people waiting in the wings to exploit those vulnerable animals and the widespread weaknesses in the traceability system. RTÉ found that 20,000 horses are vanishing every year, some due to horse smuggling.

To say we need to get on top of this is an understatement. The Department of Agriculture and the European agencies need databases that talk to each other, lifetime updating of ownership and movement and those crucial end of life figures. All parts of the horse industry in Ireland – Horse Racing Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland, the Irish Draught and Connemara breeders, community groups such as Clondalkin Equine centre need to come together on the question of lifetime care and unwanted horses.

Should there be an affordable euthanasia scheme? Now that Shannonside Foods is closed, where are these low-value horses going to go? Unless there is a plan, many will face very poor welfare outcomes or possible abandonment this winter. Consideration should be given to a levy on racing – and indeed all equestrian sports – to support equine welfare centres like Irish Horse Welfare Trust and bodies like Treo Eile who are rehoming racehorses to new homes. Horse sport is already extremely expensive, but no one could argue that without the horse’s welfare at the centre of it, racing and equestrian sports are in trouble.

If you own a horse they become your joy, your exercise, your mental health counselling and engagement with a larger community. But we need to get a handle on this, otherwise equestrian sports face a withdrawal of public support and we’ll be watching the same images unfold again.

Suzanne Campbell is a freelance food and farming journalist