Horse welfare merits tighter breeding control


Better breeding will benefit our horses and protect much of the food we eat

Perhaps bfy the time the public’s attention turns to the annual Irish planned assault on Cheltenham next week, the jokes about horse burgers and horsegate will have abated. But this is unlikely such is the extent of the fraud and the surplus of horses that have facilitated this scandal in the meat-processing industry.

Where did the excess come from? The answer is indiscriminate breeding of horses. There has been overbreeding, particularly among thoroughbreds, and poor or ill-considered coverings by sport horse or non-thoroughbred breeders. This resulted in huge numbers of unwanted horses, many of them mediocre. It is as simple as that.

Mare owners were bringing unsuitable and often inferior, poor-quality mares to be covered by stallions that had proven performance and value in the hope they would produce quality stock. It proved a greedy, foolhardy gamble, creating a welfare crisis.

Thousands of unwanted horses and ponies were not only abandoned, they ended up in slaughter houses and ultimately the European food chain. Many young mares bred for careers as brood mares were never even put in foal and were sent for slaughter as breeders realised they would be selling foals at a loss.

The successful breeding of horses is a complex science, genetic engineering at its most sublime. That may sound cynical; I love horses, and even I have to concede that a beautiful horse with performance and temperament to match its looks is usually a joint effort between nature and a human aware of the back breeding. Yet many breeders who reacted to the demands and high prices of the economic boom did not plan their breeding programmes. The recession hit, sales prices dropped and breeders suddenly couldn’t give horses away. Unsold animals were being abandoned at marts.

Ireland has an international reputation as Europe’s largest breeder of horses and the fourth-largest in the world after the US, Australia and Argentina. The Irish bloodstock sector contributes just under €1 billion a year to the Irish economy. It is ironic that the legendary Irish horse is a valuable cultural statement and also the stuff of cheap convenience foods.

In the latter days of the Celtic Tiger, in 2008, Weatherbys Ireland registered 12,419 live thoroughbred foals, a higher number than the combined figures for the UK and France. The Irish figure for 2012 was 7,544.

The figures for all non-thoroughbred horses and ponies registered with Horse Sport Ireland also show a decline, from 7, 633 in 2008, to 5,285 in 2011. These figures do not include the Connemara pony.

Stallion owners have the right to refuse to cover an inferior mare, yet rarely do. Once a mare gets into the breeding barn, there is no official intervention.

The stallion, however, will have had to be approved to be registered for breeding. Many inferior mares have gone on to produce second-rate or unsuitable animals not good enough for competition and yet too hot temperamentally for hunting or hobby riders. Even more serious was the undermining of the conformation or anatomical correctness of the Irish horse, which saw physical shortcomings or faults introduced and perpetuated though bad breeding. This brought the wrong mares to the wrong stallions.

Mares contribute a 75 per cent influence in the genetics of the future foal. It is not a 50/50 effort. Even a top-quality stallion’s progeny depends on a good mare. In addition to mare owners with expectations far beyond the qualities of their brood mares, there were and are the owners who allow their stallions to run in a field with any number of mares. Many a “sterile” mare has produced a foal in exactly these circumstances.

It is clear now that people who consume a high level of convenience foods may well have eaten more horse meat than they suspected.

Horse meat has long been used in dog food. Leaner than beef, it is also free of growth hormones. However, most riding horses have been given medication at some time. All horses are, or should be, regularly wormed and vaccinated each year.

The longer a horse lives, the greater the potential amount of medication. And not all vets stamp passports each time a horse receives medication. However, correct labelling rather than quality control has been the dominant issue in this food processing fraud.

Tighter quality control in horse breeding is essential. The recession has impacted on life in general and horse breeding is no exception. However, the consequences of overbreeding and poor breeding during the Celtic Tiger will remain to shake the communal conscience.

When the equine heroes of Cheltenham raise our spirits, we could thank them by demanding improved standards of horse welfare and greater responsibility and informed selection when breeding foals of the future.

Eileen Battersby is an Irish Times staff writer

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