There is barely a day that goes by without some horror picture accompanying a story of equine neglect popping up on our screens.

Surely it never used to be this way — or was it just that pre-internet and social media we didn’t hear about it? Whatever — why is this happening so frequently?

As well we know, there are too many horses; consequently horses are cheap. They have become a commodity that can be bought for relatively little or even acquired for nothing by anyone. Keeping them in suitable conditions however is not cheap nor does everyone have the right facilities and/or knowledge to keep them in physical and mental health. Hence once people can’t afford to feed and house horses or they run out of space, problems begin.

How often is it that the pictures we see depict a horse or horses constrained to a piece of unsuitable land standing or even lying stricken in a sea of mud? And yet anywhere and everywhere horses are now kept in small patches of land with barely enough room to break into a trot. To me there is nothing more pitiful than a lone horse standing day-in day-out in a square of what once might have been grass, with no shelter from wind, rain or sun.

Why isn’t the Act being enforced?

I had naively presumed that the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 would help rid the blight of the lone horse in a tiny patch or the too many horses over-grazing unsuitable land — which can be seen as you drive anywhere these days.

According to the RSPCA website, the Act meant that owners “must take positive steps to ensure they care for their animals properly and in particular must provide for the five welfare needs”.

These are:

  • the need for a suitable diet
  • the need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • the need to be housed with, or apart, from other animals
  • the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
  • the need for a suitable environment

Since when did a square of electric fencing with no natural food and no shelter become a “suitable environment” for a horse? When did it become acceptable to keep horses in the relative space afforded to a rabbit in a run? Yet thousands of horses are kept in these conditions meaning that they are unable to exhibit “normal behavior patterns”.

What happened to the notion that the minimum space needed was an acre per horse? So if you had two horses you needed at least two acres — and that’s two acres of free pasture, not two acres permanently divided into miserable squares.

No space = no horse

Horses evolved to walk and eat and their digestive system relies on this. They are herd animals that need social interaction; another horse to play with, scratch and help keep the flies off.

Young horses especially need to be able to gallop in order to strengthen and develop their skeleton. Yet people are breeding horses in these cramped conditions.

One of the latest stories is the tragic tale of twins born just two years ago. Their arrival was trumpeted in the papers accompanied by lovely pictures. Now one is dead and the other is one of 18 skeletal horses removed from the ubiquitous sea of mud.

If you haven’t got the right amount of space then you shouldn’t keep a horse, let alone breed another. No horse deserves to spend its life constrained to a patch by electric or barbed wire fencing.

It is not horsemanship and surely we should be getting tough on this — there is supposedly a Welfare Act that was specifically designed to help animals before it got too late. Why can’t we use it?

Carole Mortimer’s comment was first published in Horse & Hound magazine, 10 April 2014