Next year could be a disaster for horse welfare, charities have claimed, as the price of horses at the lower end of the market hits rock bottom.

Susan Lewis, spokesman for the Horse Trust, told H&H: “2009 is going to be a difficult year for welfare. Dealers will be making a lot of money because horses are very cheap.”

Horse Trust welfare officer Leanne Crowther is researching conditions at horse sales and markets across the country. When she visited a West Wales market at the end of November, Shetland-type ponies were changing hands for as little as £35.

“It was a real eye-opener. I would have expected a pony like that to sell for around £100-£150, but they were going for frighteningly little,” she said.

“A Welsh section A can be bought for £100. It’s very tempting for someone with no welfare knowledge to buy at that price,” she added.

Alastair Brown from Wright Manley auctioneers in Cheshire said: “Sales of thoroughbreds have really taken a knock. Horses that sold for £1,000-£2,500 are now going for £400-£500 because they’re too expensive to look after if you’ve lost your job.”

“But it’s not just the downturn — there are too many horses on the market and this is a welfare issue. Sometimes the abattoir is the kindest option. I see horses who go round the markets — no one wants them and it’s a miserable life.”

Tony Tyler of World Horse Welfare agrees low prices could lead to poor horse welfare.

He said: “The problem with low prices is not new and may well get worse as a result of the credit crunch. Dealers are now able to make a real profit on ponies going for slaughter.”

Over the past 12 months, World Horse Welfare has been involved in nine cases that have involved rescues of multiple horses.

Mr Tyler said: “There will be yards out there where horses are kept in poor conditions, but I do not think there will be dozens of cases.

“It’s not unusual for us to be come across cases of up to 30 horses,” he added.

Stable manager of Essex Horse and Pony Protection Society Sam Edwards said that in one local field there were 90 mares and foals.

She said: “Our main concern used to be people who bought ponies for their children without understanding horse welfare, but now pony farming seems to be a bigger problem.”

The RSPCA estimates 7,000-8,000 horses and ponies die at UK abattoirs each year.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (18 December, 08)