Owners whose dogs attack horses and riders could be liable for a prison sentence or large fines as the result of a ground-breaking case to be heard in the New Year.

A woman whose Staffordshire bull terrier allegedly attacked a horse is accused of owning and keeping a dog “dangerously out of control” — a criminal offence.

Dog attacks are usually dealt with in the civil courts under the Dogs Act 1871, which allows orders to destroy a dog and ban future ownership of dogs, but no fine or imprisonment.

Police and animal welfare organisations hope this trial will signal a tough approach from the courts in dealing with dangerous dogs in public places.

Mark Weston of the British Horse Society (BHS) said: “We hope it will highlight the importance of owners keeping dogs under control and recognising the potentially disastrous consequences if dogs attack horses.”

Michelle Nash, 42, of Kingstanding, Birmingham, denies the offence but faces a maximum of two years in prison and a £5,000 fine if found guilty on 11 January.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been under pressure from the Home Office and Defra to take a harsher line with allegedly dangerous dogs.

A spokesman for the West Midlands CPS said the alleged attack by Nash’s dog took place at Sutton Park, Sutton Coldfield, on 23 May.

Details of the victim and the horse are not known, but the dog allegedly attacked the horse, which bolted after suffering wounds. The lady rider injured her shoulder.

A police spokesman said the significance of using the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is that the CPS believes the rider was injured as a result of the dog allegedly attacking the horse.

The case coincides with a government review of laws relating to dangerous dogs and a consultation paper due to be published before the spring.

There has been a spate of high-profile attacks by dogs on children and 60 dog attacks on horses have been reported to the BHS this year.

The RSPCA is also watching the case with interest.

This article was first published in the current issue of Horse & Hound, 9 December 2010