The cold weather has proved an important tool for officers involved in a project to improve the welfare of horses living in eight Welsh local authority areas.

The Mustang project — launched in August — involves Cardiff, Newport, Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Rhondda Cynon Taff and Merthyr Tydfil.

Lead officer is Steve Grey of Cardiff Trading Standards. He said around 1,000 horses and ponies live across the eight areas and his team seizes around 20 loose horses a quarter in Cardiff.

He told H&H: “We want to look at a full year in the life of horses living in our areas to gauge the problems. The summer never really happened so we were not able to look at the problems drought causes but this cold snap means we can intervene where animals are not being sufficiently cared for in the bad weather.”

He said there is a huge variation in the areas the councils cover.

Merthyr has a lot of hill ponies on its common land and in Swansea they have ponies on the salt marshes of the Gower Peninsula.

Cardiff has a large urban horse population related to travellers (news, 20 March 2008). Tethered horses are a particular nuisance because they get loose and career around the housing estates, said Mr Grey.

“When we saw how these horses were being kept we realised there was a welfare as well as a safety concern,” he said.

With the University of Bristol’s welfare expert, Dr Helen Whay, Mustang has developed a basic welfare document for council officers — looking at water and grazing, condition and other issues like shelter.

Using powers under the Animal Welfare Act 2007 and the checklist officers can identify animals at risk earlier and force owners to improve welfare before animals suffer.

“It’s still very early days,” said Mr Grey, “but the aim is to connect with owners — to examine why they keep horses in these areas and how we can influence their behaviour.”

Mustang is funded by the Welsh Assembly Government’s Companion Animal Welfare Enhancement Scheme (CAWES) project.

A spokesman for the government said: “The Mustang project is due to report back to us in March 2011.

“The Welsh Assembly Government takes the welfare of animals very seriously and believes it is important for local authorities to have the resources to regulate the welfare of companion animals.”