Anyone can set up an equine rescue centre or sanctuary, with no regulation or guarantee of even basic standards. And as a recent prosecution case shows, this can lead to major equine welfare issues.
H&H looks into calls for sanctuaries to be licensed — and why donors should ensure they know where their money is going.
The removal of 26 horses on welfare grounds from a “sanctuary” illustrates the need for licensing of such ventures — and for the public to be aware where their money is going.
One of the animals removed from North Devon Equine Rescue had to be put down, another had its eye removed as Ann Sim, 36, who ran the sanctuary, had failed to seek veterinary treatment and ignored advice.
Sim pleaded guilty to four Animal Welfare Act offences on 11 February. She was banned from keeping equines for 10 years, and given a suspended prison sentence.
She said she had struggled to cope after a relationship breakdown, and been too proud to ask for help as she struggled to work during her pregnancy.
But World Horse Welfare described the situation as a “cautionary tale”, demonstrating that rescue centres are unregulated, with no guarantee of welfare standards, and that some organisations are not registered charities. This means their governance is not subject to Charity Commission scrutiny, and there is no guarantee money donated will help animals.
The charity believes the first issue could be solved by licensing.
Deputy chief executive Tony Tyler told H&H World Horse Welfare has seen numerous problems caused by well-meaning people who set up sanctuaries without the necessary knowledge, and sometimes finances.
“As a result, there have been welfare cases, and some prosecutions, involving sanctuaries, which is very sad,” he said. “In the vast majority of cases, people set up with the best intentions, some just don’t have the skills they need to run them effectively.”
Mr Tyler said regular inspections would ensure animals’ needs were being met and there were plans for their future; whether rehabilitation and rehoming, or kept permanently by the sanctuary.
“Some keep them until the end of their lives, and do it extremely well,” he said. “But very often, people can’t say no when they’re full so they reach a point where land and resources can no longer cope.
“It may not be until a member of the public raises concerns about the welfare of the animals that the problem is recognised, by which time horses and ponies can already be suffering.”
Mr Tyler added that the fact the Devon sanctuary was falsely referred to by some media as a charity highlights the second issue — many rescue centres are not registered charities. Although this does not in itself mean they are untrustworthy, they are not subject to Charity Commission scrutiny.
“Some sanctuaries have been very successful in raising money from social media but people need to be very careful they know where their money’s going,” he said, adding that people can check for charitable status, and also, with local centres, ask to visit themselves to see how money is spent.
Another good sign is membership of the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC).
NEWC vice-chairman Claire Gordon, also World Horse Welfare’s chief field officer, told H&H the council runs an accreditation scheme, through which welfare standards are checked. This is not “totally foolproof”, but members must sign up to a code of conduct, and it is a “seal of approval”.
NEWC has also run, and plans to run more, events at which charities can share best practice and governance advice, as bad governance can affect welfare, whereas good management makes enterprises sustainable and frees staff up to care for horses better.
But Ms Gordon believes licensing, as a requirement rather than a voluntary scheme, would benefit horses and people.
“It would give the public confidence that their money is going to the right places,” she said, adding that while registered charity status can provide security on the financial side, “licensing would cover the care”.
Mr Tyler added: “We strongly believe licensing should not unfairly penalise dedicated organisations that strive to offer vulnerable horses a better future, but should give them clear guidance on what they need to do to ensure they are protecting their welfare. But when welfare is compromised, it would also allow for this to be established more easily and action to be taken and help to prevent a repetition of this recent case and the suffering the horses endured.”
A Defra spokesman told H&H: “We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and continue to explore ways to enhance our position as a global leader.
“We have been working closely with World Horse Welfare about the possibility of introducing welfare regulations for rescue and rehoming centres. Any future proposals would be subject to public consultation.”
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