Animal overs who accuse welfare charities of failing to act, and in some cases take matters into their own hands, cannot only hinder legal action but also put horse welfare at risk.
The National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC), members of which include the RSPCA, World Horse Welfare, Redwings and The Horse Trust, says it is increasingly seeing people accusing charities of failing to act in cases of reported abuse or neglect.
This can lead to “rising tensions”, NEWC said, but also in some cases, smaller “rescue” organisations have stepped in to take horses before the legal process has been completed.
“In many cases, when issues are raised on social media, charities are already working, often together, to resolve the situation through existing law,” a NEWC spokesman said. “NEWC understands it is frustrating when it appears well-known organisations are not acting and don’t share information, but there are very good reasons for this.”
These include the fact charities must be careful their statements do not jeopardise any future court proceedings, and that they cannot remove horses without owners’ consent. Horses may only be taken under the Animal Welfare Act by police, council inspectors or the SSPCA in Scotland, and only with a vet’s approval.
NEWC said there have been recent cases when welfare charities have arranged for police and a vet to attend, but arrive to find horses have been taken.
“Although such actions can be well-meaning, it can have the unfortunate consequence that the owner will not face justice and could go on to cause suffering to more horses,” the statement said.
“Where horses do need urgent help, it is important they are removed legally and put into specialist care. The chances for survival and a good life can often depend on how these animals are treated in the early days after rescue. Cases of further suffering and even death have been seen when horses were taken illegally.”
In Scotland in April, reports were raised about the welfare of some horses in Ayrshire, but before the SSPCA could progress its investigations, they were taken without authorisation by a “sanctuary”. Two, moved a long distance, were not fit to travel. All were taken into charities’ care.
Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn told H&H: “Our inspectors leave no stone unturned when investigating; this means it can take time. But we always act as swiftly as possible and no other body in Scotland is better placed to address animal cruelty concerns and tackle neglect.”
World Horse Welfare chief field officer Claire Gordon told H&H she believes more people are “rescuing” now then ever, owing to the use of social media.
“Rarely a week passes where I do not come across an unregistered charity I have never heard of appealing for money on Facebook,” she said. “Many don’t have websites and often even the Facebook page reveals very little.
“Without transparency it is difficult to know whether they are helping horses responsibly or whether these equines are going from the frying pan into the fire.”
“This is where I feel NEWC can be of great benefit,” she said. “It provides support to those working in welfare, rescuing horses, but also to the public who are worried about horses. They can be confident that reporting concerns or rehoming a horse to or from a NEWC member is a safe bet.
“The horse crisis is too big for any one charity to have the resources to tackle, and through NEWC we have achieved much by pooling our resources and minds to tackle it together,” she added.
“The NEWC charities work so closely as a result of the crisis that we consider each other colleagues rather than competition.
“NEWC charities will be aware of how much work goes on in the background but I don’t think the general public are. I get frustrated when I read comments on social media saying the larger charities don’t care and are a waste of time. It is so far from the truth.
“Much is achieved when we work together and as such, I would encourage new and existing charities to consider joining NEWC whose members all abide by a code of practice and have passed an accreditation process. This can give the public confidence that if they are donating to a cause, their money will be spent responsibly.”
Ms Gordon agreed genuine welfare cases often have complex veterinary needs, so apart from the fact it is illegal to take them without authority, it could also have a negative impact on welfare.
A leading charity says weight is one of the biggest welfare issues facing UK horses
More than 160,000 people have asked the government to ban the parties – but are they a welfare issue?
Take advantage of our sale on Horse & Hound magazine subscriptions today
“Their care must be guided by a vet to ensure that horses’ welfare is improved and not compromised by well-meaning but ill-equipped individuals,” she said. “That has to happen at the earliest opportunity so vets can gather evidence to support any legal proceedings.
“It costs the RSPCA thousands to prosecute; all that would be for nothing if cases were lost because procedure wasn’t followed and horses have to be returned to where they had sub-standard care.
“People should not take it on themselves to rescue horses thinking the RSPCA or SSPCA can prosecute later for them.
“I also feel strongly buying horses out of perceived welfare situations is not rescuing; it is creating a market for horses to receive poor quality care.”
For all the latest news analysis, competition reports, interviews, features and much more, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, on sale every Thursday.