‘We all have our part to play in ending the horse crisis’ *H&H Plus*

  • The RSPCA organised a “lead the debate” session on 19 August. A panel comprising experts in the field discussed the equine crisis and its potential worsening in the event of another recession. H&H was represented on the panel and reports on the debate

    THE race is far from over, and the equestrian industry has a collective responsibility to end what can no longer be called a horse crisis.

    This was the message from the first “lead the debate” session organised by the RSPCA, on 19 August. A panel comprising journalist and newsreader Victoria Derbyshire, Dragons’ Den star and horse owner Deborah Meaden, RSPCA CEO Chris Sherwood, National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC) chair and Redwings head of behaviour and welfare Nicolas de Brauwere, Elise Pilkington Charitable Trust trustee and World Horse Welfare chief field officer Claire Gordon and RSPCA inspector Kirsty Withnall, as well as representation of H&H, discussed the equine crisis and its potential worsening in the event of another recession.

    The speakers agreed that with charities at capacity and the numbers of horses in reported welfare incidents increasing, action has to be on prevention rather than cure, and changing human behaviour, and that it is a collective responsibility.

    “At the heart of any campaign or prevention we do has to be the point that every equine is a sentient being, that has feelings and a set of welfare needs, and every equine deserves and absolutely should have a good life,” Mr Sherwood said. “All too often they haven’t had that first chance, and our work is to give them a second one.

    “We can’t keep chasing the ambulance with the horse in it; we’ve got to get ahead of the problem.”

    Ms Derbyshire had introduced the debate by explaining that the 2008 financial crash had led to the equine crisis, and that the RSPCA is among those expecting the situation to worsen as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

    “We’ve got to get ahead of this crisis; we’ve got to end it,” Mr Sherwood said, adding that the situation already costs the RSPCA millions a year, and that this is not sustainable.

    “To do that, we have to understand it, and look at how we work together as a sector, what needs to change, and who’s responsible.

    “There are some big and difficult questions to answer, and this is the time to face up to them; if we don’t, they’re only going to get more difficult.”

    Mr Sherwood said collaboration between different bodies is key and that this is improving, but it will be needed to act once the root causes of the crisis are better understood.

    Ms Gordon said, as World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers has previously, that the crisis cannot be called such any more.
    “A crisis is a moment in time, and we’ve been in this at least 10 years,” she said. “The problem are systemic, and we need to look at where we’re failing horses, to try to start fixing it.”

    Ms Gordon cited over-breeding as a cause, and the importance of a robust equine ID system in management, as owners must be held accountable.

    Mr de Brauwere likened the situation to that of a bath as the charities’ capacity, and horses pouring in. And while the plughole represents rehoming, “the bath is still overflowing, and we’re trying to find a way of turning the taps off”.

    He agreed with Ms Gordon that the problem is systemic, with recent calls typically involving 50, 60 or more horses, and that “every area of the sector needs to do its bit”.

    He cited the Animal Welfare and Control of Horses acts as powerful tools, and the Central Equine Database, although this is still in its infancy and enforcement is challenging.

    On root causes as well as over-breeding, Ms Meaden believes lack of education and awareness of what keeping a horse involves is key. As it is often cheap to buy the horse, some do so without realising the ongoing and long-term costs such as vets’ bills; abandoned equines are often those who are ill or injured.

    Ms Gordon mentioned the link between human and animal welfare; older, frailer owners often struggle to look after horses, while Mr Sherwood said climate change could cause issues, with wet winters and dry summers affecting grazing and forage, and that owners who lose jobs or income in any recession will of course struggle to care for horses more.

    Euthanasia was debated; both delaying death as a welfare issue, sometimes owing to cost, and the issue over whether sometimes putting a horse down when it is not critically ill or injured can be the best option for its welfare.

    Mr Sherwood said part of the issue is central and local government and authorities not shouldering their responsibilities, often as they do not have the resources, and that this could get worse if public spending is cut. He said he would like RSPCA inspectors to have the power to remove horses without waiting for police, and said there may be a need for funds to bail out small, struggling sanctuaries, as well as to subsidise euthanasia.

    “And there’s a need for a much greater focus on prevention, and getting the message out,” he said. “This will take more than equine charities; we need to work with racing and Government to get the message out. Maybe we do need to stop calling it a crisis. We need to remind ourselves this isn’t how it should be, by maybe we need a new name to anchor the prevention strategy.”

    Ms Meaden added: “If we don’t speak in a different language, we’ll engage with the same audience. We’ve got to speak in a new language, and in new places, and present it in a different way to how we would to knowledgeable people.”

    Mr Sherwood agreed, adding that we need to think about whom we are addressing with these messages, and that the sector must improve how it articulates the narrative and understands the causes, as well as retaining public support.

    Ms Gordon and Mr de Brauwere spoke of the importance of driving human behaviour change, and “digging deep” into motivations, both for behaviour and for changing it, and what it really means to be a responsible owner.

    “This isn’t a horse crisis as it’s not horses’ fault; it’s a horse owner crisis,” Mr Sherwood said. “We need to give people the right information, and think about how to persuade people to behave in a different way, to get it right for horses.”

    Mr de Brauwere added: “The pony left tied to a tree is almost a victim of how most of us, collectively, have chosen to allow the industry to operate. The collective responsibility is for us to understand motivators behind each sector and work with them.”

    Mr Sherwood said the narrative used to describe the crisis must be strong, that Government has a role to play, and that questions need to be asked over the role of racing, and working horses.

    “We’re talking about changing human behaviour, so equines have a better life,” he said. “We’ve all got a role to play.”

    Ms Derbyshire added: “This has all been sobering but ideas have been suggested. Not solutions, but ideas that could lead to them, and that gives me hope.

    “There’s a lot to do, but it’s doable.”