"If someone drives into your yard and offers you €50 or €60 for the horse and you take it because that is the last you'll hear about it, that is not a responsible action," he insisted.
"Disposal of horses through humane slaughter is an emotive and difficult issue for the industry but owners have to think about which outcome is better for the horse," he insisted. The HSI chief maintained that humane destruction was the better outcome for a horse than to find itself on the "merry-go-round of compromised welfare, straying and abandonment" that some animals were forced into.
Barbara Bent of the ISPCA told the conference that equine calls to the Society's helpline had increased from 453 in 2008 to 1,141 in 2009 and 2,066 last year. During the first quarter of this year, 614 calls were recorded.
She outlined the main scenarios where ISPCA are finding welfare problems:
- Horses left to fend for themselves on development land;
- Dealers getting horses cheaper and subsequently overstocking with horses;
- An increase in urban horses and trotters;
- Elderly farmers who used to keep five or six horses in the past but are now keeping 30-40 horses due to indiscriminate breeding.
ISPCA staff have noted an increase in outbreaks of salmonella and strangles, failure to castrate colts, lack of worming, failure to de-louse and poor hoof care as the major physical issues being encountered.
Over-production of horses and indiscriminate breeding continues to be a major problem.
"We are also seeing a lot of pregnant mares that either lose their foal or foal down when we take them in," said Ms Bent. "That is particularly worrying because it means that people are continuing to breed poor quality foals."
The conference was also told that there has been an increase in the number of deformed foals born this year, indicative of the inbreeding that takes place when fillies are covered by their uncastrated brothers and other relatives.
The ISPCA chairwoman called for all parties to work together to address the welfare problems and outlined what the ISPCA believes would help the situation: enforcement of all existing equine identification legislation, mandatory recording of transfer of ownership, a central database, a code of practise for marts and fairs and greater control of breeding. She added that education was crucial to improve the future for horses in Ireland.
The importance of education was echoed by a number of other speakers at the conference, including IHWT education officer Lesley Jones, IHWT chief executive Sharon Newsome and Ruairi O'Dulaing of Fingal County Council.
The two organisations have recently joined forces with horse owners at the notorious Dunsink site to start an education programme and foster welfare awareness among horse owners at the site.
The Dunsink project involved an extensive identification programme and health check of 70 horses and ponies, along with a targeted castration programme and an ongoing equine management plan for the area. For the first time in the history of the landfill site, there will be no indiscriminate breeding in 2011.
Fourteen members of the Dunsink Horse Owners club have already completed the FETAC Level 4 Stable & Yard Routines course and the long-term objective at Dunsink is to provide an area of land with some facilities for responsible horse owners to use and where education can continue.
The IHWT is hopeful that other local authorities and government agencies may implement similar programmes in their areas, and is offering a consultative approach to assist, tackle or address matters in equine welfare black spots, or 'problem' areas.
The welfare organisation has already written to the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney proposing the development of equine identification, management and castration programmes because effective programmes would need to be co-ordinated through the use of local District Veterinary Offices and county councils.
The over-riding lesson from the Dunsink project and similar projects in Limerick is that the old strategy of trying to stamp out horse culture in urban areas through impounding horses has not worked.
Ruairi O'Dulaing, of Fingal County Council, said the change at Dunsink would not have happened without the co-operation between horse owners, the council and the expertise of the IHWT staff.
"If we followed the letter of the law we could have gone in and seized all of the horses at Dunsink but if we had taken that approach, we would have had depots burned down," he said. "Instead the council is committed to solving the horse problems in the area whilst recognising the horse culture that exists in the area.
"Communication, constructive engagement, trust and education are key to improving the welfare of horses in these situations."
Meanwhile, work is already under way on the first ever survey of Ireland's unwanted horse population. The survey is being funded by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the Department of Agriculture and Kildangan Stud.
Dr Des Leadon from the Irish Equine Centre aims to create a five-year retrospective and current survey of surplus horses in the country, using precise and verifiable data that can inform the basis of any future welfare strategies.
A similar survey carried out in the United States was used effectively to help policy makers prioritise areas for immediate attention, he told the conference. A tentative deadline of November has been set for completion of the survey.
The deadline coincides with the provisional date set for Ireland's International Conference on Equine Welfare, which is already being planned by the IHWT. Watch this space.