Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Horses: Addressing the issues of welfare

UCD report calls for a new code of practice, breeding controls and development of humane disposal options

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

A new report on the welfare of horses in Ireland has been launched by UCD academics Joe Collins, Alison Hanlon, Simon More, Patrick Wall and Vivienne Duggan.

The key recommendations focus on controlling indiscriminate breeding, enforcement of existing legislation, the development of humane disposal of unwanted horses, and improving welfare at horse gatherings such as fairs and markets.

The report strongly recommends that a licensing system and associated 'Welfare Code of Practice' be developed, implemented and enforced at horse gatherings such as fairs and markets.

Industry stakeholders identified the behaviour of owners and dealers at these events as a major horse welfare issue.

The crowding and lack of control over adverse interactions between horses, and between horses and attendants, led to significant exposure to illness, injury, fear and aversive behaviour.

During the study, visits were made to 14 fairs and markets on 30 separate occasions over three years to assess horse welfare.

The report's authors found that horses' access to sufficientwater, feed and shelter appeared unduly compromised.

Where watering facilities were provided, they were often used for other purposes such as the washing of utensils making them unsuitable as places for horses to drink.

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While a number of thin horses were observed, the majority of these markets and fairs were held during the summer, which meant that most horses had adequate flesh coverage. Indeed, obese ponies with evidence of clinical laminitis were also observed.

The uncared for state of the hooves being sold was notable.


Horses were routinely exposed to stressful situations, for example: being grouped with unfamiliar cohorts, colts being mixed with fillies, and foals being weaned abruptly at autumn fairs.

The potential for the transmission of contagious disease at these events was identified as a risk to horse health and welfare.

This risk was exacerbated by the lack of consistent identification legislation, which would help in the tracing of disease outbreaks.

Direct physical abuse of horses was occasionally observed, but was considered to be as a result of traditionally accepted practices among certain groups rather than active malice.

The report noted that men from these groups habitually carry sticks, which are on sale at the fairs, which they use to hit and prod passing horses on a seemingly random basis.

'Flashing', or racing young horses up and down the roads, with no regard for their joints, was also commonplace at these events.

As well as developing a welfare code of practice, the UCD report states that equine identification regulations should be implemented consistently at gatherings.

Outreach and service programmes should be provided to targeted sectors, for example passport and micro-chipping clinics with groups not currently being reached by the equestrian organisations.

These must be provided at a reasonable cost to the target audience and without prejudice.

It is also recommended that groups such as Teagasc continue to offer training and advice to improve the quality of preparation for sale (eg, hoof care).

Education and training programmes should be initiated to work with key individuals in leadership roles in groups such as the Traveller community, to promote better treatment of animals at fairs and markets.

The UCD report also joins numerous equine charity and welfare groups in identifying the disposal of horses as one of the key issues compromising the welfare of horses in Ireland.

Since 2007, the supply of horses for disposal has outweighed demand.

Given the rapid increase in the number of horses being bred and the marked decline in horse sales, the disposal issue has become critical for the industry.

There have been several outcomes to the diminished profitability of keeping and breeding horses, including: increases in the abandonment of horses, relinquishment of horses to animal welfare charities, and horses being euthanised, exported or sent to abattoirs.

From an industry perspective, whatever the outcome, the welfare of the horse should not be compromised.

There are no accurate records of the total number of horses imported and exported from Ireland.

The Tripartite Agreement between Ireland, the UK and France enables the free movement, without health certification, of horses between these countries, except where theses horses are declared as intended for slaughter.

Between 2006 and last year, the net export of horses through Larne, Belfast and Rosslare ports had increased from 2,474 to 4,813 a year.


The humane slaughter of horses for meat in Ireland has been limited by several factors.

For example, until last year, there was only one abattoir (B&F Meats in Co Kilkenny) licensed to slaughter horses in the Republic.

The number of horses slaughtered for human consumption at B&F Meats declined from 1,995 in 2002 to 614 in 2005, but this rose to 3,163 in 2009.

Last year, two new abattoirs were licensed in Co Limerick and Co Kildare to facilitate the humane slaughter of horses here , with a reported throughput of 1,026 and 62 horses respectively.

An additional plant is expected to begin operations this year, while one Northern Ireland plant recommenced the licensed slaughter of horses in the spring. However, not all horses can enter the food chain and this option is only available, for public health reasons, for horses that can be accurately identified and examined for health status and certified as not having been administered certain medicines.

The commercial nature of the horsemeat industry also means that factory slaughter is only viable for horses of an appropriate age, type and conformation.

Disposal of horses through the knackery system is widely available, accounting for around 1,993 horses in 2007.

There are 39 licensed knackeries in the Republic, with disposal numbers varying substantially in each region.

Until January last year, the disposal of horses through the knackery service was subsidised by the Fallen Animal Scheme, funded by the Department of Agriculture, and the charge to the horse owner was likely to be under €100.

However, since the withdrawal of funding under the Fallen Animal Scheme, the cost of disposal through a knackery has increased, in some cases to in excess of €200, except where the plant operator runs a hunting pack over land owned by the horse owner.

The UCD report recommends that humane disposal should be considered the most appropriate way to deal with unwanted, no-longer-valued, surplus horses.

It is better for such horses to be humanely destroyed, rather than being neglected, abandoned or required to do jobs for which they are unsuitable.

It recommends that lower-cost disposal schemes, via the knackery service, be promoted to facilitate a humane endpoint for horses that cannot enter the human food chain.

In addition, it calls on the Department of Agriculture continues to support the licensing of abattoirs.

It also recommends that a disposal scheme should be considered to reduce the numbers of horses likely to suffer from adverse welfare or from deliberate neglect.

Financial returns from horse production, registration and activities should be secured specifically to fund the humane disposal of horses.

Funded by the World Horse Welfare charity, the full report can be viewed at research.

Irish Independent