Recorded pedigrees are key to solving unwanted horse issue
When Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) was established, one of its key goals was to see Irish riders winning on the world stage riding Irish-bred horses. The last few weekends have seen such successes.
Aoife Clark achieved the biggest win for an Irish event rider in many years when she won the prestigious Blenheim International Horse Trials riding Fenya's Elegance (ISH), which is owned and bred by PJ Hegarty in West Cork.
The mare is by Ricardo Z (who stands with Tom Meagher in Tipperary), who is now the leading living sire of event horses in the world.
A week later, Tipperary's Greg Broderick rode Arraghbeg Clover (ISH) by Captain Clover (who stands with Gabriel Slattery in Castlelawn Stud, Co Mayo) to win the 5 Year Old World Show Jumping Young Horse Championships. The mare was bred by Agata Leonard in Co Offaly.
These results, along with the seven European medals won at underage level, many riding Irish-bred horses and ponies, have given the sector a boost.
Ireland is known as the 'Land of the Horse' and, with the thoroughbred sector worth over €1bn to the economy and the sport horse sector over €700m, the combined equine sector is crucial to the rural economy. At the top-end, flat racehorses and show jumpers can change hands for millions of euros.
However, at the lower end of the scale Ireland has a significant number of unwanted horses. This is largely due to over production and the economic downturn. Under EU rules a number of these horses are ineligible for slaughter for human consumption as they were not properly registered within six months of their birth. While many would quibble with the logic of this particular EU exclusion, it is very unlikely to change in the near future.
The Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, is rightly concerned about the possible welfare implications of having a large number of unwanted thoroughbred and non-thoroughbred horses that cannot be sold for slaughter.
Currently, the only exit route for such horses is to have them humanely destroyed and brought to a licensed knackery for carcass disposal. This is a significant cost for the owners.
Whatever short-term initiative the minister takes to address this problem, in future, every owner must be held accountable for their horses. Breeding or buying a horse is a serious commitment. Registration rules must be enforced. New change of ownership requirements must also be introduced.
However, just getting a non-pedigree passport for your horse in order to comply with the law is of little use to our sector. We need every horse to be registered with its pedigree recorded and verified by DNA.
HSI holds no brief for those who breed horses and then don't record their pedigree. Why breed a horse if its pedigree is not worth recording?
Whatever short-term measure the minister brings in, registering horses with verified pedigree must be at the heart of our system in future. Otherwise we will replicate the problem.
Any scheme introduced by Minister Coveney will undoubtedly incur a cost to the exchequer. This may prove to be a worthwhile investment to reduce the reputational risk for Ireland that would be associated with abandoned or malnourished horses.
However, those breeders and producers who are trying to do a good job also need support. The Government allocated €45m to the thoroughbred sector last year and €3m to the sport horse sector.
The benefits of significant and continued Government investment in the thoroughbred sector are plain to see. I believe that the sport horse sector has the potential to make similar progress with an uplift in Government support.
The key areas that require more funding are prize money, marketing and education.
Ireland has highly professional sport horse breeders and producers, people like Agata Leonard, Greg Broderick and PJ Hegarty. They contribute hugely to their local economy. They and their animals are ambassadors for our country. They are worth investing in.
Damian McDonald is chief executive of Horse Sport Ireland
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