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Crisis revealed at horse welfare conference

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01 January 2013, at 12:00am

GRAHAM DUNCANSON reports on the latest conference of World Horse Welfare where it was revealed that equine charities are likely to be overwhelmed this winter by animals needing sanctuary

“THE importance of horses in society today” was the title of the annual conference of World Horse Welfare (WHW) held in London in November.

Martin Cruddace of Betfair, which sponsored the conference, began by announcing that his company had entered into a £40 million five-year deal with British racing and he stressed that his company was very keen to reinvest money into the welfare of racing.

Former Royal College president, Dr Barry Johnson, who chaired the event, then welcomed the Princess Royal (and the rest of us) to the conference and presented a beautiful photo of Zara Phillips to her.

Horse charities are in crisis, was the main message from Roly Owers, the chief executive of World Horse Welfare, from a passionate appeal in a video made outside the Houses of Parliament. He confirmed that the estimated thousands of horses needing sanctuary this winter in the UK and Eire was a reality and that the charities involved would be totally overwhelmed by these vast numbers.

Roly also gave a marvellous speech at the conference on the horse industry, entitled “Horses in society – the reality”. He recalled how 80 million horses had been killed in the First World War and acknowledged that for thousands of years horses have played a vital part in war and sport.

There are now well over two million riders in the UK. Horses are not only used for riding for the disabled but also they featured highly in the equine Paralympics.They not only help to rehabilitate war veterans but also teach children the value of comradeship with an animal. The horse industry is worth £7 billion pounds in the UK and much more in the rest of the world.

WHW is based in the UK but it also plays a vital role in Africa, Central America and the Far East.

There are real concerns for the danger of exotic diseases entering the UK. The control of these diseases will be made worse by the lack of funding for the horse database.

Horses in the police service

Maxine de Brunner, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, gave us a humorous overview of the police horse presence in London. There are 107 horses, of which 72 are operational at any one time. She stressed that there were no plans to replace them with vehicles!

They play a vital role in crowd control and are much appreciated by the general public. They assist in fighting crime and maintaining public order. They are used also in a protection role for high-profile public figures like the Princess Royal.

Discussion panel

The forum panel, ably chaired by Simon Brooks-Ward, included: Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horse-racing Authority, who seemed to have travelled twice around the world to be with us; Will Connell, World Class Performance Director of the British Equestrian Federation; Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine, who gave some useful insights into the beliefs of her readers; and Baroness Ann Mallalieu, the Labour peer who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Horse.

The first question was on the Grand National and the entire panel agreed that everything possible must be done to improve the welfare at this iconic event, which is watched by up to 60 million people. Aintree Racecourse has spent a quarter of a million pounds on irrigation recently so that the going has been radically improved, and they are constantly monitoring jump design.

The panel was concerned that the field might have to be reduced but agreed that often horses fell towards the end of the race when there were very few horses left and crowding was not a problem.

The panel was also concerned that the physique of the modern racehorse may allow the animal to race faster but the animals were now not so robust, which might account for the high injury rate. It was agreed that making the jumps easier would be counterproductive as then the horses would go faster.

Ann Mallalieu wisely remarked that the views of the general public might not be very helpful for the debate as she imagined that they might well approve of Christians being thrown to lions for entertainment!

The second discussion concerned over-breeding. Paul Bittar was pleased to announce that the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses was down last year by 30%. All the panellists were agreed that ignorance was at the centre of this problem and therefore education was the key to solving it.

The third discussion was on the use of debatable methods of training. Will Connell considered that obviously the use of pain was not acceptable as a method of training but that certain young horses required “squaring up” otherwise they would end up a danger not only to the novice rider but also to riders in general.

Asked to clarify this statement, he responded that an experienced rider was correct in using firm riding methods and the sharp use of the whip in the correct location on the horse. The whole panel agreed that with modern photography and modern videos, riders were literally always in the spotlight.

Richard Newton from the Animal Health Trust posed the poignant fourth question on the preparation for the arrival of a serious exotic disease which would affect our horses. The panel realised the growing threats from exotic diseases. They welcomed the idea for the tripartite agreement between France, the UK and Eire to remain in force for racehorses and top competition horses but that horses of lower value should be forced to have a health certificate before international travel between the three countries.

Some of the panel felt that disease control was more important at our own back door and diseases like ’flu and strangles were just as important from a welfare point of view as perhaps more high-profile diseases like African Horse Sickness.

The chairman of the panel summed up by concluding that any leverage which could be applied was vital as all the welfare societies were in trouble. Welfare needs never go away and there is always more to be done. He stressed that education not only for the horse-owning population but also for the population at large was vital.

The Centaur question

Brough Scott, the well-known broadcaster and journalist, tried to quantify the attachment between man and the horse. He considered anthropomorphism was very dangerous: humans looking after horses must use common sense and not be sentimental.

Travelling community 

John Grant, who is now a RSPCA chief inspector, gave a colourful account of life as a boy in the travelling community. He explained his decision to join the army and amazed us all by recognising his commanding officer in the audience.

He described how travellers respect their horses as their possession gave the owner status in the community. He showed a picture of his old home, a caravan on a static site and made an appeal for councils to provide more land for such sites as he felt that the dangers to horses associated with being constantly on the move would be lessened and horses could be more comfortable.

He said that there was no need to change every environment. He was concerned that if we could not understand travellers, how were we going to make a difference to the problems faced by horses overseas? He stated that he was proud of his travelling background but he had never regretted his decision to become an RSPCA inspector.

Address by princess

“The invisible horse in international development” was the title of the Princess Royal’s closing address. She described how she travelled extensively and was proud to be associated with many worthwhile aid projects and charities. She was sad that so many were not economically viable.

She noted how so few charities worked together and said she could see enormous benefits for a more joined-up approach. She recognised the problem that “The streets seemed to be paved with gold in the cities” was very widespread.

She urged that we all should not become too focused on certain welfare concerns such as the Grand National. She considered the long- distance transport of horses for slaughter was one of the key issues.

All the speakers and the audience hoped that the charity and this conference would have an impact on the welfare of horses, whether used for work or for pleasure.