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Rescue me?

14 Jan 2014


Lee Hackett, BHS Director of Equine Policy, looks at an insidious side to the current equine welfare crisis - the cheap selling on of 'rescued' and unwanted horses, and their worrying fates.

This article was originally published in British Horse (January 2014), the exclusive members' magazine of the BHS. To find out more about the benefits of membership or to join today, visit our Membership section.

"Readvertised due to time wasters. Sturdy black and white cob mare. Stunning markings. Approx 8-12 yrs and about 14hh. Has a french micro chip but her passport has been lost. She is quite nervy and has a scar on her nose which is fine now but makes her slightly head shy, so needs understanding handling. Once she knows you, she is much better. Also has signs of having had an ear tag so we believe she was rescued from a French meat market. Was bought to save her from going to slaughter again but don’t have the time to give her the attention she needs. Has been ridden but will bronc quite badly, stops after a while when realises won’t unseat you. Once settled quite a lazy ride. Hasn’t hacked out but ok with other horse in arena. Difficult to turn out as won’t be caught and my horse doesn’t get on with her and field owner is complaining about having 3 in the field when I am only supposed to keep 2 and there is buggar all grass, so must go ASAP. Would make great ride n drive in right home. Needs knowledgable and experienced person. Would definitely benefit from natural horsemanship approach. Good home essential so £50. no offers."

The advert above (including mis-spelling) is a completely genuine one taken from a social media website. It isn’t particularly unusual and comes from one of many pages offering horses free to a good home or for a token amount of money. An awful lot of the horses on these pages are apparently rescues.

The question that needs to be asked is: “Have these horses really been rescued? Are they actually better off now than they would have been if they hadn’t been ‘rescued’?”

Let’s take the mare above as an example. A couple of years ago there was a bit of a scandal on  internet forums about horses being ‘rescued’ from the continental meat trade and brought over to Britain where they were rehomed with people who paid the horses’ ‘rescuers’ quite handsomely for the privilege. There was good reason for the outrage this caused, not least because Britain has enough horses in dire need of help without importing more. But on top of this, there are significant risks to British horses in importing animals from regions where diseases like Equine Infectious Anaemia (EIA) are endemic.

But does anyone really think that those horses removed from the food chain will not be replaced by others? We can be pretty certain that there are no fewer horse steaks available in continental butchers’ shops as a result of all this rescuing. All that buying these horses achieves is to raise the price that the vendors achieve at auction. To ‘rescue’ these horses it is obviously necessary to outbid the meat man – great news if you are the one selling them! The fuss about all of this has died down somewhat, but make no mistake – it still happens.

We don’t know the background of the mare in the advert, but it’s a safe bet she is an example of a horse that has been ‘rescued’ like this. It seems that since then she has also been ‘rescued’ from the British meat man, so the first rescue clearly didn’t work out too well. And now what future does she face?

At the time of the advert she was in a field with no grass and it sounds like she was being bullied. She bucks and ‘broncs’ when ridden, as well as being lazy. Is she really the type of horse that is suitable for rehoming, given that there is no shortage of others out there? She doesn’t seem like a riding horse – and she is most definitely not suitable for use of a broodmare – so her future is uncertain to say the least.

Charging £50 for her is not going to guarantee a good home. That kind of price just encourages horses to be treated as cheap commodities. No point spending money on them when they cost so little. It doesn’t matter if they die because you can just buy a new one.

Maybe, just maybe, she would have been better off not being ‘rescued’ in the first place. A swift and humane death is surely better than a long and miserable life. Let’s just hope she got lucky and ended up in a good home. The odds certainly weren’t in her favour, though.

Whatever became of this mare, she is not one of a kind. The internet is full of horses like her, too many to count.

Quite often they start off ‘for sale for a nominal fee’, which gets reduced as time goes on, until they end up free as long as they are gone by the end of the week. People are quite happy to deliver them to someone they have never met, and who has never met the horse in question, as long as they are shifted quickly.

Is this really what we want for horses in Britain? We placed a fake advert on one well-known free advertising site offering a home with an inexperienced family for a few rescue ponies that the mum and kids could learn to ride on. Our fake family had no money to pay for the horses and were looking for freebies.

In just one week we had nine offers of horses, most of whom were apparently ‘rescues’. One respondent had ten ponies ‘rescued’ from the meat man and was happy to deliver us a couple if we paid for the diesel. There were no questions about our facilities or experience, and as long as we could have them soon we were welcome to take our pick.

It isn’t just ‘rescued’ horses, of course. Plenty of these free and cheap horses are mares in foal or that ‘might be ‘pregnant, we’re not sure’. There are more colts and stallions than you can shake a stick at, and a plethora of youngsters that have obviously been bred with no thought to their future. Quite often these horses need to be gone because ‘we haven’t got room’ or ‘are over-stocked’.

This kind of begs the question: “Why did you buy, or even worse, breed them in the first place?”

The number of horses looking for companion homes is astonishing. Old or injured horses that the owner is no longer prepared to care for are splashed all over various internet and social media sites. If the number of adverts is to be believed there must be a really thriving trade in companions, with plenty of homes available. Strangely, this doesn’t seem to be the experience of most legitimate rehoming charities, who often struggle to find non-riding homes for the horses that really need them.

Is it really fair to be sending injured and older horses off to a new home? Is it always the best thing for a horse? Of course there are some amazing homes looking for companion horses, but not that many. And those homes that do exist don’t very often want a high maintenance animal with accompanying vet and feed bills.

We even found two horses (separate adverts) looking for new homes while on lengthy periods of box rest. Another was for sale (£50) with ‘undiagnosed and undetermined’ shoulder lameness. She wasn’t just listed as a companion, though; she was also apparently a broodmare prospect. Let’s just hope her lameness wasn’t down to a heritable condition or conformation fault.

There are also people out there who collect companion horses, bute them up and sell them on as riding animals. Not great news for the injured horse or the individual duped into buying it. The flashier the horse, the more likely this is to happen. It isn’t too much of a leap to suggest that these horses might have been better off put down than rehomed.

It’s hard to argue that any of the things discussed here are really acceptable from a welfare perspective. So what can we do about them?

Let’s lose the view that good welfare always means keeping animals alive. We can’t afford to think like this any longer. Finding a horse a new purpose or new home so we can avoid putting them down really is not always the best solution.

Humane euthanasia is far from the worst fate that can befall a horse. Just ask any one of The British Horse Society’s 200-plus welfare officers.

We need to accept that while we have an enormous overpopulation problem in this country that there is a role for well-run and regulated abattoirs. We need them. Obviously, the abattoirs must be up to scratch and the horrendous welfare breaches revealed in the Red Lion Abattoir earlier this year are utterly unacceptable. Such breaches must never happen again.

But going to a decent abattoir is better than being passed from bad home to bad home or being left to rot in a field. Whatever we think about eating horsemeat, the abattoir does provide the cheapest means of putting down a horse. It‘s an awful lot more affordable than other means of euthanasia and carcass disposal. Rescuing a horse from the abattoir isn’t really rescuing.

There are plenty of charities out there that are overflowing with horses needing a new home. They should be the first port of call for anyone wanting to rescue a horse; at least that way you will know exactly what you are getting.

Finding a companion home for an unwanted horse is frequently not the answer. It may well be just passing a problem on, which is rarely the best thing for the horse involved. Saying this may be a little controversial, and there are exceptions where things have gone extremely well - of course there are - although it might be better if people looking for a companion go to the rehoming charities to find one.

If you are determined to find a companion home for your horse, at least consider using a rehoming service like Horses4Homes or the Blue Cross Home Direct scheme where home checks can be carried out by professionals. If the horse isn’t right for rehoming, be brave, do the right thing and have him put down humanely.

As a united industry we need to have a debate about whether the selling of horses and ponies should be more regulated. Other charities have called for the banning of the sale of small animals on social media and free websites. Is this something we should be looking at for horses?

There will be plenty of people who hate the idea, and we know there are many legitimate sellers and buyers who use these sites, including reputable horse dealers. Using social media is cheaper and easier than running your own website and we don’t want to make things difficult for honest people trying to make a living. This is where horses differ from smaller species – you don’t find many reputable dog or cat dealers!

However, are protecting the needs of the responsible people sufficient justification to allow the more dubious end of the spectrum to continue unregulated? It isn’t an easy question to answer but we need to talk about it. While the status quo remains, more horses are suffering.

There is, of course, one long lasting and permanent solution to most of these problems and it is one we have mentioned many, many times before. The indiscriminate breeding of poor quality horses and ponies has to stop. There can be no more excuses. No more pretending that breeding just one more won’t really affect the problem.

It will.

Whatever else you do, please think before you breed.

Can you help?

If you are able to offer a home to a rescue horse or pony, visit these websites of some organisations which may be able to help:

National Equine Welfare Council 
World Horse Welfare
Blue Cross

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