Horse crisis shows no sign of easing

Rocket was rescued when he was just a few weeks old.
Picture: Redwings

Rocket was rescued when he was just a few weeks old. Picture: Redwings - Credit: Redwings

The UK is facing a horse welfare crisis that has left equines suffering and welfare charities at bursting point. Sheena Grant reports.

Life didn’t start too well for abandoned foal Rocket, rescued when he was just a few weeks old.

Luckily, things have improved for Rocket since he was found in a state of neglect near Harleston, Suffolk, and taken into the care of Norfolk-based welfare charity Redwings, but his story - and that of his mum, Star, who, despite the efforts of vets, couldn’t be saved - is sadly far from unusual.

It’s no exaggeration to say the UK is in the grip of a horse crisis where there are simply too many horses and too few responsible owners to offer them a home, leading to shocking levels of neglect and abandonment, says Redwings.

Statistics released by the RSPCA earlier this year revealed the number of horses rescued by the organisation had reached a four-year high.

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Redwings says it too has seen an increase in the number of horses in need. Last winter, from November 2017 to March 2018, it attended 102 welfare cases involving 413 equines – a 67% increase in cases and a 71% increase in equines compared to the previous year.

In the first four months of this year, the charity says it saw a 13% increase in the number of owners asking Redwings to take on their horses after struggling to provide for them.

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Why are so many horses being left for dead?

Charities say low value horses are particularly at risk, bought cheaply and then dumped if they fall ill and are uninsured, become a financial burden or troublesome in some other way. But many irresponsible dealers are still buying, breeding and selling. With the cost of castration often more than the value of the horse, breeding of low quality horses is becoming a huge problem. Caring for a horse costs at least £3,000 a year and is a lifelong commitment of time and resources. If you do not have the capabilities or experience, you could quickly find yourself overwhelmed.

Redwings’ head of welfare, Nic de Brauwere, says people sometimes buy on impulse and regret it later while others see it as an opportunity to make money or have all the best intentions when they get involved but quickly become overwhelmed. Sometimes, people are ill themselves and can’t cope.

What should you do if you find an abandoned or neglected horse?

In an emergency, call the RSPCA 24-hour cruelty line on 0300 1234 999. Concerns for abandoned or neglected horses can also be lodged with Redwings welfare line on 01508 481008, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Redwings says animals found wandering into residential areas or straying onto roads need to be reported to the police. Call 999 if there is an immediate danger to road users, otherwise call the non-emergency line 101.

You’ll need to give detailed, accurate and up-to-date information about the horses or ponies and their location.

“For a Field Officer to attend a potential welfare case, they need to know exactly where the horse is, whether it is alone or in a group, have a full description of its perceived condition (very thin, lame, suffering from a wound etc) and know what it looks like, for example its size, colouring and any markings, so it is easily identifiable,” says Redwings. “Where possible, emailing a current photograph of the horse is very helpful which must be taken by you as the “reporter” and not passed on from a third party. Photographs and video footage should not be obtained if it involves trespassing or putting yourself or others at risk.”

What’s the law relating to abandoned or neglected horses?

Welfare charities cannot remove an horse or pony without the backing of police or a local authority and can only act when the level of care provided falls below minimum legal standards. To do otherwise could jeopardise prosecutions and potentially see the horse returned to the owner.

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, an equine can only be removed if a vet certifies it to be ‘suffering’ or is ‘likely to suffer if its circumstances do not change’. The Control of Horses Act 2015 was introduced to tackle horses being illegally grazed, known as fly-grazing. This gives local authorities and landowners the ability to seize fly-grazed horses within a reduced time-frame.

What happens during a rescue?

In many cases, giving advice to an owner is enough to see an improvement in their horse’s welfare. When improvements are not made, or in more serious cases where the horses are deemed to already be in a state of suffering, they may be removed under the Animal Welfare Act. Redwings advises that members of the public should never attempt a rescue themselves.

Anyone with concerns about neglect, abandonment or fly-grazing should call 01508 481000 or email

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