In truth, a fate worse than a humane bullet awaits far too many unfortunate equines in the UK. Ponies and horses that were beloved of their little riders and cherished by a family are finding their way to the meat market, and others are being abandoned to fend for themselves and starve.

When the economy was buoyant, horse ownership soared, with many inexperienced (and sometimes unlikely) equestrian buyers emerging. Folk lucky enough to have a pot of spare cash and a mild interest in riding decided to go the whole hog, depositing their newly acquired equines at livery yards up and down the country.

Unfortunately, many did not have a realistic understanding of the costs involved and the scale of the responsibility that owning a 500kg animal brings. Vet and feed bills, tuition, insurance costs and livery can cost the same as a mortgage; and where does the animal go when it is outgrown or costs become prohibitive?

Responsible horse owners understand that they have a duty to – where reasonably possible – ensure the safe future of their animal, come good or bad; and the current economic situation is certainly in the latter category. Ownership, despite all the pleasures involved, is a millstone around the neck when you have equine bills as well as domestic bills to cover.

It is at this point that friends (well, certainly my thoughtful friends) suggest ‘getting rid of the horse’ if things are so bad. I won’t for two important reasons
1) I have a strong bond with my horse and it would be like you getting rid of the family dog, and
2) The marketplace for horses is currently so poor that I could not guarantee her future.
Other owners may have their arm forced financially, while some just don’t see things the way that I do, and they do just that. They simply ‘get rid’ of the millstone.

Unfortunately, animal charities and rescue centres are unable to cope with the increased demand for unwanted equines. Redwings Horse Sanctuary reports seeing a rise in not only the number of calls from members of the public reporting an abandoned horse or pony but also from councils and the police who are finding horses straying on the roads, or dumped on council or private land:

“Abandoning your horse does not necessarily mean it will have a happy ending at a charity or sanctuary because we simply cannot accommodate them all,” comments Senior Welfare Officer Rachel Angell. “We are using all of our limited resources to ‘fire fight’ the number of welfare cases that involve advanced suffering, these have to remain a priority. A charity is unfortunately not the instant answer, as many are already stretched to the limit.”

A small number of abandonments are as a result of a desperate owner falsely believing they are giving their equine a second chance by simply leaving it behind on a livery yard or on rented land.

“Sadly, while many abandonments are the result of dealers and breeders leaving their unwanted stock on a public road or on council or privately owned land, we also suspect that some of the abandoned animals are the result of inexperienced people ridding themselves of an expensive problem,” explains Rachel.

Calls to the Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline regarding horse and pony abandonments has increased from a total of 4 in 2001, to 29 in 2011, with 26 calls already so far this year.

Scottish SPCA Deputy Chief Superintendent Tom Gatherer said: “As an animal welfare organisation, the majority of calls we receive regarding horses and ponies are from members of the public with welfare concerns, rather than owners who cannot afford to keep their animals any more.

“However, we are aware that due to the difficult economic climate a number of people can no longer meet the expense of keeping their horses and ponies.

“We have to stress that abandoning an animal is never an option. It’s a criminal offence that carries a penalty of up to £5,000 and six months in prison.”

With prices being so low, many ‘lots’ of unfortunate ponies are being bought for tuppence ha’penny at agricultural auctions and being transported to UK abattoirs to be killed alongside the sheep and cattle. Transporting live meat to the EU is illegal, but it is likely that many unscrupulous dealers slip through the net in order to fetch the inflated price for fresh horse meat. The cruelty involved in the live transportation of horses between EU countries is gut-wrenching to witness.

Tom says: “We do not currently have any evidence of owners selling on their horses to be exported live for slaughter. There are three slaughterhouses in the UK which are licensed to produce horse meat, which in the main is exported to mainland Europe.

“We would however urge those who suspect anyone of being involved in the live export of horses for slaughter to contact our Animal Helpline on 03000 999 999.”

It is not just aged hairy ponies that are meeting an unfortunate end. Results of a survey published in Animal Frontiers magazine aimed to quantify the numbers of horses born, sold, retired, re-homed, euthanized, or sent to abattoirs by horse owners in Ireland from 2005 to 2010 was initiated in 2011 (Leadon et al., 2012).

This survey found that numbers of high-value horses that were traditionally controlled through sale at public auction, private sales, and sales to dealers were now also being reduced by decreases in production (>40%), and that there were concurrent increases in retirement, re-homing, euthanasia, and disposal of horses through Category 2 plants (rendering plants and knackeries) and abattoirs. The authors found that the trend in increasing numbers of unwanted horses being sent to slaughter was found to reflect the trend in increasing national debt and resultant austerity.

Some might argue that the knacker’s yard is the obvious end-point for horses that are worthless and surplus to requirements. However, horses and ponies have had a very different relationship with humans than other beasts destined for slaughter – one of trust – and it somehow feels like a treacherous breach of that trust.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that those who own horses need to take responsibility for their animal. If they can no longer afford them, it is still their basic responsibility to ensure it the animal is re-homed safely and not play dumb to the potential consequences for their horse if they do not. If a horse is elderly or unfit for riding, then a talk with your vet might be the kindest way forward. Yes, they do shoot horses, and those equines might be the lucky ones.