Controversy and Calls to Action at the World Horse Welfare Conference 2012


Horses’ £7 billion contribution to economy at risk from exotic disease and Leaders of horse community call for action against overbreeding


Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, urged the public at the charity’s annual conference sponsored by Betfair and held in London yesterday, to recognise the valuable contribution horses make to the economy, culture and society, and urgently called for the government to better protect British horses from the spread of disease. This was a point made even sharper with news of an outbreak of an infectious neurological disease among some racehorses in Devon and after two more cases of Equine Infectious Anaemia appeared on British shores last month.

You can watch all the presentations from the day below:

Addressing an audience of more than 250 guests from across the horse world including the charity’s President HRH The Princess Royal, high profile speakers explored the different roles horses play in society today, highlighting a wide range of perceptions of horses and how they should be treated. A discussion forum comprised of powerful figures in the horse community debated the most topical welfare issues including the Grand National, overbreeding, unacceptable training methods, rising disease risk and the imbalance between the profile of a welfare issue and its significance.

Presentations ran in the following order:

Horses in the police service – Deputy Assistant Commissioner Maxine de Brunner is a horse owner and rider and oversees the Mounted Branch among her many other duties, and spoke of the unique ability of horses to engage the public while controlling crowds and quelling public disturbances, and the expert training and care they receive.

Horses in sport – Renowned broadcaster and journalist Brough Scott MBE gave a thought-provoking presentation on horse and rider as a ‘centaur’, and explored the huge responsibility the ‘top half’ of the centaur (the rider) had to its ‘lower half’ (the horse). He warned against anthropomorphism and emphasised how euthanasing a horse with no viable future was a justified way of showing responsibility of ownership and care.

Horses in the travelling community – Raised as a traveller, Chief RSPCA Inspector John Grant gave the audience an insight into the culture and values of the travelling community, and particularly their relationship to horses for whom travellers have a ‘mystical’ fascination. The overbreeding and welfare problems among horses in these communities as a result of their attitudes were explored, as well as suggestions for reducing these problems.

Horses in developing economies – HRH The Princess Royal spoke knowledgably about the importance of horses as transport in the world’s poorest communities and encouraged international development organisations and horse welfare charities to collaborate more to improve livelihoods.

A fascinating discussion panel took place, chaired by equestrian event maestro Simon Brooks-Ward (pictured centre) and comprising of (left to right) Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse & Hound magazine; Baroness Mallalieu, Labour Peer and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group of the Horse; Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority; and Will Connell, World Class Performance Director of the British Equestrian Federation.

The panel addressed the following horse welfare issues:

How do we best balance protecting horse welfare with maintaining the excitement of the Grand National? Paul Bittar vowed to preserve the ‘iconic status’ of the Grand National and cited its popularity among punters and spectators, but rejected calls by charities such as World Horse Welfare to reduce the number of runners in the Grand National as “at the moment, there are no stats to show that going to 30 runners would impact on the safety of the race”. However Baroness Mallalieu, who supports national hunt racing, said "I am not comfortable watching the Grand national as it is at the moment. In fact I’m longing for it to be over. In any risk sport, there is a risk that a horse may be killed or injured, and you have to balance that …. But when it comes to the National .... you know that's going to happen. That's gone too far the other way.... There’s something wrong when people like me approach Aintree with trepidation.”

What effective options do we have to reduce the overbreeding of horses in the UK? Lucy Higginson spoke how dealers often received a large part of the blame but amateur breeders must take their fair share, as too often they breed from inappropriate stock and do not consider the future of the horses they produce. Paul Bittar said fewer racehorses were now being produced, and all agreed that the travelling community was producing far too many horses of no value that had no future, helping to create a possible horse crisis in Britain. Welfare charities have banded together to warn this winter may see more horses needing to be rescued than they can take in, and that the root causes of overbreeding must be addressed.

Is it ever justifiable to use debateable methods to get the best out of a horse before or during competition? Will Connell said “I would absolutely say that a training method that causes pain and discomfort in a prolonged way is not acceptable. That said, there are situations, not at top level of course, when a horse needs squaring up to use a colloquial term. Especially if that horse is being ridden by a novice rider, and perhaps five minutes squaring up by an experienced rider can stop that horse napping and give that horse a future. I’m not meaning beating a horse I’m talking about full use of a range of aids by an experienced rider to deliver a short, sharp message. As long as it is done in moderation by an experienced rider it is acceptable.” However, the Baroness expressed concern that horses were being asked to move in completely unnatural ways in some sports.

With further cases of Equine Infectious Anaemia being seen in the UK this year, how can we better protect our horses from the growing threat of exotic disease? This topic permeated the conference and all agreed disease was a significant threat to welfare and the horse industry. However it was not being given the attention it deserved, especially in light of the outbreaks of equine infectious anaemia in Britain last month and in Germany, which prevented last year’s Prix del L’Arc de Triomphe winner Danedream from defending her crown. Current laws are exacerbating the risk of disease, as low value horses can be moved without health checks to and from France, Ireland and the UK under the Tripartite agreement. The loss of the National Equine Database was of particular concern as there would be no way to trace horses and project the spread of disease. All agreed that a central database was essential to help manage a disease outbreak.

How should welfare group’s best keep their focus when public attention is focused on high-profile but peripheral welfare issues, whilst more damaging welfare problems are barely acknowledged? All agreed that the public focus was too often on welfare problems that were limited in severity or scope. Paul Bittar said that a possible disease epidemic would “affect thousands of horses with the potential to close us down overnight, which was in his view a much more pressing welfare issue than “40 of the best looked-after horses in the world” racing in the Grand National.


The Importance of the Horse to Society Today – the Reality

In his key note speech Roly Owers said:

“In Britain and around the world horses are powering economies, shaping cultures and contributing to the health, wellbeing and enrichment of society -- and it’s high time that the rest of the world woke up to this reality.” He explained that horse-related industry contributes £7 billion to the UK economy each year, €100 billion in Europe and $100 billion in the USA …. So let’s be clear about this: horses play a significant role in our economy and it’s time people faced up to that. And of course equine business is especially critical in rural economies.

“A key challenge we face in improving horse welfare is that people and our laws view horses so differently. Depending on your perspective, horses are companion animals or working animals, livestock or even a form of currency. In a sense they are everything and yet, too often, they are treated as nothing … For instance, in Britain, we do not have the most basic ability to link a horse to an owner. For an animal that is so large, powerful, sensitive, intelligent and long-living -- with a need for regular and costly care -- it beggars belief that people can breed, buy, sell, abandon and neglect these animals with impunity. But unfortunately they do, and we as a sector and a society must find ways to address this.”

He lamented Defra’s withdrawal of funding for a central horse database as it would remove the one tool agencies would have to predict the spread of disease.

“If we have a serious outbreak of contagious disease like African Horse Sickness the entire horse industry could come to a halt: this means lost jobs and the loss of billions from the Government purse. We need an effective central database and we need it NOW. I don’t believe that I am scaremongering when I say that the fate of the economy depends on it.”

The event was held on November 15 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Thank you to Betfair for kindly sponsoring the event.

Read our press release welcoming changes to Grand National and suggesting a reduction to the number of horses in the race, issued  20/09/2012