How Ireland is Managing its Unwanted Horses

As a country whose culture is “identified with horses,” Ireland is managing its excess population “responsibly” while still maintaining its renowned equine industry, Leadon said.

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Ireland is working to take the guesswork out of the unwanted horse crisis: By compiling data from across the country dating back to 2005, Irish researchers are establishing trends and seeing clearer numbers with regard to the unwanted horse population, said Desmond Leadon, MA, MVB, MSc, FRCVS, Dipl. ECEIM, of the Irish Equine Centre in Johnstown, Naas, Ireland.

It’s a way to take on a more responsible level of horse management at a national level, he said. But it’s also a way to refute media statements that have spotlighted the country as incapable of managing its unwanted horses. “(Such articles) did everybody a disservice with their exaggerated claims, which unfortunately got a great deal more credence than they should have,” Leadon told The Horse.

That isn’t to say that Ireland’s horses didn’t suffer the effects of the economic downturn beginning in 2008, Leadon said. They did. But his research is revealing that the majority of horse owners managed the situation through what he considers proper actions.

“There was a serious situation, but people responded very responsibly to it through reduced production and (considering) slaughter,” he said. “There were individual cases of abuse and neglect, of course. But that unfortunately happens in any country” and did not appear to be more common in Ireland than elsewhere, he added.

Although Ireland was the media focus of the unwanted horse crisis, Leadon said other countries, especially in Europe and North America, suffered comparable consequences of the recession.

“Similar reports should have been carried out in other countries, including the U.S.,” he said. “The economic downturn meant that horses (worldwide) were a luxury that were clearly identified as such for people who were otherwise prepared to invest in them.”

In his nationwide survey of owners, welfare organizations, local authorities, and veterinarians, Leadon and his fellow researchers found that, overall, the trend is positive. Authorities have seized or found abandoned relatively few horses, he said.

Meanwhile, production has dropped considerably, down to about 40% of what it was prerecession. And slaughter rates continue to rise, even in recent years. The number of horses slaughtered or rendered in knackeries (the latter option for nonhuman consumption) in Ireland tripled between 2010 and 2012.

“There is an ongoing need for these very important, efficient, and humane means of disposal,” Leadon said. In Ireland, the government tightly controls slaughter and knackery facilities to ensure humane handling of the animals, he added.

As a country whose culture is “identified with horses,” Ireland is managing its excess population “responsibly” while still maintaining its renowned equine industry, Leadon said.

“Well in excess of 87% of Irish Thoroughbred yearlings are exported to run in all major racetracks throughout the world,” he said. “It’s a huge export industry that employs a lot of people, around 20,000, contributing €1 billion (nearly $1.34 billion) each year to the economy.”

So is the unwanted horse situation in Ireland out of hand? “No, not at all,” Leadon said. “On the contrary, we are managing it very well.”

The study, "A demographic survey of unwanted horses in Ireland in 2011 and totals for 2012 and a comparison with 2010," was published in the Irish Veterinary Journal

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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