When ‘Black Beauty’ was published in 1877, its author Anna Sewell had something of a radical intention. While novels were then expected to be in some way morally uplifting, Sewell’s book would pioneer in being actively campaigning — for the better treatment of horses. In the UK of the 21st century, that might seem a rather quaint concern; then, of course, horses powered the main form of transport and worked the land. Today it is rare for a city-dweller to see a horse outside of a sports event. But, says John Blake, major concerns remain: “Horse welfare issues are somewhat behind the curtain — the idea is that a horse is a rich person’s play-thing, that they’re all pampered ponies. But sadly that is not the case. There is neglect and abuse.”
Blake is the director of fundraising for World Horse Welfare (WHW), a horse charity founded in 1927 aiming to improve the lives of horses internationally through care, campaigning, education and fund-raising — such as through a recent polo match, lunch and auction at Beaufort Polo Club, in the west of England, attended by the charity’s president HRH The Princess Royal (see slideshow).
Indeed, WHW gets involved in any area in which horses are involved — including polo, jumping, racing, and the like. “Racing is a highly-regulated industry, but we’re still very vocal about where we think there is need for improvement — be that in use of the whip or of doping,” says Blake. He cites, for example, what WHW considers to be the dangerously packed field of runners for the UK’s most celebrated, and controversial horse race, the annual Grand National.
Perhaps WHW’s biggest achievement to date has been to successfully push for the introduction of legislation improving the conditions for horses transported long-distance to slaughter in Europe — legislation that has seen numbers drop by half to around 80,000 a year over the last decade, but which the charity says still does not go far enough. “People say: ‘These horses are going to slaughter anyway, so does it matter?’,” says Blake. “Well, of course it matters.”
Annually, WHW’s field officers investigate some 2,000 cases of neglect and abuse — sometimes through cruelty, often through a lack of knowledge of basic horse care, from inadequate shoeing to poor nutrition — and that is in the UK alone (around the developing world there are some 100m equines — horses, donkeys, mules — at work). Some of these cases result in having to take the horse into care — WHW currently has some 300 horses in its charge across four centres in the UK. But there are more specific problems right now too: over-breeding is one. Even the economic downturn is having an effect, seeing more horses abandoned on common grassland — so-called ‘fly-grazing’ — to fend for themselves; and the WHW is seeking to bring in legislation against this as well.
“As with the mistreatment of dogs and other domestic animals, the common denominator is a lack of responsibility and accountability,” says Blake. “But a lack of urban connection to the countryside especially doesn’t help with horses, although the fact is that they still make a contribution to society — in sport, of course, but also policing and the military through to their use in rehabilitation. All I’d ask is that if anyone was thinking of buying a horse, they should speak to us first — not only for advice but because we may have a horse for them. That gives a horse a home and frees up a hospital bed, so to speak, for another that needs it.”