Why ARE so many families dumping horses?
From screen star who runs an equine sanctuary, a heartbreaking question...
MY MISCHIEVOUS teenagers, Tinker, Tailor and Soldier, are three young horses with feisty temperaments who are still acquiring good manners.
With love and plenty of rewards, they are learning how to behave. One day soon, when they’ve done some growing up, they’ll be introduced to visitors, many of them children with additional needs, who love to groom and stroke them. Nothing calms the mind and heals the heart better than a placid hour spent with a horse.
But when our colts first came to our horse sanctuary in the Surrey hills, they were starving — so undernourished we couldn’t find enough flesh on their flanks to give them a vitamin B injection. Their owner simply dumped them in a field near a busy road.
Their first week with us was spent lying on straw in a warm stable, too weak to walk.
I wish I could say it was rare at Mane Chance Sanctuary to take animals that have been so horribly mistreated, but sadly it is all too common.
There’s Daisy, found as a stray in the streets; Thelma and louise, left loose on a back road; Teddy, a young stallion dumped on private property, and Ziggy, another young stallion, abandoned with a filly to wander the lanes.
This week the Mail carried the shocking picture of a pony dumped in the small garden of a home in Stoke-on-Trent.
The owner had placed an online advert saying the pony would be put down if nobody could take it, and a 13-year-old girl replied with her grandmother’s address. A man then arrived, dumped the pony and disappeared. In the past few years, horses have been abandoned in their thousands — and it’s getting worse.
The RSPCA said last month the number of horses it had rescued has hit a four-year high, with 980 horses being taken into care last year and an average of 80 phone calls a day coming in about horses. Many are in terrible health.
SOMe come from breeders with too many foals who don’t care what happens to them, so long as it costs their business nothing. Since the horse meat food scandal in 2013, when sickened shoppers learned that horseflesh was being used in many supermarket ‘beef’ products, the secretive market for human consumption has been shut off to these unscrupulous breeders.
But with economic troubles, and the cost of land rising, many private owners are just unable to keep their horses.
Some come to us in desperation. They have lost their jobs, fallen ill or been through a divorce, and simply can’t afford to stable their beloved animal. Others are getting old and can no longer cope. In some cases, one horse has died and left a second miserable and lonely — a busy sanctuary is a happier place to spend twilight years than an empty field.
I have deep sympathy with these owners. If they come to us, they are doing the best they can for their horses.
But many others simply don’t care. They condemn their animals to live and die in conditions that beggar belief. Take Millie and Horus — a young mare, and a handsome stallion in his early 20s.
They were left in a field of about 100 horses with no food or water. When rescuers found them, the field was scattered with dead and dying animals — Millie and Horus were among the survivors.
Two of our gentlest creatures are mother and daughter, Gwen and Phyllis. Gwen had been savagely beaten and tethered to a goalpost to give birth, and was cut loose, terrified and traumatised.
It never fails to baffle me that people treat horses so brutally.
One of our herd leaders was called ernie, a gentle giant 18 hands high, a favourite with mares and visitors. everyone loved ernie. But it wasn’t always the case. When he came to us, he would bite the hands and faces of anyone who got too close. He’d been beaten so badly he defended himself against all humans. Gradually, we taught him he didn’t have to be afraid.
This is the most rewarding work in the world. Mind you, I never set out to run a sanctuary. I’m an actress and I love my work.
But, in 2011, someone I knew phoned me with a desperate problem: she was running a private animal rescue centre and had somehow acquired 40 horses and many other animals and birds.
It was hardly surprising that she’d run out of money and I just couldn’t turn my back. I realised there was something I could do: I could start a charity that would take responsibility for the animals and their welfare. little did I know what a huge task that would be.
So with friends and the public being amazingly supportive, Mane Chance was born.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. At 7am on the first Sunday after our horses moved into their new home, I had an anguished call from a neighbour. Quad bikers had charged through our field, knocked down the electric fences and spooked the horses... who were galloping round the 18th green of the local golf club, causing mayhem.
After six months, the ‘non-equine’ residents and some horses were rehomed, as we worked out a manageable number we could care for. Since 2011, that number has risen to 33 — any more and our staff, and tireless volunteers, risk being stretched too thin. even within those limits, annual running costs are around £300,000. We’re supported by selfless donors, sponsors, grant givers and businesses, but because of the work we do with young people we need staff experienced at working with people as well as horses. And we need good facilities. It all costs money.
Our work with young people began with two Shetland ponies called Grimbo and Mr Smith, who loved company.
We took them to a local hospice, and I was amazed to see the powerful effect on children who sat or stood with them, stroking them, giving and receiving unconditional love. It was so moving to watch . . . and it gave me an idea.
Most of our horses will never be ridden. Some are too old, others have arthritis. But they can help people, just by being horses. Not all our rescue animals are suitable for this work, but many love it.
They seem to understand, when a child with a terminal illness, perhaps, or an older person with dementia, is quietly sharing their company, that they are doing important work.
We DON’T make any horse work if it doesn’t clearly want to. Most are only too happy to be fussed over, though. In fact, they are so content we’ve decided many will never be rehomed — they’ve endured desperate hardship, and now they’ve found a place they love. We owe them the chance to stay.
But with Mane Chance at full capacity, and more calls each week, we need to do more. Tighter legislation is part of it: breeders must not continue to dump young stallions just because they have little use for them (unlike mares, which can bear foals).
New laws on microchipping, which will lead to a national ownership register called the Central equine Database, should help. So would better education for the public: people need to understand how costly it is to keep a horse.
Humane euthanasia, when a sick animal needs to be put down, costs about £500, for example. It’s never an acceptable option to dump the poor creature in a field instead.
Mane Chance is trying to show that horses don’t need to be thrown away. We dream of little rescued herds all over the country, helping people. We save them, but in many ways they save us, too.
THE fee for this article has been donated to Mane Chance Sanctuary (manechance sanctuary.org).
Horse rescuer: Jenny with Tailor (left) and Tinker