Animal welfare concerns raised by Ireland’s Sport Horse industry as Covid-19 operational parity sought with Thoroughbred and Greyhound Sectors

  • 3 November 2020, 08:00

Horse Sport Ireland, the National Governing Body for Equestrian Sport in Ireland, are urgently seeking Covid 19 operational parity with the Thoroughbred and Greyhound Sectors as serious concern for equine welfare and jobs in the rural economy mounts.

Ireland has three equestrian teams qualified for the Tokyo Olympics but under current Covid-19 restrictions, all sport horse production has been suspended on foot of the Taoiseach’s announcement of Level 5 restrictions made on October 19th. This is in stark contrast to Ireland’s Horse Racing and Greyhound sector which have been allowed to continue to operate during Level 5 restrictions.

Horse Sport Ireland represents a sector comprising mainly of professional producers and athletes who derive their income from sport horse production and equine farming and individual sportspeople competing within the sport against high-performance athletes in the same competition.

In addition to this, HSI represents a number of high-performance athletes who consistently compete at the highest level nationally and internationally. Ireland is one of just eight countries with teams qualified in all three Olympic disciplines of Show Jumping, Eventing and Dressage. Concerns are mounting that Irish athletes now find themselves at a huge disadvantage to their medal rivals for the Tokyo Games. Competitions for Elite athletes are continuing throughout Europe and America, however athletes based in Ireland now find themselves without regulated competitions during a crucial period of their Olympic preparations.

The Sport Horse Industry contributes around €816 million per annum to the Irish economy and employs over 14,000 people. Horse Sport Ireland is very concerned that, due to the cessation of activity, the industry faces a very dark period in the context of both jobs in the rural economy and equine welfare issues. Ethical equine welfare includes access to regulated activity and competition for the current sport horse population in Ireland which is estimated to be more than 135,000 sport horses.

Horse Sport Ireland acting CEO Joe Reynolds said:

“Horse Sport Ireland are very concerned that due to the cessation of activity, the industry is now facing a perilous situation heading into the winter period. The sector endured significant hardship in the spring of this year due to the cessation of activity. With moderate levels of activity over the summer months, some recoup of losses were made, however this is now being wiped out due to the Level 5 restrictions. The current penal restriction has dramatically truncated the traditional end of season stock movement, with equines having little or no performance testing record for onward sale. As such, breeders, owners, producers and athletes are now facing a horrifying position of being overstocked with dwindling or no income.

“HSI are acutely aware that many businesses across Ireland find themselves in a similar position during this public health emergency. However, in the Republic of Ireland both the Thoroughbred Racing and the Greyhound Sector are permitted to operate unencumbered throughout this restricted period while in Northern Ireland the DERA has classified Sport Horse equestrian activity on an equal basis with Horse Racing.”

An example of the disparity, and a real evidence of inconsistencies of approach of the Department of Agriculture, is the operational allowance afforded to Point to Point racing. It is important to note the following:

  • Point to Point activities are run by the various registered hunt packs around the country, the Hunting Association of Ireland, who are in fact an Affiliate of Horse Sport Ireland (Show Jumping Ireland, Eventing Ireland and Dressage Ireland are also HSI affiliates but cannot run events under Level 5 restrictions)
  • point to points are restricted to amateur jockeys running under hunt insurance
  • they are run on farmland primarily
  • hunt staff and members are attending on the day of point to point to run the event
  • the same vets and farriers are treating the hunt horses, and other equestrian disciplines, and point to point thoroughbreds on a daily basis

It is difficult to argue how Point to Point racing either in its organisation or running of events, differs from sport horse production and activity and HSI argues that certain professional/elite Sport Horse competitions should be granted the same permissions afforded to Point to Point’s, and to Horse and Greyhound Racing. It is also the case that the sport of Harness Racing has been permitted to continue in Ireland during Level 5 restrictions.

HSI devised and implemented robust protocols for the sector allowing activity to recommence on May 17th 2020 which effectively provided a safe environment for non-contact activity to continue over the past number of months. However, the introduction of Level 5 restrictions saw all equestrian activity shut down.

On Thursday October 29th, Horse Sport Ireland corresponded directly with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConologue T.D, proposing an immediate temporary solution to the current restrictions arising out of the Level 5. Regrettably, Horse Sport Ireland were advised on Friday October 30th, that this request was denied.

Given that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have specific responsibility for equine welfare and the control of horses, Horse Sport Ireland are very concerned that due to the cessation of activity in 2020, the loss of income for breeders and producers is developing a concerning trend on the ground in respect of calls for specified Equine supports. Equine businesses have a level of costs, feed, veterinary and welfare, apart from wages costs that cannot be stopped, delayed or avoided when shutdowns are imposed. Horse Sport Ireland do not wish to see a return to the trends seen from 2010 to 2013, where due to financial insecurity of producers and owners, horses became unwanted stock leading to a welfare crisis.

Horse Sport Ireland are now urgently requesting a hearing before the Agriculture Committee to discuss the immediate crisis facing the industry and the unequal treatment of the Sport Horse sector in comparison to Horse Racing, Greyhound Racing, Point to Point’s and Harness Racing.