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“It’s like if a dog is taken off you or, an adult, their child is taken off them. It’s over not being looked after, really,” says a young man who calls himself Jamie Lyons, while walking his black horse, Star, through the streets of the Liberties.
Last year 186 horses were seized by Dublin City Council, and while some were returned and re-homed, 145 of those horses were euthanised, show figures from the council press office. The council spent €145,276 on this process.
The numbers are up from 2017, when the council spent €101,356 to seize 122 horses. Just nine of those horses were returned or re-homed.
The figures “are just shocking”, says independent councillor Noeleen Reilly. “It’s not something people want to think about but its just horrible, these horses being put down.”
Looking After Star
Lyons, 22, keeps Star in a stable nearby and goes there daily to look after him. He pays €70 per week for the stable, hay, feed, water and electricity.
He’s learned a lot from the older men who keep horses there. “Horses, they have a heart. They’re just like us, so they need to be looked after and cleaned and washed.”
Lyons grew up beside the Smithfield Horse Fair, and says his dad used to take him to see the horses there. He’s loved horses since then.
But when he was younger, he bought a pony for his brother that the seller hadn’t microchipped. He tried to get it into a local pony club that would have microchipped the horse, which can cost about €40 at a vet’s office. “[I] asked could he join the pony club and was told he wasn’t allowed to join the pony club.”
So he put the horse in a nearby field, and the kids club reported it. The pound came and took it away. “I thought my horse got loose; they didn’t even tell me.”
To reclaim a horse, the council requires documentation and any fees for keeping the horse, including veterinary checks and transportation. If no one comes forward to claim a horse within five days of a notice of seizure, the horse can be re-homed, sold, or euthanised.
Lyons rang Dublin City Council and then the pound, which was in Kilkenny. He said he couldn’t get the horse back because it wasn’t microchipped, but also because it would have cost him up to €2,000 in fines and transport costs. He also would have had to source transport and a horsebox.
“That was a kick in the nuts. I was upset. It was for nothing … and because he wasn’t microchipped, nobody could claim him. So, therefore, the horse was slaughtered for no reason, which wasn’t fair on the horse.”
Nearby, outside the Guinness Storehouse, Peadar Flynn waits for tourists with his horse and carriage. He talks about the tradition of people keeping horses in Dublin.
His father kept horses to haul coal, and Flynn grew up doing the same. After coal fell out of favour, he and many others turned to horse-drawn carriages.
Dublin City Councillor Hazel de Nortúin, of People Before Profit, says her constituency of Ballyfermot has had a long tradition of horse ownership, from veg trucks to coal trucks. “It’s always been part of industry there, so the passion for horses has always been there.”
Michelle Murray is the development manager at Clondalkin Equine Club, a project supported by the Department of Agriculture and South Dublin County Council.
Open for two years now, it is tucked away in Ballyowen Park, and it bustles with children and their families coming in to take their hoses for a walk.
Murray says the project is an example of what can happen when some of the money spent on euthanising horses is redirected back into projects to educate young people, especially urban young people.
Murray’s clients are local children, mostly between the ages of 10 and 12, who already have their own horse or pony. Ideally, the animal is over four years old, the right size for the child, and is broken and quiet – for safety reasons.
Children can keep their animal in one of the club’s 20 stables if they stick it out through a training process and show they’re dedicated enough to come in and care for the animal everyday, in the cold, in a busy environment. They pay a modest rent every week.
Murray believes owning an animal is a 365-day-a-year job, whether it’s a dog, a goldfish or a horse. Her message: “You shouldn’t own a goldfish if you cannot look after it, and that’s it. That’s the bottom line.”
“Animal welfare is everything as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I thought there was anything here in this barn that wasn’t being adequately looked after.”
Murray says that it’s a steep learning curve. Often, when children come in and see the scale of the responsibility, they decide the programme isn’t for them.
When a child leaves the programme, the horse is either matched up with another child or re-homed. Murray says she does what she can for horse owners in the outside community who come to her for advice, but ultimately, her job is to look after the horses in the club.
“We do the best we can with what we have. I wish we had more, to do more. I wish we could take in more.”
Tiffany Quinn is a volunteer at My Lovely Horse Rescue, an organisation that provides care for 200 rescued horses and a slew of other animals in Dublin and Leinster.
The rescue is “bursting at the seams” with horses, many of which have come from urban areas of Dublin and have been severely neglected. They’ll often get animals directly from the pound.
They try to re-home as many as possible, but that’s difficult because the “indiscriminate breeding” of horses has resulted in oversupply. “You have horses being sold on Facebook for 100 quid, horses being swapped … As a result, anyone can get their hands on a horse for very little money and can tie it up in their back garden.”
Despite how cheap and easy it is to buy a horse, they are much more expensive to care for. Boarding stables for a horse can cost €110 a week, and that’s on top of vet bills, a horse box, and diesel.
Quinn says the current system of impounding horses absolves the owners of neglect and leaves them free to get another horse. “At no stage are we tackling the causes of this problem. We’re just putting the bucket under the leak.”
Horse projects should be part of a larger solution that includes better enforcement of the existing law (the Control of Horses Act 1996), and gives the local authority more power and more effective mechanisms to carry out that enforcement, she says.
The law requires horses to have passports and microchips. If a horse has been abused, abandoned, or turned out to graze illegally on public or private land, then the owner could be found and fined for breaking the law – provided the horse in question is microchipped.
“Some kind of legal mechanism for sanctions so people can learn the seriousness of what they’ve done so they don’t reoffend is a better solution,” Quinn says.
“The ultimate sanction [now] is taking the horse away, and at the end of the day the horse suffers, the horse dies, and the offender is left free to reoffend. So there has to be a better way of changing these behaviours so offenders don’t go back out and buy another horse.”
Reilly, the independent councillor, says a massive awareness campaign would be a start, as would implementing bylaws.
On-the-spot checks and fines to enforce microchipping laws, perhaps by a specially designated horse warden, could help, Quinn says.
“We’ve had a smoking ban and the smoking ban overnight brought cultural change. One day it was okay to smoke in the pub, and the next day nobody smoked in the pub. It became gross to smoke in the pub overnight. There was a mechanism to punish people, fine people. It was easy for local authorities to enforce it,” she says.