WORLD Horse Welfare says it is now starting to ‘very slowly’ rehome horses in its care.

The news came after the charity had reported the highest number of horses in its four centres as rehoming was suspended due to coronavirus restrictions.

Last month the figure had stood at 406, although this now stands at 410, with more cases being taken in and some infoal mares now foaled.

The horses, many rescued in groups over the past 12 months, are being shared between the centres in Norfolk, Somerset, Lancashire and Aberdeenshire, where normal stocking levels are usually around only 330 combined.

In addition to complying with the rules on social distancing, caring for such a large number of animals is putting extra demands on staff.

Tony Tyler, director of UK welfare at World Horse Welfare, said: “While the welfare of these horses is assured, providing the care they need is stretching the resources and efforts of the staff and, as many of these animals are from large unhandled groups and so are unused to human contact, it makes handling them even more of a challenge.

“We had expected that, with the arrival of spring, we would be able to rehome a good bunch of them who were ready to leave us but, with the Government restrictions, we can’t undertake home checks or invite applicants to meet our horses.

“So, we will continue to care for all of them, while finding space where we can to take in emergency cases.”

All horses are receiving maintenance care by the teams, but rehabilitation activities such as physiotherapy, lunging, backing and riding have been temporarily suspended to enable the grooms to self-isolate if needed or adjust to staff members falling ill in the coming weeks.

“In the first three months of 2020, we took in 107 horses, of which 53 were involved in prosecution cases,” Tony added.

“We work with other welfare organisations to rescue horses and, where large group rescues are made, animals are shared around between the different organisations wherever space is available.

“Usually, horses coming into us will be signed over to the charity and can begin their journey of rehabilitation as soon as they have been checked over by a team of specialists including a vet and farrier, with an ultimate goal of rehoming them, whilst remaining the property of the charity for the rest of their lives.”

However, when the welfare case is the subject of a prosecution, the horses are often not signed over and by law these can only be given maintenance care - so they cannot be backed or even castrated – and, if the prosecution case is not successful, the animals must be returned to their owner. These cases can take a very long time to come to court – sometimes two or more years - and during that time the horses are effectively ‘bed-blocking’ the limited space at the centres.

“Now a combination of a large number of prosecution cases and a striking increase in sheer number of horses involved is leading to additional challenges, as well as reducing the numbers of horses who can be offered for rehoming, thus reducing spaces for further horses in need.” says Tony.

The rescue and rehoming centre at Penny Farm in Lancashire has 76 horses in currently. About half of these are prosecution cases.

When asked why there had been an increase in large welfare cases, Zoe Clifford at Penny Farm said: “Hoarding behaviour and irresponsible breeders and dealers have always been around, but the numbers of animals involved are definitely getting larger.

“When I first started at World Horse Welfare, a large case would be three or four horses; now, some of these cases are coming in with 30 to 40 animals at one time.”