THOUSANDS of people descended on Appleby for the annual horse fair on Saturday .

The fair has been on the town's calendar for hundreds of years. During this time it has had its ups and downs and this year has been no different.

Just as the fair was about to get under way a horse died from exhaustion which started the long weekend of celebrations and traditions on the wrong foot.

The horse had been "worked to death" in an "inexcusable act of cruelty" at the fair.

The three-year-old stallion collapsed after having a "very high temperature" and was "covered in rub sores" at Jubilee Bridge. 

People enjoy the fairPeople enjoy the fair (Image: Sam Smedley)

Billy Welch, known as the shera rom or head gypsy, has been involved with the fair all his life and has been left devastated. He said: “As a community, we are really hurt by the awful news. It's a tragedy. We're all upset by this.”

RSPCA chief inspector Rob Molloy said: “The fair has been marred by the death of the horse. Horses can be worked one day then sold and worked the next day. This has the potential risk of death.

“We have footage of the owner of the horse, and we want to trace them and find out what happened and if there was any malice involved.”

Crowds gather at the fair Crowds gather at the fair (Image: Sam Smedley)

The team from the RSPCA is still trying to educate people about caring for the animals especially keeping them hydrated, adding: “We need to get the message out and dispel the myths surrounding giving horses water. 

“It's a belief that when a horse is worked hard giving them water can cause colic. This is not true.”

The team has already dealt with several horses that have been at a dangerous level of exhaustion. The RSPCA chief said: “People here should know better. Horses need breaks and we will take action.”

Horses at the fair Horses at the fair (Image: Sam Smedley)

Gold Commander Dan St Quintin from Cumbria Police said: “This is my first year as Gold Commander of the fair. I have worked at the fair before and have enjoyed this challenge."

However, the officer believes that most people take care of their animals but there is always the exception. He said: “The most serious incident so far has been the death of the horse. The RSPCA is leading the investigation into this."