Bill Shankly, Liverpool football manager, said that football was not a matter of life and death.

“It is much more important than that.”

His generation had seen enough randomness in the distribution of life and death, to find the greater motivation in bigger things.

Racing and equestrianism are sometimes accused of an uncaring attitude to death. Some may believe that we play God in the lives of our horses, by sometimes choosing the time of death. Yet, those who have seen horses in the agony of late-stage colic or laminitis, understand how it is sometimes the most compassionate decision for the horse.

More subtle decisions are made when we predict a future trajectory of decline and an inability to tolerate this in our valued horses. The humane ending of lives of animals as a choice is universally accepted as a good thing, a legal thing, done under veterinary supervision.

Whatever the quality of life issue facing the horse, it is always a difficult decision for an owner to make, following years of a bond, shared experience and care.

Familiar surroundings

This difficult choice is restricted to two options. One is euthanasia, the preferred option for many, in which the horse is killed in familiar surroundings by shooting or lethal injection.

In this example, the carcase cannot be used as a protein source and must be disposed of through rendering at one of the licensed knackeries. The carcase cannot be buried, so as to protect our waterways. Incineration is environmentally unfriendly. So in the knackery, the carcase is converted into fat, used in the production of industrial lubricants, and meat and bonemeal (MBM). The use of the MBM is very restricted since mad cow disease and it is mostly used as an energy source in industries such as cement production.

The abattoir is the only other legal and licensed option to prevent a horse falling into neglect. There is one abattoir in Ireland, Shannonside Meats in Straffan, which operates one day per week. At the abattoir, horses are killed under DAFM (Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine) veterinary supervision by shooting, followed by a process postmortem to harvest usable meat products within the highest human health standards.

Cultural norms and customs differ when it comes to eating meat throughout the world; for example, in India the cow is sacred, while pork meat is not consumed in the Jewish or Islamic traditions.

Geographies and cultures

Indeed, while the consumption of horsemeat would not be considered in most English-speaking countries, in certain geographies and cultures it is socially acceptable. In Canada, horsemeat is consumed in Quebec, while in the EU, it is regularly consumed in France, Belgium and Italy.

It is because of this conundrum that the EU pivoted its guidance on the mechanism of “signing out” horses from the food chain. Pre-2021, owners could, by choice, sign out of the food chain, whereas now, only horses which receive certain medications, for example, a sachet of Bute must be signed out of the food chain by the vet who prescribed the medication.

Tiny traces of Bute can trigger toxic aplastic anaemia in people who are susceptible. Other horses who have not been administered certain medications may be considered safe to “enter the food chain”.

For some, the abattoir may seem like a suboptimal choice, yet it is regulated and controlled by DAFM, which ensure its protocols meet the required standards. One alternative which was deemed to be “successful” in the USA – closing horse abattoirs – ultimately created a major negative welfare outcome, namely horses being transported sometimes thousands of miles to abattoirs abroad, in perhaps less regulated environments.

Diminishing number

HRI supports euthanising of horses in a humane, ethical and appropriate manner in situations where there is a high risk to quality of life or diminished circumstances for a horse. The choice of euthanising at home or abattoir is a decision for the horse’s owner, with a diminishing number choosing the latter.

HRI expects all participants to do what’s best for the horse at all times. Euthanising a horse is always a difficult decision made by owners when all other avenues have been considered and should always be undertaken under veterinary guidance.

Care for the horse should be central to this decision, right through to the animal’s last breath.