THE urgent need for farriery legislation was just one of the vital topics under scrutiny at the first-of-its-kind Equine Welfare Symposium in a packed room at the Dunadry Hotel in Co Antrim on February 22nd. There is currently no legal requirement for farrier registration in Northern Ireland, nor is farriery controlled under statute in Ireland.

Hosted by the North of Ireland Veterinary Association, this groundbreaking event with equine welfare firmly at its heart was attended by the great and the good of the equine stakeholder sector including Horse Racing Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland, Riding for the Disabled, CAFRE, plus over a hundred vets, paraprofessionals, horse-owners, academics and politicians from across the island of Ireland. In addition to farriery, transport and export were flagged as urgent welfare matters.

Negative implications

Roly Owers, CEO of World Horse Welfare, pointed out the serious challenges in compliance and enforcement of transport and export rules for horses. According to Owers, Northern Ireland is being used to ‘confuse and obfuscate’ the rules of transport between the UK and Europe. Negative implications for horses include biosecurity, equine welfare, export to slaughter and integrity of vets could also be compromised.

With equine welfare legislation regarding transport currently uncertain, the risk to horses’ mental and physical welfare is increased by repeated long journeys, lack of fitness for transport, mixing of unfamiliar horses and cramped conditions.

The recent UK ban on live export for slaughter and fattening from Britain via the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill 2023-24 which came into being on December 4th 2023, also indicates some problems around Northern Ireland.

Owers told the packed symposium room about the very real threat of Northern Ireland becoming a live export ‘bridge’ to Europe via the Republic of Ireland.

Speakers at the symposium acknowledged a need to engage the entire equestrian and veterinary community in considering the changing landscape of equine welfare, and to support NIVA in its vision to co-produce a consensus paper as a call for action to both the equestrian community and NI government around key priority areas.

Proceedings were opened by organiser Dr Esther Skelly-Smith, NIVA President and practising equine vet. She set the scene by describing the current situation in this part of an island which has been described as “the land of the horse”. (The island of Ireland is the largest producer of thoroughbred horses in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. It is also a major exporter of Irish Sport Horses, Irish Draughts, and the ever-popular Connemara Pony).

There are thought to be over 34,000 horses in Northern Ireland and in 2019 DAERA commissioned an analysis which valued the equine industry’s contribution to the country as exceeding £210million. Despite this, it continues to suffer from a lack of government policy, legislation, and strategy. A stark example of this is the aforementioned point that Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK which does not regulate farriers – a major welfare concern and a frustration for those highly professional farriers who have worked tirelessly to raise standards.

Any farriers in attendance (or reading this article) are urged to complete the Farrier Recruitment and Retention Survey at

Active turnout

Dr Skelly-Smith went on to highlight some recent strides in equine welfare, including the use of active turnout for horses at CAFRE and in racing yards, and the great work done by the Donkey Sanctuary and organisations such as The British Horse Society.

These trail-blazing organisations were contrasted with some of the cases she still comes across - inappropriate stabling, poor dental care, poor hoof care, ill-fitting saddles, inappropriate nutrition, obesity, delayed euthanasia, unresolved stress and pain behaviours, and coercive training methods, which can all be the cause of poor wellbeing in horses.

Public opinion

The speakers’ presentations were wide-ranging and covered topics from the results of a recent public opinion survey which revealed almost 20% of the general public won’t accept the continuing use of horses in sport under any circumstances, and twice as many more will only accept it if welfare issues are addressed.

Reaseach methods for studying physical, physiological and psychological stressors in equine athletes were also discussed, as was the upcoming rule changes in equine sport internationally (including a whip ban in elite endurance racing and the removal of the equestrian element from modern pentathlon after the Paris Olympics).

Throughout the presentations there was much emphasis on the need for research to establish an evidence base, and the urgent need for education as well as regulation.

Foundation of collaboration

NIVA hopes that the symposium will be the foundation of collaboration between all stakeholders going forward. It is hoped that it is a clarion call for stakeholders to adopt and communicate an ethics-based, pro-active, progressive, and holistic approach to the protection of equine welfare.

Dr Skelly-Smith said, “In a time of increasing scrutiny, all those involved in owning or working with equines have collective responsibility and opportunity to proactively address obvious and less obvious welfare concerns.

“The trust required to permit a continuing social license to operate for horse sport will only ensue if society is confident that equestrianism operates transparently, that its leaders and practitioners are credible, legitimate and competent, and that its practice reflects society’s values. Earning and maintaining this status will undoubtedly require substantial effort and funding – inputs that should be regarded as an investment in the future of the sport.”

The event concluded with a panel discussion chaired by Dr Malcolm Morley, Senior Vice President of the British Association, in addition to the keynote speakers, the panel included Dr Inge D’Haese of Tullyraine Equine Clinic.

The key themes, the discussions which ensued, and the written feedback given by delegates will be analysed and added to NIVA’s equine welfare strategy.