Welfare Corner: Horse Fairs

As spring turns to summer, and many of the foals are maturing, the season for horse fairs begins...writes Beth Cooper, in this month's Welfare Corner.

There are a number of large, famous horse fairs which pop up from May to September, as well as smaller regional fairs.

Some horse fairs are strictly for the buying and selling of horses, some incorporate elements of parading and showing off horses, and some even have funfairs and stalls like you might find at a village fete or festival. Many horse fairs in the UK have deep historical roots and are certainly a different experience to the modern method of buying and selling horses via the internet.

Animal welfare organisations often have a presence at these fairs, whether it’s a couple of field officers just there looking for cases where welfare advice is needed, or a larger presence like the kind seen at Appleby Horse Fair. Not only are they there to check that any animals present are being cared for and treated appropriately, but it can also be an excellent opportunity to provide general advice and education about animal husbandry. It’s also a good way of connecting with different horse owners to learn about their experiences.

For many of the big fairs you will often see a vet present. They are there to deal with any veterinary emergencies and support the RSPCA with assessing possible veterinary issues during the fair. They also provide advice and guidance to owners on issues such as worming, wound treatment, infectious diseases, and other veterinary topics. 

Horse fairs can be big and loud and chaotic, and it can be very easy to get swept away in all the excitement. If you’re planning to attend a horse fair this year, here are some tips to help you make the most of it:

  • Safety:
    • There are likely to be lots of fast-moving horses at these fairs, as they’re moved from area to area and shown off for potential sales. It’s very important to be aware of your surroundings and ensure that you listen to any instructions given by horse handlers or drivers. This especially applies to areas in the fair where horses are being driven in carriages (bow-tops) and traps (sulkies); it’s difficult to see pedestrians and move around them in these vehicles, and injuries can easily occur.
    • As with any event where lots of horses mix, there's the potential that horses at fairs may have diseases which can be transferred between other animals (such as strangles), or from animals to people. Though it can be tempting to stop and cuddle every horse you see, bear in mind that you may be helping to transmit diseases and parasites both onto yourself, and onto other animals. Much like we’ve all learnt during the pandemic, it’s important to practise good hygiene and keep to a safe distance, even with horses.

  • Buying a horse:
    • Many people go to horse fairs with the intention of buying a horse. It’s likely there has been a thought-out process, with careful consideration towards an initial budget, as well as whether they’re able to look after a horse, both financially and in terms of time and effort. Some people go to fairs and can become emotionally attached to a horse or pony seen there. 
    • Try not to make an impulsive decision and buy a horse without thinking through all the ramifications – if you see a horse or pony you like, you can always speak to the seller and ask for details to contact them later once you’ve had time to think through your decision. The Blue Cross have some good advice to help you make sensible head-over-heart purchases: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/news/hold-your-horses-do-your-research-buying-horse-online  
    • If you are considering buying a horse, try to get as much information and history about the horse as possible. It’s important to consider what you might do if it turns out that the horse isn’t suitable, or isn’t able to cope with the change. Redwings receives lots of calls from people who’ve found themselves in this situation, and sadly charities are not able to help in most cases. 

  • Reporting a welfare concern:
    • If you see a horse you think may be suffering from poor welfare, keep your eyes out for someone in a uniform – like an RSPCA inspector or a Trading Standards officer. Try to make a note of anything distinctive about the animal so they can be easily identified and try to contact an animal welfare officer as soon as possible. After they leave the fair, it can be very hard to track them down, and buying a horse you’re concerned about may not solve the problem. We’re also not able to accept reports which are made on social media; reports should be given to us directly, with first-hand information, as soon as possible after seeing a concern.
    • Try to also keep in mind that although the conditions at the fair may be not what you’re used to seeing in terms of how the horses are handled or penned. The animal welfare professionals there are experienced and knowledgeable and are able to identify where there is a genuine problem, and where the horses are safe even if the conditions are not ideal. It can be frustrating to feel like you’re seeing something no one else is, and not receiving the reaction you’d like, but all welfare organisations must operate in a legal framework and process – an immediate, escalated response may not be the best option for every scenario.

In a world of sales websites and Facebook marketplace, horse fairs and markets can be a fascinating, sometimes challenging, window into a world of tradition. By using the tips above, you can have a safe, responsible time this summer – remember to wear sunscreen!

If you’d like to learn about Horse Fairs in the UK, and how Redwings gets involved, there’s lots more to read and watch below:

Welfare awards are back at this year's Appleby Horse Fair | Redwings Horse Sanctuary and Equine Veterinary Centre

Appleby Horse Fair Welfare Awards and Advice - YouTube