Ireland’s sport horse industry, hit by Covid restrictions, seeks parity with racing

Team Ireland celebrates its win on the podium at Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final at the Real Club de Polo in Barcelona in 2019. From left, Paul O’Shea, Peter Moloney, Chef d’Equipe Rodrigo Pessoa, Darragh Kenny and Cian O’Connor.
Team Ireland celebrates its win on the podium at Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup Final at the Real Club de Polo in Barcelona in 2019. From left, Paul O’Shea, Peter Moloney, Chef d’Equipe Rodrigo Pessoa, Darragh Kenny and Cian O’Connor. © FEI/Lukasz Kowalski

The national governing body for equestrian sport in Ireland wants the government to allow it to operate under the same footing as the Thoroughbred and greyhound sectors.

Horse Sport Ireland made the call amid growing concerns around equine welfare and the preservation of jobs in the country’s rural economy.

It noted that all sport horse events had been suspended in Ireland under the government’s Level 5 restrictions introduction on October 19.

This is in stark contrast to Ireland’s racing and greyhound sectors, which have been allowed to continue to operate during Level 5 restrictions.

Horse Sport Ireland represents a sector comprising mainly of professionals and athletes who derive their income from sport horse production and equine farming.

The nation is a regular top performer in equestrian sport, with three equestrian teams qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

The sporting body also represents several high-performance athletes who consistently compete at the highest level nationally and internationally.

Ireland is one of just eight countries with teams qualified in all three Olympic disciplines of showjumping, eventing and dressage.

Concerns are mounting that Irish athletes now find themselves at a huge disadvantage to their medal rivals for the Tokyo Games.

Competitions for elite athletes are continuing throughout Europe and America. However, athletes based in Ireland now find themselves without regulated competitions during a crucial period of their Olympic preparations.

The sport horse industry contributes around €816 million a year to the Irish economy and employs more than 14,000 people.

Horse Sport Ireland's Joe Reynolds
Horse Sport Ireland’s Joe Reynolds

Horse Sport Ireland is concerned that, with the cessation of activity, the industry faces a dark period in the context of both jobs in the rural economy and equine welfare issues. Ethical equine welfare includes access to regulated activity and competition for the current sport horse population in Ireland, estimated to be more than 135,000 sport horses.

“Horse Sport Ireland is very concerned that due to the cessation of activity, the industry is now facing a perilous situation heading into the winter period,” Horse Sport Ireland acting chief executive Joe Reynolds said.

“The sector endured significant hardship in the spring of this year due to the cessation of activity. With moderate levels of activity over the summer months, some recoup of losses were made, however, this is now being wiped out due to the Level 5 restrictions.

“The current penal restriction has dramatically truncated the traditional end of season stock movement, with equines having little or no performance testing record for onward sale. As such, breeders, owners, producers and athletes are now facing a horrifying position of being overstocked with dwindling or no income.”

Reynolds says Horse Sport Ireland is acutely aware that many businesses across Ireland find themselves in a similar position during this public health emergency.

“However, in the Republic of Ireland both the Thoroughbred Racing and the Greyhound Sector are permitted to operate unencumbered throughout this restricted period while in Northern Ireland the DERA has classified sport horse equestrian activity on an equal basis with horse racing.”

An example of the disparity, and real evidence of inconsistencies of approach by the Department of Agriculture, is the operational allowance afforded to point-to-point racing.

Horse Sport Ireland says it is difficult to argue how point-to-point racing, either in its organisation or running of events, differs from sport horse production and activity.

It argued that that certain professional/elite sport horse competitions should be granted the same permissions afforded to point-to-points, and to Thoroughbred and greyhound racing. Harness racing has also been permitted to continue in Ireland during Level 5 restrictions.

Horse Sport Ireland devised and implemented robust protocols for the sector allowing activity to recommence on May 17 this year, which it said effectively provided a safe environment for non-contact activity to continue over the past months.

However, the introduction of Level 5 restrictions saw all equestrian activity shut down.

Late in October, the organisation wrote to Agriculture Minister Charlie McConologue proposing an immediate temporary solution to the current restrictions arising out of the Level 5. It said it was told a few days later that the request was denied.

It said there is now concern about the loss of income for breeders and producers. Equine businesses have a level of costs, feed, veterinary and welfare, apart from wages costs that cannot be stopped, delayed or avoided when shutdowns are imposed.

It says it does not want to see a return to the trends seen from 2010 to 2013, where financial insecurity led to rising levels of unwanted stock and a welfare crisis.

Horse Sport Ireland is now requesting a hearing before the Agriculture Committee to discuss what it called the crisis facing the industry, and the unequal treatment of the sport horse sector in comparison to Thoroughbred racing, greyhound racing, point-to-point events, and harness racing.

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