Horse health being jeopardised by people feeding them without permission, study finds

Well-meaning passers-by are endangering a significant number of British horses by feeding them without permission, a study has found.

The wellbeing of a significant number of British horses is being put at risk by well-meaning passers-by feeding them, a study has found.

More than three-quarters of horse owners surveyed found that their horses were fed without their permission, and 83 per cent of those responsible were families, preliminary research led by the University of Bristol Veterinary School found.

The vet school, together with the British Horse Society (BHS), are asking the public to stop feeding horses.

The survey was completed last year by 1017 owners, who indicated that feeding horses without permission had been occurring more frequently since the first Covid-19 lockdown in Britain, with more people visiting the countryside.

The survey also found that nearly a third of horses became unwell as a result, with half requiring veterinary treatment. Almost a third of those that required treatment did not make a full recovery and, shockingly, 16 percent died or were euthanised.

Dr Jo Hockenhull, a senior research associate at the vet school, said it was important to recognise that, in many of the cases reported in the survey, horses and ponies were being fed household vegetables and items that people would think were safe, such as grass, apples and carrots.

“Even if you think it is harmless, the horses might have underlying health issues or allergies.

“Our research shows that the consequences of feeding horses anything without permission can be very serious or even fatal.”

Amelia Cameron, a postgraduate student at the vet school at the time she conducted the research, says it is not worth risking the animal’s life, just for the opportunity to feed or stroke them, however good a person’s intentions may be.

Following the research findings, the school voiced its support for the society’s #BeHorseAware campaign, and urged the public not to feed horses and ponies anything at all.

The campaign was launched in April last year to raise public awareness of the suffering that horses and owners can go through as a result of inappropriate feeding.

The society’s director of welfare, Gemma Stanford, urged the public to heed the message behind the campaign.

“We believe many people act with no malicious intent and at this time of year members of the public think that they are helping a hungry horse.

“However, they are unaware of the timings at which owners feed their horses and the risks that certain foods or grass cuttings can pose.

“If members of the public feel that a horse is being mistreated or underfed, we would ask them to contact the BHS welfare helpline for advice.

“We also encourage horse owners to download free signs the BHS has produced warning the public not to feed their horse. The greater the awareness of the issue, the more likely people are to change their behaviour in the future.”

The society offered simple advice to those enjoying the countryside:

  • Do not feed horses as any type of food can cause them to become extremely unwell or even kill them;
  • Leave gates and property as you find them;
  • Keep dogs on a lead as they may startle horses, which can cause injury;
  • If you see a horse in distress, alert the nearest farm/yard or check for a sign with owner’s detail on it.

Key findings from the survey of 1017 horse owners:

  • 788 (77.5%) found evidence or suspected that their horses were being fed without their permission;
  • 82.7% of feeders were families (adults and children);
  • 220 horses (27.9%) became unwell or injured as a result of being fed without permission;
  • Of these, half (109 horses) required veterinary treatment;
  • 81 horses (27.7%) did not make a full recovery, including 35 (16.4%) that died or were euthanised.

The full study results will be published in March.

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