Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

Horse-owners facing tough choices

By Mark Worthington
BBC News

Shelagh Ball riding
Keen rider Shelagh Ball can no longer afford to keep her horse, Fred
The economic downturn is hitting Britain's paddocks.

Charities say they are getting more calls than ever from owners who can no longer afford to keep their horses.

The Horse Trust says it has received 640 requests to retire animals in the past month - four times the usual amount.

At the Horse Refuge near Braintree in Essex, staff are fearing the worst.

Its stables are already full of more than 40 unwanted horses. Now owners Sara and Alan Ross are getting an increasing number of enquiries from owners who are struggling to pay the bills.

As the downturn worsens, the worry at the refuge is that they will not be able to cope with all of the animals coming their way.

"The phone doesn't stop ringing," said Sara Ross.

"Now nine out of 10 calls are from people who can't afford to keep their horses.

Sara Ross
Unless we can find the money to help them, horses are going to die
Sara Ross

"People have less money and the cost of everything has gone up. The price of feed has doubled."

For some, riding is a luxury. For Shelagh Ball it is a way of life.

But after 15 years she has been forced to hand over her horse to the refuge.

"I would keep Fred for the rest of his life if I could," she said, "but I just can't afford it.

"It's devastating."

Now he is living with a "foster family" and Shelagh is left only with photographs to remember him by.

She is not alone and businesses are also suffering.

Garron Baines runs a horse-trekking company in Essex but after a sharp fall in customers, he plans to shut it down. Soon he will be out of a job and his six horses will all need new homes.

"Business just went off a cliff," he said.

"With costs so high and no customers, I just can't afford to go on."

'Terrible winter'

Keeping a horse can cost 5,000 each year, but winter is the most expensive time.

Cold weather and water-logged fields mean horses need to spend more time in stables and that costs much more than keeping them in a field. Charities are worried that as winter deepens, the problem will get much worse.

"We're in for a terrible winter", said Sara Ross.

"I don't think we've seen yet how bad it's going to be. Unless we can find the money to help them, horses are going to die."

The Horse Refuge, like other charities, relies on donations. The fear is that they may begin to dry up just as they are needed most.

The refuge says it will not turn horses away but it fears what might happen to horses if charities are overwhelmed.

That would leave huge numbers of horses with nowhere to go and the prospect of being put down because nobody has the money to care for them.

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