London: Once they were destined for the slaughterhouse. At least there the end would have been swift. Now it is drawn out and agonising.
Dumped without food and water by their owners, thousands of horses which would have been sold for meat are instead being condemned to a living hell.
Their plight is highlighted in a report by charities and animal sanctuaries, which are struggling with an influx of horses in appalling condition after unscrupulous dealers, hit by a slump in demand following the horsemeat scandal, abandoned them.
Take Nemo. She was so emaciated when animal welfare charity workers rescued her that her ribs poked through her coat. She was also lame.
Around her in her muddy field lay the corpses of other horses which had not made it. Rescuers got there just in time for Nemo. With veterinary treatment, she made a full recovery at a sanctuary and eight months on from being taken from that field in Caerphilly, south Wales, she is today a popular addition to HorseWorld’s visitor centre in Bristol.
But others have not been so lucky. Watson was being “flygrazed” - a practice where owners, often from the travelling community, leave horses to graze on other people’s land without permission - on a patch of scrub. In his desperation for food he ate something toxic, leading to a skin condition that left him with burnt-raw pink patches.
He was neglected for so long that he also had maggots eating away at his body. Vets battled to save the nine-month-old but three days after he was found in a Bristol field in June, he suffered massive kidney and liver failure and died.
In total, some 7,000 horses are considered “at risk”, according to the report by leading charities including the RSPCA and Blue Cross, with the horsemeat scandal a significant factor, but with over-breeding and the recession also playing a part.
Rescue centres have seen a rise of up to 40 per cent in admissions since it was revealed in January that some supermarket food labelled as beef contained horse. Experts say there are owners who let their horses breed indiscriminately then become overwhelmed with the numbers produced.
But whereas the unwanted horses might once have gone to the meat trade, now their owners abandon them rather than pay up to £100 (Dh588) a week to care for and feed them.
The Animal Sanctuary, in Dorney, Buckinghamshire, is caring for a third more horses than this time last year and is spending more than ever on vets’ bills as many arrive in a horrific condition.
Head trustee Diana Coad said: “Before the horsemeat scare there was, sadly, a trade in horses for meat but now there’s no market for them.
“People don’t want to pay to feed them or pay to have them put down, so unscrupulous owners are hiding them away in pockets of land and leaving them to starve very slowly and painfully to death.”
She said so many horses were arriving on the doorstep they were having to turn them away.
“In just one day last week we had calls about six separate horses, two skeletal horses were brought to us that we took in, and one horse arrived on a trailer in such a bad state that it collapsed and had to be put down,” she said.
“We try to take the worst ones that we can give a chance to and hope the better ones will survive a bit longer. You feel like an executioner having to choose which ones to take, I don’t think anyone would like to make that life or death decision.”
Before the recession, the sanctuary was able to rehome a horse every month but in the last two years it has found a new home for just one pony, as families are choosing cheaper pets.
Other animal charities have also seen a huge rise in the number of abandoned horses. World Horse Welfare, in Blackpool, took in 40 per cent more in the first quarter of 2013 than in the same period last year and investigated 22 per cent more complaints about horse welfare.
Blue Cross admitted 16 per cent more horses between January and March this year than the year before, with four in ten being admitted for welfare concerns, compared with less than a third last year.