Luke Hall – 2019 Speech on Horse Tethering

Below is the text of the speech made by Luke Hall, the Conservative MP for Thornbury and Yate, in the House of Commons on 20 February 2019.

I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate on the practice of the long-term tethering of horses. Tethering is the practice of attaching horses to a stake in the ground using a collar, or sometimes just a piece of rope around the neck, that is then fastened to a chain. The animal that once defined our great nation is now being left at risk of neglect, cruelty and abuse because of loopholes in the very legislation that was written to protect them. This debate follows the Break the Chain campaign run by the excellent HorseWorld trust, a leading equine rescue charity in the south-west, just next door to my constituency. The Break the Chain campaign aims to amend the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to include restrictions on the tethering of horses.

Traditionally, tethering has been used as a short-term method of keeping horses, but it has transformed into a method of retaining horses without having to purchase land, by using public or private grassland, often by the side of busy roads, for grazing. Because the tethered animal can be moved quickly, it is easy for people to tether a horse on land that does not belong to them and then move the animal before the authorities can identify the landowner or the owner of the animal. This results in it being virtually impossible to monitor the welfare of these animals, leaving around 3,500 horses in a state of potentially compromised welfare with little or no chance of intervention from charities.

There are a number of reasons why there has been such a large public response to the public campaign. In my constituency and the constituencies that surround it in the west of England, there is a big problem with tethering. There have been incidents where horses tethered by the roadside have been visible from the council offices in Yate, but despite this being a clear breach of the Animal Welfare Act, it could not be acted upon because the law does not state explicitly that tethering is a welfare concern. Unfortunately, because these horses are not protected by law, most cases of tethered horses that HorseWorld gets called to do not end well. The horses are simply moved before the Control of Horses Act 2015 can take effect. One incident saw a tethered horse break free near a large shopping centre at Cribbs Causeway in south Gloucestershire, next to a major road. By the time the horse was rescued and able to be seen by a vet, the injuries that it had sustained, most likely from having been hit by a car, meant that it had to be put down.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important subject to the Adjournment debate tonight. The British Horse Society is on record as stating that although many horses will thrive on a diet consisting only of grass, it is vital that tethered horses are moved regularly to ensure a constant supply of fresh food, and that during the winter months or at any other time when grass is scarce, additional work and feeding needs to be carried out. Tethering is clearly not a long-term solution for any horse, and this has to be looked at. Does he agree that the change to the legislation that the Minister has a chance to bring in would be a way of addressing the issue?​

Luke Hall

It is a genuine pleasure be intervened on by the hon. Gentleman in an Adjournment debate, and he is absolutely right. I will come on to some examples of how long-term tethering has been detrimental and caused death to animals in a number of cases. The nature of tethering means that it does not require large amounts of land, so horses can end up tethered in inner-city locations. A pony in south Bristol spent years tied to a tree on a grass verge and was harassed by local children and frequently escaped on to roads. The reality is that that was not a one-off.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

Do the majority of such incidents involve horses or ponies owned by Travellers who are just moving through?

Luke Hall

That can often be the case. If we are looking to change the legislation, we must ensure that we stamp out tethering and animal welfare abuses regardless of who owns the animal, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight that point.

As I said, such incidents are a regular occurrence. In 2016, a pony was found tethered among fly-tipped rubbish. It was so badly tangled up in a discarded bicycle that it could not even stand. This pony, which had a life-threatening injury, was lost to the authorities after the owner simply moved it and tethered it in another location before they could arrive. Sadly, just before Christmas last year, a member of the public came across a pony that had been tethered in a wooded area. The tether had become tangled around the surrounding trees and, in a desperate effort to break free, the one-year-old pony had strangled himself and lay dead in the mud at the end of his tether. It is therefore clear that the practice desperately requires stricter regulation.

HorseWorld, the charity that started the campaign, was spurred into action by the alarming case of a mare that gave birth to her foal while she was tethered. Unable to protect her foal from the other horses who roamed free in the same field, the mare became seriously distressed. Of course, protection of the young is one of our most basic instincts. Research into tethered horses in Wales, where tethering is rife, showed that 10% of tethered horses had young foals. Those are just a few examples of the horrors associated with long-term tethering but, because tethering is not restricted by law, people can tether horses unchecked beyond the reach of the law, resulting in tethered horses reaching despicable stages of neglect before they can be rescued.

I want to touch on the current regulations and legislation surrounding equine welfare and explain why they are not protecting tethered horses in practice. The Minister may refer to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ code of practice, which acts as a guide to safely tethering horses, but the code is not being adhered to in reality, as demonstrated by an investigation conducted in south Wales in 2014 by the excellent University of Bristol’s veterinary school, which gave five main conclusions.

First, the code of practice states that water should be made available on a regular basis in a spill-proof container, but the research concluded that up to 90% of animals were not given water regularly. Secondly, the code states that animals should, as a minimum, have shelter from the sun and wind and that the area should be well drained in the event of heavy rain, but the research tells us that no shelter was provided in over 80% of cases. ​Thirdly, animals should be given the freedom to exercise off the tether for a reasonable period at least once a day. In reality, however, less than 3% of horses spent more than five minutes a day off the tether, and no one would argue that five minutes is a reasonable amount of time. Fourthly, according to the code of practice, the tethering site should not contain anything that might injure the animal, but the reality is that sites contained potential hazards in 50% of cases. Fifthly, the code states that tethered horses require a high level of supervision, with inspections

“no less frequently than every 6 hours”.

However, it was found that only a third of horses were visited that regularly. While we have a code of practice, it is clearly not being adhered to, and the fact that an individual can move an animal before they ever reach the stage of being prosecuted renders the code of practice redundant.

Bob Stewart

If a horse is tethered and left, the area around the tether will soon have no grass and will become muddy if it is wet, hugely damaging the horse. That is one of the other problems of tethering.

Luke Hall

My hon. Friend is right about damage to the environment, and I urge colleagues to look at some of the photos of horses that have been treated so badly. I mentioned the pony in south Bristol that was tied to a tree, and the surrounding area was a small stretch of grass between a pavement and the road. Yes, there was huge damage to the local environment, but there was damage to the pony, too.

The code of practice informs us that tethering is not a suitable long-term method of managing horses, as does the RSPCA, the British Horse Society, World Horse Welfare and Redwings, but absolutely nothing can be done legally to prevent someone from tethering a horse for its whole life.

Further, long-term tethering directly infringes the five freedoms set out by the Animal Welfare Act 2006: the need for a suitable environment; the need for a suitable diet; the need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; the need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals; and the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

A tethered horse is not free to express natural behaviours. A horse that is free to roam will, on average, walk or run 10.6 miles a day, and the reality is that a tethered horse can come nowhere near that. As my many colleagues who keep horses can attest to, horses are flight animals. A horse’s most basic instinct is to flee from danger, which tethering does not allow. Tethering restricts a horse’s most natural behaviour.

Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A large number of my constituents who have seen horses tethered locally have contacted me to express their concern about these issues.

Luke Hall

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We are seeing horses being tethered all across the country, potentially leaving them open to neglect, cruelty and abuse, and potentially posing a danger to the people around them, too.​

Tethering is not deemed enough of a breach of the Animal Welfare Act to allow horse charities to intervene. A tethered horse also does not have the freedom to interact with its own species, as the Act says it should. Leaving horses isolated has been shown to increase stress levels and stress-related hormones, which can cause them to display stereotypical behaviours that cause physical and psychological harm.

Stereotypical behaviours are strongly linked to isolated horses; stabled horses tend to perform behaviours that engage with the stable around them, such as crib biting or weaving. Horses that are tethered long term have a total lack of environmental stimuli, so they are much more likely to develop stereotypical behaviours such as pacing or self-mutilation. This clearly raises questions about the clarity of the existing legislation and regulations on the grounds for removing a horse from a tether and on the capacity of law enforcers to act.

Long-term tethering is in direct conflict with legislation, yet in many instances authorities have not felt that the Animal Welfare Act is strong enough grounds to rescue horses, despite the obvious suffering. It is therefore my belief, and the belief of the charity that initiated this campaign, that the Act needs to be amended to state explicitly what constitutes inappropriate tethering.

One of the reasons why this is such an emotive subject is the location of tethered horses. As I said earlier, the main purpose of long-term tethering is free grazing, so horses end up on any strip of grass available, with the roadside, grass verges and even the middle of roundabouts, as we have seen in south Gloucestershire, being popular choices. It goes without saying that this is not remotely appropriate. Horses are easily spooked by traffic, and if the tether were to fail, there would be a loose horse on the road.

Advances in equine and animal science mean that we are much more able to understand what constitutes poor welfare, but our laws have not caught up with that deeper understanding. When I met HorseWorld staff, who are so passionate about what they do, I was told about a pregnant mare that escaped her tether and got on to a busy A road, where she narrowly avoided being hit by a lorry. Police had to attend the scene to monitor the horse until HorseWorld could assemble a team at 3 am. If the tethering laws were stricter, the lives of the mare and her unborn foal would not have been risked, a lorry driver would not have had to make an emergency stop on a main road and numerous hours of police time would not have been wasted.

That leads me on to my second point, which has been raised by other equine welfare charities in a number of reports: only appointed animal welfare officers or police constables have the authority to seize an animal. However, councils are in no way mandated to employ an animal welfare officer, so many choose not to do so. Our understanding is that as many as 40% of councils do not employ an animal welfare officer. In these areas, the police are the only organisation that has the power to rescue an animal from a situation where its welfare is compromised. I therefore ask the Minister to update us on what steps he is taking to gain a deeper understanding of the depth of the problem. The result of this situation is that police time is being spent attending horse rescues, which often just involves hours spent holding a horse at the side of the road when it had got on to the road. Only a police constable, once contacted, can authorise a ​charity to remove a horse. It is clear from written parliamentary questions I have tabled that the Government have no idea about the amount of police time that is spent dealing with these incidents. Clearly, police time can be better spent in the community. Having clarity over who should be dealing with equine welfare complaints will reduce the time that it takes to deal with them and will save the lives of animals. The councils that do employ animal welfare officers need to ensure that they are trained to handle horses. That could easily be achieved by collaborating with voluntary organisations.

Let me now address what needs to change. In the past, DEFRA Ministers have said that the current legislation appropriately meets the needs of tethered horses. The 19,000 people who signed a petition to get the tethered horses rescued from Rovers Way in Cardiff would disagree. The 12,000 people who have emailed their MPs about getting tethering laws tightened would disagree. I also think that all the experts who have been in touch with me and the voluntary organisations calling for stricter laws on tethering would also disagree.

There are therefore four changes that I would like to see incorporated into the 2006 Act to improve the lives of horses. The first is that there should be a 24-hour legal limit on how long horses can be tethered for. That is important, because DEFRA’s code of practice states that long-term tethering is inappropriate. That needs to be clarified, backed up and given status in law. The second is that there needs to be a complete ban on tethering horses on the roadside or in dangerous locations. The third is that if a tether is someone’s only method of keeping an animal, they should not be allowed to keep that animal. The fourth is to make it a mandatory duty for local councils to employ an animal welfare officer or to ensure that arrangements are in place with neighbouring authorities to ensure that those officers are in place.

There is currently too much room for interpretation within the legislation. It needs to be clear-cut that long-term tethering infringes on equine welfare, leaving horses at risk of harm and suffering. We need to give the relevant authorities the means and confidence to rescue horses that desperately need protection. We need to step up and take action to protect these most majestic and iconic animals. Making these changes will protect thousands of horses across our country. Minister, please help us and break the chain.