Straight from the horses mouth: Exposing the brutal horse trade

Read Time:   |  6th April 2017

Tony Wardle recounts how Viva! helped expose the brutal trade in horses from Poland…

My kingdom for a horse…” Before he was slain at Bosworth Field and finished up beneath a Leicester car park, Richard III was pretty clear about the importance of horses. In fact, horses take much credit for humankind’s development, right up to the 20th century as beasts of burden, transport and friends. The barbarity of the Great War would have been greatly diminished without horses to haul guns, ammunition and supplies. As a reward for their labour, eight million were slaughtered in the mud of France and Belgium.

There is something about horses that inspires people – perhaps their power, beauty, strength. Having had horses until recently, I’m pretty sure much of it stems from their essentially wild nature. You just know that if we humans disappeared, horses would carry on as before and barely swish a tail at our passing.

Most British people are revolted at the thought of eating horsemeat, so the discovery a while ago that horsemeat was in a whole range of manufactured meat products caused outrage.

Horsemeat scandal

It was not the first horsemeat scandal to hit the UK. Newsreel footage of some 48 years ago seriously shocked people. It was of horses being driven – beaten – up a narrow gang plank onto a cross-Channel ferry. Their nostrils were flared, their eyes white and rolling as they slipped and staggered and panicked at their treatment. The shock was amplified when it was revealed that these were ex-police and military horses whose reward on retirement was to be sold to continental dealers for fresh horsemeat. It led to legislation and the introduction of the ‘minimum value’ rule – export horses had to be above a certain value, making exports for meat unprofitable.

I became directly involved in campaigning against long-distance horse transportation entirely by accident. Visiting Poland to launch our book, The Silent Ark (now out of print), Juliet Gellatley (Viva!’s director) and I were implored to do something to help stop the shocking live transportation of horses to Italy, which at that time amounted to 100,000 animals a year. It led to us opening an office in Warsaw.

Poland is largely a fairly poor agricultural country where horses, not tractors, are the motive power. Suddenly being offered a comparatively handsome price by Italian horse dealers led to a flurry of horse sales for meat and the start of a breeding trade.

I began my investigations in a horse market at Skaryszew, in the middle of nowhere. This was about 14 years ago when secret cameras were as secret as a bald head. My not-very-secret camera was concealed in a shoulder bag with a fairly obvious hole cut in the side panel.

The atmosphere was like a festival, a fair, a celebration. A brass oompah band belted out music, stalls sold sausages and vodka and horses were tethered everywhere, some frothing at the mouth from dehydration. Others were beaten and dragged to make them clamber up into the backs of lorries, because no one could be bothered to provide a ramp.

Deals were done theatrically, with exaggerated hand slapping and the deal topped off with the choreographed downing of a vodka shot. The faces of many men were extraordinary – rugged, almost hewn – they looked medieval and I felt I had wandered into a Bruegel painting. I looked at them; looked at my hidden camera bag just waiting to be discovered and decided that getting caught was a very bad idea. So I took the camera from the bag and filmed openly, a fascinated tourist. I was ignored.

I talked to the Italian driver of a huge transporter who summed up the live export trade: “It’s good money”, he said with a grin. I watched as he tethered horse after horse tightly by the head to wall bars inside the lorry – entirely illegal. There were no partitions and horses were stressed, lashing out with their hind legs. It was deeply depressing as I knew what lay ahead for these poor animals.

If bound for Sicily and there was only one driver, the 1,600 mile journey might last three or even four days without rest, food or water. It could be quicker, but once in the Czech Republic, drivers detour through Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia to avoid Austria’s higher animal welfare regulations. 

Viva! joined with the extraordinary, all-female German group, Animals Angels, and we obtained incredible footage, which I edited into a film. Even now there is one sequence that brings tears to my eyes (www.viva.org.uk and view Journey to Death).

Journey to death

The footage shows a transporter arriving at a ‘rest’ station in the Czech Republic, pulling in out of the dark and lowering its tailgate onto a dimly-lit wooden platform. Three of the horses are down and are made to stand as excreta pours out of the back of the lorry. One by one they are led away and about 10 more horses follow, disappearing into the dark, trembling and exhausted.

Attention then focuses on a pile of what looks like excreta furthest from the tail gate and, after minutes of vicious prodding, it suddenly moves and reveals itself to be a little grey mare. As she staggers to her feet, filth pours down her body and vicious cuts can be seen where she has been trampled – possibly for hours – in the swaying lorry. She’s clearly close to death and is also removed, shaking and quaking, but collapses on the concrete ramp, where she remains for six more hours until euthanised – no one would foot the vet bill for a night call out.

The other horses, despite their condition, are reloaded without rest, food or water. The little grey mare, who died in such appalling circumstances, became the centrepiece of our campaign and her death was not entirely in vain. Viva!’s shocking film, Journey to Death, was shown on Polish TV more than 30 times and caused a public outcry in a country that almost reveres horses. The outcome was a collapse in the trade, by more than two-thirds, with Poland’s chief vet blaming us for its decline. Good, because 70,000 horses each year were saved that appalling journey. In addition, Viva! Poland is now the pre-eminent animal group in the country.

Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Juliet Gellatley is a zoologist and a founder and director of Viva! www.viva.org.uk

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