Abandoning an animal is an illegal offence, with offenders facing a fine of up to £20,000 and/ or a possible 51-week prison sentence.

The last few years have seen a large increase in the number of abandoned animals reported, especially horses; which are often found abandoned at livery yards, on roads, and dumped on both private and council land.

We have put together this article to provide aid and information should you find a horse abandoned on your land.

Animal abandonment is an under-developed area in the legal world, with no existing case law as yet. It is important to note that we are not lawyers and this is not a legal guide, but rather a document of advice in the case of finding an abandoned animal. Please also note that most abandonment cases are a civil matter and are not under the jurisdiction of animal welfare charities.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the 1971 Animal Acts state that animal abandonment is illegal. However, although this law can be used to prosecute and prove an offence has occurred, it offers no guidance regarding what happens to the animal after it has been abandoned. Abandonment, particularly where horses are concerned, is a time-consuming and costly affair.

Our first piece of advice would be to keep your land as secure as possible, in order to prevent the problem from ever occurring. If you own a livery yard or stables, or even just a piece of land, there are several steps you can take to minimise the risk of abandonment.

Prevention Tips for Landowners

Unfortunately, the number of abandoned horses being reported is not the only growing problem – we are also seeing a steady increase in the number of horses being grazed illegally. The act of illegally grazing a horse has become known as ‘fly-grazing’, and results in the landowner not only being left with an unwanted horse but also becoming obliged to provide the horse with its basic needs – grass and access to water.

By keeping your gates securely locked you can minimise the risk of becoming a victim of fly-grazing. If you are still concerned, investing in some blockades may further deter any potential offenders. Other options include digging ditches around your land, and ploughing up empty pockets of land so that large areas of grassland are not left available.

Prevention Tips for Livery Yard Owners

Livery yard owners primarily fall victim to horse owners who intend to abandon their horse with the likelihood of a secure future. Motivation for this kind of abandonment can include desperation in terms of finances, or the wish to avoid euthanising their animal. In these cases, owners seek livery yard or field rental in the hopes of abandoning their horse once a space has been agreed.

In order to minimise the likelihood that you will be left with unwanted animals, it is key to ensure you have good practice in place when dealing with new clients. When a new horse arrives at your yard, ensure the horse is microchipped and that you have seen a copy of its passport.

Contracts are an integral part of making sure all parties are happy with the agreement, and we suggest you charge a minimum of three month’s fees up front – even if the new client is a friend. By charging a larger fee towards the start of the contract, you are likely to deter the owner from abandoning their horse and, even if they do, you at least have some backstop funds to help deal with the situation.

All too many times we have heard of livery yard owners agreeing to a verbal contract and then being left in a difficult situation, so it is important to make sure you get the horse owner’s signature on the dotted line and retain a copy of their address on file.

What Do I Do If I Find a Horse Abandoned on My Land / Yard / Rented Field?

It can be difficult to differentiate between a horse that has been abandoned, a stray, and an escapee. Prior to engaging in the following steps, it is important to give the owner a chance to come forward and retrieve their horse.

If you find your land is being fly-grazed, the first step would be to erect a notice of abandonment. More often than not, the horse will disappear swiftly once word of the notice gets around.

If you find an abandoned horse, we advise you follow our steps to ensure every effort is made to rectify the situation responsibly. By doing this and by keeping a record of all your actions, you are essentially keeping a log of evidence which will prove useful if the owner challenges your actions at a later date.

  • The first thing to remember if you find an abandoned horse on your land is that these are large animals and can be temperamental in nature. Do not approach the animal unnecessarily and make every effort to contain them in a space where they can graze safely.
  • Look to see if the animal has a freezemark. If it does, make a note of the mark and contact Farmkey on 0870 870 7107, or Freezemark Ltd on 01295 690090.
  • Check over the animal for signs of good upkeep – any of the following signs indicate that the owner is active in their care of the animal and thus may well be looking for their animal: clipped feet, trimmed tail, trimmed whiskers, and a tidy mane.
  • Do not assume that an untidy animal has been abandoned.
  • If you see if any immediate health problems, remember it is your responsibility to ensure the animal is cared for so it is imperative you call a vet as soon as possible.
  • Ask a vet or local livery yard to scan the horse for a microchip. If you identify one, call the National Equine Database or Petlog for owner details.
  • Report the situation to the police, as if the animal has been reported missing it may already be on their radar.
  • If the horse has been stolen, it may well be reported on www.stolenhorseregister.com or www.ukhorsewatch.org.uk.
  • Report the situation to the RSPCA, particularly if the horse has any injuries or has been kept in a poor condition.
  • Keep an abandonment notice up for at least two weeks, and make sure it includes your contact number and address as well as a description of the horse. You should also clearly state your intention to remove and re-home the horse if the owner does not come forward. It is good practice to display a secondary abandonment notice for a further week once the initial 14 days is over.
  • Create a supplementary notice that you can put up in the local area, including shops, livery yards and riding schools.

What Do I Do If I Find a Horse Wandering the Roads?

As public highways and roads are under the control of the Police, in the case of finding an animal wandering the road you must always report your finding to the Police straight away, to avoid a serious accident.

What Do I Do If an Owner Comes Forward?

By law, all horse owners should have a copy of the horse’s passport, so if an individual comes forward claiming to be the owner then you are well within your rights to ask to see the passport. This will prevent someone being able to fraudulently claim the horse, as the passport is made up of a detailed description which you can check against the abandoned animal in your care.
Though the passport will provide assurance that the individual does indeed own the animal, the horse passport is not as legal document and does not legally prove ownership.

There may be cases when the individual is unable to show the passport, for example if they have only recently purchased the animal. In this situation it is up to you how you wish to prove ownership to your satisfaction, although we suggest asking the individual for any photos they may have of the animal or a detailed description. Remember, at the end of the day, your aim is to remove the animal safely from your land, so if you have any concerns about the owner then please contact the police for advice on how to proceed.

What Do I Do If No One Comes Forward as the Owner?

If you do not receive any uptake from your notices within the allotted period, then the horse becomes your legal responsibility. This gives you the right to sell, re-home, euthanise or keep the animal. Following the advised notice period if no owner comes forward, the next steps to be taken depend on the value of the horse and its likelihood to be re-homed privately. By following the above steps, you have acted responsibly and provided adequate time for the owner to come forward, covering yourself against any future complications.

In any of the above cases, you may run into some difficulty selling the horse or contacting the vet without the horses’ passport. For advice in acquiring a passport for the horse, contact DEFRA on 08459 335 577.

If the horse is young or appears to be of a high value, it would be advisable to seek legal advice if you intend to sell or castrate the animal. It is advisable in the case of selling the horse that you obtain a valuation of the horse’s value, and keep any money made from the sale to one side for at least six months. This is in case of an owner coming forward at a later date, for example in the case of a stolen animal that they have been looking for for an extended period of time. In this case we suggest contacting a lawyer as the laws become complex and tailored to each individual case.

It is essential that you keep a record of all of your actions relating to the welfare and future of the animal, as well as any costs incurred or obtained. If an owner comes forward at any time, you are more than entitled to ask for some compensation to cover your own expenses and time, although this must be kept to a reasonable amount.