Semi-Feral Ponies Sold at Auction – Is Welfare Compromised?

Autumn is a time for equine sales to allow for selling of animals from the moors and commons.  These ponies are owned but largely unhandled, living free on moorland most of the year.  Given the People4Ponies (a Devon equine welfare organisation) reports on the Chagford Dartmoor pony sale, Devon 13th October and the Hallworthy sale, Cornwall 22nd October (People4ponies, 2016), it is appropriate to consider the welfare impact of these sales for animals that pass through them.

The Hallworthy sale was noted for welfare concerns of poor handling, escaped ponies and poor pony transport arrangements after the sale along with evidence of ear-notching, an illegal practice under the Animal Welfare Act.   Of the entered animals (just under 100), the majority were purchased by horse meat dealers and travelling to slaughter.  Neither Trading Standards nor the DEFRA vet were in attendance for the sale to oversee adherence to welfare standards.

For entry into horse sales, animals are transported to the venue, penned, transferred into sale rings, returned to pens and loaded on to transport to leave.  For unhandled equines from the moors, this is likely to be a high stress experience due to novelty of situation and proximity to people.

Research into transport of horses by road has shown that animals show increased physiological markers for stress including raised adrenaline and cortisol levels especially during loading (Tateo et al., 2012).  Multi-horse loose transport vehicles (such as meat trucks) cause a state of continual stress for horses and contribute towards their dehydration with unhandled animals coping less well than handled animals (Padalino, 2015).

In equines, stress from transport alone can cause oxidative stress (imbalance in the body between free radicals and antioxidants) along with raised heart and respiratory rates (Onmaz et al., 2011).  Oxidative stress left untreated leads to oxidative damage in muscle tissues which can lead to animals presenting for slaughter and entering the food chain in a state of oxidative damage, the consumption of which meat is now raising questions for human (and animal) health (Soladoye et al., 2015).

Added to the transport stress, there is also a period of animals being kept and in some instances mixed in pens; the large scale transport arrangements of the meat men involve penning and loading previously unknown groups of equines together.  Behaviours in semi-feral, unhandled ponies can be inhibited by being mixed with other, unknown equines (Von de Weerd et al., 2012) with this study showing ponies’ reluctance to drink and increased risk of dehydration.  Onmaz et al. (2011) also note this mixing of equines and lack of drinking water as risk factors for oxidative stress.

The handling manner for semi-feral, unhandled equines is of vital importance to minimise stress to include appropriate approach of the animals (Birke et al., 2011).  Small movements and a slow approach in this study were sufficient to trigger ponies moving away from people such as would be required to move from a pen into the sale ring; a fast approach and more violent movement caused ponies to move away further and at higher speed with flight response triggered.  The Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order 1990 (, 2016) prohibits the use of excessive force to handle or control horses suggesting that slow and careful handling and moving of the horses would be expected as good practice especially with unhandled animals.

It may be expected that handlers are trained to recognise equine stress indicators but this is not a clear cut area as different horse personality types have been shown to express pain and stress more actively or passively (Ijichi et al., 2014, Budzyuska, 2014).  Therefore, handlers’ understanding of these expressions of emotions may not adequately reflect whether an animal is suffering, especially in the case of no previous relationship between handler and handled animal.

Given the welfare implications of transport and handling of the ponies and the meat safety concerns of animals slaughtered for meat in an oxidative stress state (the final destination for many of these equines sold at sales), is it now time to reconsider the holding of such sales for equines in the UK with particular reference to unhandled, semi-feral ponies?  For these sales to continue, at the very least we need to be confident that the ponies’ needs are being fully met under the Animal Welfare Act and require the commitment of mandatory local authority attendance by specialist officers and their robust welfare law enforcement.  If their welfare needs cannot be met, perhaps the time of sending semi-feral moorland ponies to the drift sales should be over.


Birke, L. et al. (2011) Horses’ responses to variation in human approach. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 134, 56-63.

Budzynska, M. (2014) Stress Reactivity and Coping in Horse Adaptation to Environment. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 34, 935-941.

Ijichi, C. et al. (2014) Pain expression is linked to personality in horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 38-53.

Onmaz, A. Et al (2011) Oxidative stress in horses after a 12-hours transport period. Revue de Médecine Vétérinaire, 162, 4, 213-217.

Padalino, B. (2015) Effects of the different transport phases on equine health status, behavior, and welfare: A review. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 10, 272-282.

People4ponies (2016) People4ponies Blog. Available at [Accessed 27/10/16].

Soladoye, O., P. et al. (2015) Protein Oxidation in Processed Meat: Mechanisms and Potential Implications on Human Health. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 14, 106-122.

Tateo, A. et al. (2012) Transport stress in horses: Effects of two different distances. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 7, 33-42.

The Welfare of Horses at Markets (and Other Places of Sale) Order 1990. Available at [Accessed 27/10/16].

Van de Weerd, H. et al. (2012) Use of artificial drinkers by unhandled semi-feral ponies. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 139, 86-95.

4 thoughts on “Semi-Feral Ponies Sold at Auction – Is Welfare Compromised?

  1. As the carer of an Exmoor pony, I have only ever considered the welfare of the animal in the situation she is in, and never to the circumstances in which she came to live at our animal unit. This is was hugely eye-opening read and I look forward to seeing if this welfare issues is challenged in the future.

    Just as a side note, I found out when visiting Dartmoor zoo that they actually feed Dartmoor ponies to their big cats, as a practical source of protein and a way to dispose of ponies for culling and number management reasons. I wonder if these ponies are dealt the same card as the ones you discuss above…


  2. Indeed @hkent1, there is a project to use some of the ‘surplus’ Dartmoor Hill Pony foals (often colts) as zoo meat but that doesn’t account for all the unwanted foals bred. There is also a current project to bring them into the market for human consumption as a speciality meat which has caused significant controversy.

    In opposition to these found uses for the surplus animals, there are instead calls for improvements in breeding controls to halt the indiscriminate breeding in some herds and prevent the need to shoot or send for meat so many of these unhandled, semi-feral Dartmoor ponies every year with the stress and welfare concerns that this entails.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a very informative article – I have read both the reports from People4Ponies. I have also attended the market at Chagford recently though not particularly this year. I noted that the young foals that are run into the ring were stressed and calling for other herd members (or perhaps their mums – for the very tiny foals) – I was also aware that of the men that were purchasing the ponies for the meat market. I am not sure that these were going on a long journey that would end up overseas on the continent but a known meat dealer did take a pen of similarly marked skewbald ponies and I understand there is a market for their skins on the continent. The current status quo for these ponies would involve stress levels and therefore questionable animal welfare concerns at all stages of their management by humans. For example drifting them into holding for sorting, darting them with contraceptives whilst on the moor, early weaning of foals, transport to market, stress at market procedures, microchipping, transport to destination. If that destination is slaughter for meat (for human consumption or Zoo) – stress at point of slaughter. You mention the increased stress level would affect the quality of the meat and I understand this has been researched and proven. All in all its probably unavoidable in current management systems. Perhaps Animal Welfare should step in and question their whole management and this includes markets


  4. I think it would be good if you could get an anthropologist to analyse what people get out of these sales days. For the owners there is a bit of money but nothing that would make it financially worthwhile but they might see it as a good day out and a chance to meet up with other farmers in what can otherwise be a fairly lonely and hard-working environment. For the buyers and onlookers you have also got some looking for a good day out and others on a rescue mission with a few in between really concentrating on looking for a pony that will meet their needs. So the vast majority aren’t looking for the stress signs in the animals at all and probably wouldn’t recognise them if they did see them? Considering that many of the ponies are weaned within days and hours of the sales, are often as young as four months, and are left with strange ponies, no water or hay, in a bustling environment, it must be extremely stressful.


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