Brave or Brutal? Arrogant or Ignorant? Princess Anne Calls for More Debate on Horse Slaughter's Role in Welfare of All Horses

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A few weeks ago, she was the darling of The Jurga Report. Readers and Facebook friends were touched by Great Britain's Princess Anne's recent decision to source her new riding horse from the collection of adoptables housed at a rehoming center run by World Horse Welfare.

She was the royal face for Doing What's Right in the horse world. This week, many think she's turned her back on welfare ethics with a call to debate the place of horse slaughter in the bigger picture of neglected and unwanted horses.

Princess Anne, left, has been in the spotlight of equestrianism her entire life. Her mother, Queen Elizabeth, helped adjust the bridle on her pony "Greensleeves" in 1960.

Princess Anne, left, has been in the spotlight of equestrianism her entire life. Her mother, Queen Elizabeth, helped adjust the bridle on her pony "Greensleeves" in 1960.

Princess Anne was talking about Great Britain and Europe, but her comments are sure to be quoted around the world. What's interesting is the way that people are reacting to her comments, made when conducting the keynote address at the annual conference of World Horse Welfare (WHW) in London on Thursday.

You might have to watch that video clip more than once to understand the context. Should a member of the royal family be so outspoken on such a hot-button issue? Should a high-profile horsewoman be saying such things? And as the president of World Horse Welfare, shouldn't she be much more sensitive to the plight of unwanted horses? Was she really suggesting that horse slaughter, which is completely legal and somewhat regulated in Great Britain and across Europe, might have a role to play in improving equine welfare?

While Princess Anne didn't speak directly in favor of eating horsemeat, she only stopped just short of setting a place at the table of equine welfare advocacy for it when she suggested that the value of horses traded for meat plays a potential role in ensuring that they receive better care.

But do pounds on the hoof for the slaughterhouse scale truly translate to improvements in equine welfare for horses in countries where they are traded for meat potential at the end of their usefulness under saddle?

Let the debate begin but understand a couple of things: horse slaughter is completely legal in Europe and slaughterhouses are in business in Great Britain. Their services are available to horse owners. Even with horse slaughter available, Great Britain and many other European countries still have a tremendous problem with what we Americans call "unwanted horses".

Note: The reintroduction of legal horse slaughter has been proposed in the US as a solution to the unwanted horse problem.

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The monarchy in Great Britain could be seen as a celebrity sideshow capable of expansive world-theater weddings, dramatic births, and fashion icons. It's in the horse world that the British royal family and its horses show up with their game faces on, whether in polo, Thoroughbred racing, eventing, heavy horses, and breeding classes at horse shows. The Queen likes being photographed on horseback, in spite of her advanced years, and she certainly shows her royal displeasure when one of her horses is beaten in the homestretch at Royal Ascot.

Prince William plays polo, Zara Phillips wins Olympic medals in eventing, Prince Charles farms with heavy horses.

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But it's Princess Anne who is involved at the make-a-difference level, with her involvement in organizations like the livery of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, where she is past master, and the globally-ambitious World Horse Welfare, where she serves as president. She also was instrumental in the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to London, and has served as president of the British Olympic Association, has been a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is a former Olympian herself, having represented Great Britain in eventing at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She was president of the FEI for eight years, from 1986 to 1994.

And it's Princess Anne who makes waves instead of the gossip columns.

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"I chuck that out for what it's worth because I think it needs a debate."
--Princess Anne, referring to horse slaughter

This is one royal who doesn't just pose for photos. Don't look for the name of her outfit's designer in the lead sentence of articles about her.

We've seen her fall off her horse. We've seen her act like a horse show mom. When she mentions a Shetland pony wearing a blanket in her speech, she makes a face only an opinionated horse owner could make.

Her suggestion that equations between better horse care and horse meat values should be openly discussed put her in the headlines more than rescuing any horse ever could. For all the wrong reasons, soundbites from the World Horse Welfare conference can be manipulated to make it sound like she is calling for her merely mortal subjects to buck up, do the right thing and eat more horse meat.

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But that's not what she said. She was suggesting that the debate open to discuss whether an increased monetary value for horse meat might translate to a better-cared-for horse among the at-risk population in Great Britain. The debate might open with the problem that if people throw food at thin horses, colic and laminitis might be the immediate results. Would a person who has neglected a horse or who claims to be unable to afford to provide better care go to the expense of veterinary care for a sick horse?

Is there a parallel in economics of the care cash-strapped people give to a possession with perceived trade-in value? I think most of us would agree that the neglect would continue, under the patterns of self-denial. It might take a generation or longer to create a new awareness of equine condition that equates with monetary value. And what welfare principle is at work if an owner sacrifices vaccinations, worming or hoofcare?to afford some high-calorie feed, which has a better return on investment than caring for the horse itself?

Everyone from British prime minister David Cameron on down has criticized Princess Anne for her outspoken remarks, but not on the basis of any equine welfare issues. They simply don't want to eat horse meat.

PETA suggested that eating Corgis would be next on Princess Anne's agenda.

Everyone, that is, except for some major equine welfare organizations in Great Britain.

Call them pragmatists. Call them realists. Are they influenced by Princess Anne or is she influenced by them? For decades, groups like World Horse Welfare have accepted the inevitability of horse slaughter in Europe. The organization has chosen not to fight horse slaughter, but to fight instead for the horse's right to a safe, sane, humane and hygienic trip to and through the slaughterhouse.

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Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, said in response to the outcry over Princess Anne's soundbite:

"Around 7000 horses are currently at risk of abandonment and neglect and charities like ours are struggling to cope as winter approaches. The economic downturn has driven prices for horses and ponies to rock bottom, and the sad fact is that from a purely economic perspective, they can now be worth more as meat.? Many in the horse world have known this for a long time.

"Our President has been brave enough to say this openly in hopes of
generating a thought-provoking debate." -- Roly Owers

"We are proud that our annual conference is a platform for debate. We are pleased that the media is giving so much coverage to horse welfare debate today, and hope that it will help to highlight the wider issues raised on the day about the horse crisis, overbreeding, and long-distance transportation to slaughter."

World Horse Welfare has campaigned for closed-circuit television monitoring of horse slaughter plants in the United Kingdom and continually stumps for enforcement of long-distance horse transport regulations for slaughter-bound trucks in Europe. Earlier this year, World Horse Welfare launched an effective "Need to Breed" campaign to discourage?what we'd call "backyard breeding" in the USA.

Watch the entire World Horse Welfare conference and the complete 11 minutes of Princess Anne's keynote address, as well as a journalist's complete analysis of the horse meat labeling scandal in Britain earlier this year:

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Princess Anne's comments begin around the 18:00 mark. The conversation she is asking for is still taboo enough to be spoken only in hushed tones or in redactable memos--unless, of course, you're Princess Anne and you can speak your mind into a microphone even when your words are likely to fly in the face of?public sentiment.

Surely she's lost no sleep over the pot she has stirred. Let's hope she keeps the spoon in hand and keeps people talking. When issues grow quiet, they can wither and lose their place in the line of things that matter to people, or that spur them to action. We can't afford for that to happen, no matter which side of the fence we're standing on--or if we're wise enough to be straddling it.

Princess Anne's soapbox is ready for the next speaker who dares climb up on it.

To learn more:

Read about World Horse Welfare's stance on horse slaughter in Europe.

Royal Family Fairy Tale as Britain?s Princess Anne Adopts a Horse in Need

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