It is estimated that around 850,000 horses and ponies live in the UK. The vast majority of these horses, by law, require a personalised, unique identity document known as a horse passport. In this article, we look at the reasons behind the passport scheme and which animals are included. As well as exploring which horses have been granted an exemption.  

Why are horse passports needed?

Passports are unique identity documents issued to all horses, by six months of age or before the end of November in the year of their birth. The horse is identified by means of a hand drawn silhouette and by the recording of their microchip number, which is inserted before the passport is issued. 

There are several benefits to the passport scheme. 

One of the most important is to allow the recording of any drugs that have been given to that animal. This is necessary to ensure that any of the small number of horses who will be slaughtered for human consumption have not been treated with any drugs that may harm the health of humans. If a veterinary surgeon needs to administer a drug such as phenylbutazone (commonly known as bute), that is NOT licenced for use in food producing animals, the vet must check that the owner has signed the passport to declare that the horse is not intended for human consumption. If the passport is unavailable to the veterinary surgeon at the time of treatment, they must only use drugs that are intended for food producing animals; as we are obliged to assume that the horse may enter the food chain. 

Any horses that receive drugs that are not licenced for use in food producing animals must be excluded permanently from human consumption. Complying with this legislation helps us to reduce the risk of a ban in the use of many very commonly used veterinary drugs. Although we as a nation eat very little horsemeat, horses are slaughtered in the UK for export of the meat or are exported for slaughter abroad. 

Passports allow us to identify individual animals, something that may be extremely important before sale or breeding. They also allow us to identify the owner of the animal. Although it should be noted that possession of the passport does not automatically confer ownership. 

All vaccinations are recorded on passports. These records are used to ensure all horses entering competitions or gatherings are fully vaccinated. This helps us to reduce the risk of outbreaks of diseases such as equine influenza.  

What happens if I don’t have a passport for my horse?

In 2004, legislation was introduced that required all horses in the UK to be issued with a passport. Later, in 2009, additional legislation was introduced which meant that any horses born during or after that year, had to have a microchip implanted before a passport could be issued. This was to assist with identification as it is very difficult to alter a microchip number. Most recently, in 2018, the legislation was updated to include compulsory microchipping for all horses, to include those born before 2009. At present, the list of eligible Equidae includes horses, ponies, donkeys, asses, mules, hinnies and zebras. Implantation of a microchip into a horse, unlike certain other pets, must be carried out by a veterinary surgeon. The vet implanting the microchip will usually complete the passport application paperwork at the same time. 

This passport stays with the horse for the duration of its life. It is transferred to a new owner upon the sale of an animal. The owner may be fined up to £5000 if they do not have a passport for their horse; or if they cannot present one when requested to do so. 

Are any horses exempt from the compulsory passport requirement?

As previously mentioned, legislation dictates that we must implant a microchip and complete a silhouette drawing to apply for a passport. The veterinary surgeon must examine the animal and will need to handle it to implant the microchip. It is not a particularly invasive process for animals that are used to being handled. But for those living under wild or semi-wild conditions, this may be extremely stressful. 

Within the UK there is a relatively small number of horses and ponies living in herds with minimal human intervention. The horse passport Regulations 2009 makes allowances for these closed herds. These horses are listed as those living in designated areas of defined populations. 

The herds identified as being exempt are those listed in the Dartmoor commoners council studbook; the Exmoor pony society records; the records of the Verderers of New Forest; the studbook of New Forest pony breeding and Cattle society; or the lists of the National trust in the case of the Konik equines. In Wales the Carneddau ponies are covered by the exemption. 

Being of one of these breeds alone is not enough to qualify for an exemption. The animals in question must be listed by the respective societies as living in a designated area without domestication. Any horse eligible for the exemption must be identified in one of these lists by six months of age or the 31st of December of its year of birth, whichever is later. 

The UK passport legislation allows an exemption for these animals for only as long as they remain in their designated areas and are not brought into domestic use. 

What happens if these exempt horses are sold or need veterinary treatment?

If an owner wishes to sell an animal, then it becomes necessary to formally identify that horse. In the New Forest for example, an owner may sell a foal listed as exempt, without a passport, if the foal has been born on the New Forest to a mare that has been living on these lands. And it is sold in its year of birth through the Beaulieu Road Sales, held in the New Forest. But, critically, they must be presented for sale with a completed passport application; so that when the foal is sold, the auctioneer must stamp a completed passport application. This is so that the pony is not sold without proper identification. The only exception to this is if the horse is less than a year old and is being sold directly for slaughter.

A horse may be moved temporarily for welfare reasons e.g. flooding of grazing, without formal identification. If the horse is to be moved away from the designated area permanently, for example in the case of a change of ownership, the animal must be first fitted with a dated identification sticker before being moved to a designated holding area, within seven days. This identifies the horse with a unique number and the date on which it was moved. They must not move from this first holding area until a microchip has been implanted and a passport has been applied for, within thirty days. 

If a horse needs veterinary treatment, this can be given in the absence of a passport. But legally the owner must ensure that the horse is identified and has a microchip implanted within thirty days of treatment. 

Why do these exemptions exist?

The passport legislation exemption means that wild or semi wild horses do not have to endure a period of handling to microchip them and complete passport applications. However, the legislation surrounding this exemption ensures that any horse who leaves this closed population is subsequently treated in a similar manner to all other Equidae in the UK. The ability to identify horses that have received drugs that are potentially damaging to human health means that we can continue to use these drugs in the population that will not enter the food chain. This is vitally important in preserving these drugs for Veterinary use. Which will ultimately allow us to continue to safeguard the long-term health and welfare of our horses. 

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