Article written by Hazel Arnold.
In April 2017 my partner Ian and I started talking about a road trip across Europe taking in France, Spain and Italy on his motorbike; an old Honda vfr800.
We started our adventure in early September and as a trustee of Charity Needs Foundation, an organisation that promotes, markets and profiles the voluntary sector, we decided our trip would be a great opportunity to help charities on the way. We did some research and found an organisation called “Italian Horse Protection” (IHP), and then emailed them to see if we could help in any way, as horses have always been a great passion of mine.
Sonny, the founder, was more than happy to receive our visit which was an hour away from one of the places where we were staying in Florence, Italy. We headed off early with bright blue skies above us and whizzed along the motorway until the sat nav directed us towards the town of Montaione. We passed through beautiful sceneries of rolling hills in the heart of Tuscany with olive tree groves and vineyards giving us a real taste of the country.
Eventually we found IHP and rode up on the bike to ring the bell at the gate, but Sonny was already there to greet us and made us feel very welcome. After the bike was parked, Sonny sat us down in his office and made us feel comfortable with a well needed drink — a tasty, refreshing carton of juice. Although the time was only 10:30 temperatures were rising and we had to get out of our motorbike gear which we still had on.
We were now ready to talk and I asked Sonny about his story and this is what he told us.
He had been volunteering for the LAV (Lega Anti Vivisezione) League, Italy's most important animal rights association, holding various positions since 1999, including becoming a member of the board and responsible for equines. Just to be clear, non-profit organisations and charities in Italy are known as associations. It was through being a board member of this association, that Sonny realised how major associations do not know how to approach the horsey world which is very closed to outsiders and technical to understand. If not known from the inside, there would be no way of knowing how to help horses from the outside. Given his learned insight, Sonny now helps horses through IHP, but before setting up the association, he tried to push LAV into doing more to protect horses, achieving few results.
Sonny worked in the banking industry before he decided on a complete life change in 2007 to work with his passion in the welfare of horses, however, his banking career skills are not wasted, as they have become essential in running IHP cost effectively.
Sonny started working with horses when he was 25 years old by learning to ride through traditional riding school methods, and eventually went on to own a horse with behavioural problems, buying the horse in fear he would be taken to a slaughter house. Sonny became fascinated by his horse’s temperament and behaviour which went on to change his point-of-view about keeping horses; ownership of a horse was just about riding, grooming and stabling.
He approached his horse in the way he had been taught through the riding school and also sought to put into practice advice he got from someone supposedly experienced in dealing with problem horses. The advice, however, turned out to be a disaster, so Sonny went on to use techniques that were more in tune with the horse’s psychology and his own intuition, finally achieving his goal and gaining a loyal friend.
Although Sonny still owns him today and used to ride him, his horse has now reached the late twenties and is retired. Sonny no longer rides any horses and much prefers working with them from the ground. Owning his own horse gave Sonny an opportunity to get involved with the organisation Fondazione Flaminia da Filicaja in 2009, run by the original founders, a husband and wife, who sadly split up. This meant someone was needed to look after the horses. Sonny took on the task and did so for a year before he co-launched IHP out of that association to what it is today.
In the early days of IHP, Sonny traveled to the UK to learn some core principles of protecting and caring for horses from the UK’s largest horse sanctuary, Red Wings. He also established good contacts with World Horse Welfare because Italy did not have anything like these organisations when IHP started. These contacts are still in place today.
Over the years IHP have grown into an amazing association, but their horses were grazing on rented land, albeit, rent-free. Unfortunately, this rent-free land was taken back by the owner in 2014 forcing them to move the horses a short distance of 8 kilometres to another private landowner where they are now, but it is not ideal because there is an expensive rent to pay.
Sonny took up the offer because the land had good fencing around the perimeter and of all the options available, it proved to be the best at the time, however, IHP are actively seeking new pastures.
The current situation, understandably, makes Sonny nervous that IHP can be asked to leave at any time, so the fact he is in talks with a Dutch company (an international tourist agency) that are interested in providing pastures for IHP’s horses within over 1500 acres of land that they own, is a nail biting proposition. The company bought the property over 10 years ago and has completely rebuilt the area to attract tourists from all over the world and Sonny says the area is fantastic now. The offer will give IHP three times more land than they currently occupy. If they get it — we’ll keep you updated on that.
IHP is the only equine rescue association in Italy and is officially recognised by the Ministry of Health according to Law 189 of 2004 — Mistreatment of Animals. The Ministry has a special list of associations authorised to keep animals under requisition or confiscated, which can be wild animals, birds etc., but IHP are the only association that deals with equines. Although this is the case they get no government funding to help with their cause, leaving them to rely totally upon donations. Even though there are laws to protect animals from abuse in Italy, there remains little knowledge of how horses should be kept.
Italy is said to be one of the worst places that equines can find themselves, as it is the European country that slaughters the largest number of horses every year. Huge numbers are imported live from abroad, especially Eastern Europe and other countries such as Spain and France.
In 2016, 50,000 horses were slaughtered in Italy, much of which got consumed as human food. There are two or three regions in the south and the north of Italy where people eat horse meat, in the south it's mainly Puglia and Sicily, in the north it’s Globadier, Millan, Veneto, Venice, Verona and a small section of Friuli. In other regions the consumption is almost zero.
Another reason for this high number is that it is so easy to send horses to slaughter houses and this is very useful for those in equestrian sports or those that use horses for racing etc., as sooner or later these horses are substituted through their loss of performance.
These problems are due to a lack of laws in Italy to protect horses.
With Italy being the EU country slaughtering the largest number of equines, ease of access to the slaughterhouses has to be tightened, to prevent exploitation of this loophole.
At the moment Italy have very general laws against the abuse of animals, so it is extremely difficult to make them applicable to equines as there are no parameters on how horses should be treated. As such, there are no consequences to those who mistreat equines. Horses have no particular recognition in Italy because they can be used for illegal racing, circuses and to profit the tourist industry. There is no real consideration for the animals needs within the above which then lead to their suffering and neglect.
A lot of horses that have been rescued have been neglected by people who either have little knowledge of how to keep them or lack funds to do so. IHP do eventually get permission to rescue these horses, but it is a constant battle to convince the authorities to support permission to requisition any neglected equines.
One of the main aims of the IHP is to change the attitude of their government and to bring in tougher laws.
Eventually someone reported the problem and IHP tried hard with the authorities to obtain the right to acquisition the neglected animals. Due to the lack of action and support from the authorities, IHP sought help from National TV and went back with a well known animal rights reporter. Thankfully it worked and IHP now care for four of the rescued horses, while other animals were taken by different organisations, or given to people willing to home them.
For example, one feared local man kept 200 horses, donkeys and cows in a pitiful state which resulted in some of the animals dying not far from where people live and children go to school.
Other aims of IHP is to report, investigate and rescue equines that are in need.
They often receive horses that are rescued by the police, even as far south as Sicily. On one occasion, the police arrived at IHP with a youngster by the name of, Lapo, that had been injured in illegal racing. Racing is quite common in Italy, and is normally ran by organised criminal gangs as a way of showing power.
Some of the horses that arrive have behavioural problems due to the violent treatment they've received, but IHP work towards helping them regain confidence and balance. This is one of Sonny’ strong points since he chose to focus his skills on working with horses that have behavioural problems.
IHP also run an adoption program and horses that have recovered can then go to good homes that have been thoroughly checked.
One of Sonny's future aims is to be able to employ someone to help with fundraising and office duties which would be of great benefit to IHP.
As the story unfolded I could only imagine how hard it must be for Sonny to be accountable for so many horses; 65 in total at a cost of 1500 euros per horse, per year. This can be more if the horse is badly injured needing to stay in the veterinary clinic at the time it is rescued.
I now wanted to see the horses for myself, so we left the office and walked into the fields. The owner of the land had a house here that he used for holidays, Sonny went onto explain the IHP also had use of a self- contained apartment that they use for volunteers at a very low cost per week. Any horse lovers who want to get away and spend time helping a great cause in the heart of Tuscany can steal themselves away there for a while.
Due the low rain fall at this time of year, the horses are fed on hay and hard feed if it's needed.
As we walked around the paddocks meeting the horses, one thing became clear, the horses were all so quiet and relaxed and were living as near to their natural state as possible.
In the wild horses live in herds and move around to find grazing, and although the horses weren't completely free, the paddocks were large enough with trees for shelter. The land where the horses lived wasn’t flat and the main paddocks had large hills, ideal for keeping up the horses fitness. We walked up one hill to meet another group of horses munching on their hay looking very happy and relaxed in the morning sun. Whilst we fussed and stroked them, I could see Sonny had such a natural way with horses. The two that came up to say hello to him is testament to his passion, Sonny has a keen interest in the science and psychological behaviour of horses and wants nothing more than seeing all horses being cared for and understood as the intelligent beautiful animals they are.
I noticed two grey horses apart from the group and asked Sonny about them, he went on to tell me that they were one of his first rescues. She was a mare called Pioggia and she was in foal, Sonny took her back to the sanctuary where she had a lovely colt; the foal is now an eight-year-old gelding and is the mascot of IHP. His name is Libero, which in Italian means free or freedom.
Standing amongst these horses and having the knowledge I have of them, it was a very special experience and made me feel elated knowing that they were happy and liberated in this environment.
We walked down the hill to the last field and as we walked Sonny and I continued talking about individual horses and his concerns of government policies and the widespread poor treatment of such wonderful animals. There were a group of at least fifteen horses that were relaxed, munching on the hay, so we walked over to meet them. They were happy for us to be there and wander around them which just heightened their natural inquisitiveness to come and say hello before they started to move off. Sonny told me that they had water on the other side of the trees and this is where they were headed as the weather was very hot by now. I could have stayed and observed them for the rest of the day, spending time wandering in this peaceful place amongst these amazing creatures. It certainly helps to quieten the mind.
As we walked towards the first paddock there were about eight horses of varying size, two of which were blind, but they both had other horses to guide them around. The shelter that was on the edge of the paddock was being cleared out by Vito, a Nigerian man who works with IHP, but gets paid a small wage by the government to help him settle in Italy.
Go there and you will meet different characters like Libero and his mum. Bardo, a Hinny male horse, and although small, he is the boss of his field. He even has a female donkey in his crew.
With so many horses to get to know, it will take a while to remember them all. You can always find a favourite and enter the adopt a horse scheme, there is an online shop which you will find on the IHP website.
If there was more awareness made in the horsey community alone and we all made a small contribution, then it would make a massive difference to Sonny, the IHP and, of course, the horses. Why not go see for yourself, volunteer to help at the centre and witness the amazing work that Sonny is doing. He is a truly remarkable individual that has incredible determination.
IHP make a real difference with the unique work they carry out, so it’s crucial that they get the much needed support they are seeking that is so important to the equine world in Italy.
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Head/Cover picture by Ian Russell (charityneeds.com)
Article written by Hazel Arnold
Released 1st November 2017 at 00:00.
Modified — Never
Credits from CNF:
- For CNF’s photographic needs:
Martin Carpintero of CVP.com who was first to offer a needed camera for Charity Needs' future feature articles.
Dan Leggett and Raj Khepar (from Canon) at Jessops in Brighton who also helped the charity with this equipment.
Plus, Clock Tower Cameras, Brighton who offered a needed accessory at cost.
Thanks guys for helping Charity Needs grow into the future to promote essential campaigns.
- Ian Russel: Thanks for taking time out of your European road trip, stopping off to take pictures at The Italian Horse Protection Association. Great images. We know your no professional photographer, but we think you got some great images, thanks.
- Hazel Arnold: Thanks for spending your free time delivering this article, we know you're not a professional writer, but we think you did a wonderful job, every bit as good as a professional.
- Sonny: Thanks for giving us your time and your story. Anyone wishing to can contact Sonny here: (horseprotection.it/contatti.asp)