Elaine Duffy and Holly: Holly's Horse Haven rescues up to four horses per week

An alarming number of horses are being abandoned in fields to starve and die because their owners have been hit by the recession, according to an animal sanctuary.

Holly's Horse Haven said it was rescuing up to four horses a week, many of which are in a life-threatening condition. Based in Omeath, Co Louth, the sanctuary is currently struggling to cope with 35 horses that are being slowly nursed back to health.

Elaine Duffy, who runs the sanctuary with her husband Joe, said: "The economic downturn has led to a massive increase in the number of animals being abandoned. Many horse owners are in the building trade which has been badly affected by the recession.

"There's a particular problem with syndicates because so many people are involved. When a horse is winning, everybody owns it. When it's not, nobody wants to know or to take responsibility and the poor animal is abandoned."

Duffy said that once owners decided they had no more use for a horse for racing or breeding purposes, putting the animal into livery stables could cost up to €120 a week, which many were unwilling to pay.

"The horses are now just being abandoned all over the countryside. The recent arctic weather conditions mean many are in a very distressed state. We have horses with pneumonia, respiratory infections and horribly damaged limbs because they've slipped in ice.

"They require critical care. We wrap them in horse blankets and put heat bulbs on and the vet draws up a recovery programme for them. Our aim is to rehabilitate the horses and resettle them in happy, loving homes.

"We have four horses waiting to go to good homes in England and there are 60 people wanting to rehouse horses on our waiting list. It's wonderful when horses survive and go on to be spoilt rotten by new owners."

Holly's Horse Haven opened two years ago when someone brought an abandoned horse and its yearling to Elaine Duffy's farm.

"Holly had been a brood mare in Newmarket before she was sold to owners in the south-east of Ireland. She was once valuable because she was out of the Northern Dancer/Nijinsky line but when she was 18-years-old her Irish owners decided they no longer wanted her.

"She was destined for the meat factory when someone brought her and her 18-month-old filly Rosie to us. Seeing these two shivering, emaciated creatures was heartbreaking. Holly had given her all to humans but, when humans thought her breeding days were done, she was abandoned without a second thought."

Duffy's husband, Joe, built a shelter in the old cow byre and Holly's Horse Haven was born. Holly had another abandoned daughter, three-year-old Trinny, who was also later rescued. The Duffys decided to breed one final foal from Holly. Last spring, Phoenix – a strong confident colt with dizzying speed – was born.

The couple are hoping to train Phoenix if they can find a racing stable to sponsor him. They have refused to part with Holly and her family, who are still housed at the sanctuary along with other early arrivals – Bea, an ex-racehorse abandoned in a west of Ireland bog; and Alfie, a donkey who was tied to the side of a mountain in freezing conditions with neither food nor water.

Suffering from double pneumonia and infected sores, he had to be fed baby milk every two hours to survive.

Elaine Duffy urged anyone who sees an abandoned horse to call gardaí, the PSNI, or an animal welfare organisation. She also appealed to owners with spare horse blankets to donate them to the centre.

www.hollyshorsehaven.com, telephone 086 8650360

Holly's Horse Haven will feature on 'Below the Radar' on BBC2 (NI) tomorrow at 7.30pm