Remember remember the 5th of November, when Britain’s most controversial pub chain stages a massive firework display in the middle of fields full of horses. I get the feeling that if my local were any other pub owned by any other chain, the fact that dozens of horse owners have been ringing up to plead with them not to go ahead would result in us being listened to.
But Greene King is not just any pub chain. Google it and you will find that the comments on both TripAdvisor and employment websites like Glassdoor — in which former workers swap stories — are quite extraordinary.
What should we expect, therefore, when every year one of their ‘gastropubs’ stages a truly stupendous bonfire night, with a giant bonfire and a 15-minute professional fireworks display, right next to livestock?
Just across the hedgerow, a few feet away from where they light the fireworks, are fields full of horses. In one field there are mares in foal. In another, two mares and their little foals at foot. In another are my horses and my friends’ horses. Right next door to the pub are two livery yards housing upwards of two dozen more horses.
When the fireworks go off, all the horses go ballistic in the fields and in the stables. Because of the risk of injury, owners go to huge lengths to try to keep them safe. Some owners call out vets (at weekends this means a double charge) to administer sedations. But in the fields, we can’t sedate because that makes injury more likely. A horse must not be made drowsy if it is to gallop around a field, or it will fall and hurt itself.
So we stand with them, attempting to reassure them as they race backwards and forwards trembling from head to foot.
We dread many outcomes, but possibly the worst thing we can imagine is a horse busting through a fence in terror causing a pile-up on the roads. This year, with Darcy in her field on her own, I decided enough was enough. I asked around and other owners had had enough too. We decided to take a stand. I assumed there was legislation that might help us.
To my amazement, I found the law was on our side. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, causing ‘unnecessary suffering to any captive or domestic animal’ is illegal — surely this includes setting off fireworks near horses in fields or stable yards.
I was relieved. But when I contacted Greene King they were unimpressed. They informed me that having carried out a risk assessment they were going ahead.
So I rang Surrey Police. They were sympathetic. But the problem was, they didn’t know how to enforce the law. They told me they were passing the matter to their rural team and suggested we also try the RSPCA.
A friend rang them and was told they couldn’t do anything until a horse was injured. If a horse broke a leg during the fireworks, and if we videoed it happening, they could then prosecute Greene King for causing unnecessary suffering to animals.
But what, my friend asked, can the law do to prevent our horses’ being injured? The answer was not much.
In the field next to my girl, where there are eight mares only feet away from the staging area — so close, in fact, that the fireworks casings have landed on top of horses in previous years — the owner began evacuating. His herd of mares were split up, calling to each other, and loaded into lorries to be driven away to alternative accommodation at great expense.
I decided I had to move Darcy. It just wasn’t worth the risk. Last year she was with Tara the old chestnut mare and Gracie. They all clung together for support. But she wouldn’t cope alone. I would ride her to the builder boyfriend’s stable yard on the afternoon before the fireworks and box her next to his cobs. It was still close, but down in a dip, so the sound would be muffled.
‘We’re going for a stopover with Jimmy and Duey,’ I told Darcy. And it was a good thing too, for then an email came with the official response of Greene King:
‘We completely understand your concerns about the proximity of the fireworks to nearby horses. Now that you have shared your concerns with us, we are speaking to the fireworks company to make sure that they’re taking all precautions in terms of positioning of the fireworks to ensure that they are not sent in the direction of any animals in the vicinity.’ In other words, please explain to your horses that although it looks and sounds like they are being blown up on a battlefield, as the shell casings will not be landing on them, they should take a chill pill and think themselves lucky.