“Pony painting” parties, which see children decorate horses with edible colouring, are the latest trend to be targeted by animal rights activists.
Sophie Tomlinson, from Manchester, launched a petition on August 6 calling for an end to the “disturbing” craze, and within four days it had received more than 18,000 signatures.
The campaigner said she decided to take action after a friend shared photos of the pony parties on Facebook.
The original post read: “It teaches us to objectify and use. It teaches us that if human animals are being made to feel happy, we can disregard the non-human animals. It’s disgusting, disrespectful and unjust.”
The post was shared more than a thousand times, and has almost two thousand comments.
The animal rights group PETA UK said parents needed to be reminded that ponies and horses “aren’t party props”, and said they were part of a “distrubing trend popping up all over the UK”.
But Michelle Inch, CEO of Equidivine, a company that sells grooming products for horses and who says she invented the paints seven years ago, said: “They’re made of salt and corn-starch, there’s nothing in them that wouldn’t be in horse food.”
“In all my years I’ve never had one allergic reaction from a horse.”
Meanwhile campaigners are claiming the practice is stressful for the horse and encourages children to treat animals as toys. Many of the comments posted on Facebook about pony painting were in favour of stopping the practice.
Lorraine Fell said: “Why would you do that? I’d have never let my daughter do that when she was little.
“No wonder there’s so much cruelty. This is teaching children how not to respect other animals, but to do with them as you please. No matter how frivolous or cruel.”
But Helen Preece disagreed. The owner of My Happy Equine, a company that offers the painting parties, said: “I find it sad that people have used all their energy on this petition when there are so many cruelty cases out there that need light shedding on them.”
She added: “The products are 100% non-toxic and are vegan-friendly.”
Lucy-Anne Petto, who works for Therapeutic Equine Assistance Learning (TEAL), which has worked with companies like My Happy Equine to offer therapeutic events for people with disabilities, says the horses she works with are free to join in the groups or stay in the barn, but 99% of the time, they will come out.
She said: “I’ve worked with adults who have anxiety and who are trying to overcome problems, the paints can be used alongside team-building activities with the horses, so express how the anxiety makes them feel, what it looks like, and physical representation that often helps.”
Inch said she has been “harassed” by animal rights activists for years.
“The police paint their horses, farmers paint their sheep, should we stop doing that as well,” she asked.
Dr Mark Kennedy, equine specialist at the RSPCA, said: “We do have concerns about events where horse and pony painting is used as entertainment.
“We understand children love getting close to animals but we would urge any such encounters to focus on fostering compassion towards animals and providing education about how to act safely around horses and ponies and meet their complex needs.”
He said if people are to attend parties with horses the animals must receive “plenty of breaks in a quiet place where they can rest undisturbed and be aware of signs that they are experiencing stress.
“People must always make sure any products used on their coats are non-toxic.”