Fear and suffering at the Skaryszew horse market

"For the sake of the town’s humanity it’s time to get rid of the notorious horse traders." Jakub Szafrański visited the horse market in Skaryszew, here is his photo story.

It’s 3 a.m. Monday, February 19th. The temperature hovers just around -6°C. Dozens of vans wait on a road leading to Skaryszew. Lights flash between the cars. Each beam represents an animal rights activist checking drivers’ papers and vehicles. I’ve just arrived with Monika, Zuza, and Piotrek, three strangers who answered my call for a ride on Facebook a day before.

One of three queues leading to Skaryszew. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
„This van is properly adapted. It travels all around the Europe”- ensures owner. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

Smoke comes from the exhausts and white breaths from people mouths. Once in a while a grey cloud leaks from the back of the trucks followed by loud neighing and a compulsive banging.  There’s an overwhelming smell of sweat and excrement.

“Wstępy Skaryszewskie” dates back to the 16th century.

It will be two more hours before the police open the checkpoint leading to the marketplace. Once the biggest horse market in Europe, “Wstępy Skaryszewskie” dates back to the 16th century. The checkpoint is something absolutely new though.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

The checkpoint gives animal rights activists an opportunity to take a better look at the delivery vans that are being used to transport the horses. Many fail terribly to meet live animal transport regulations. The ones that break the rules must turn back, but some drivers try their luck at other points. However the activists are out in force. They exchange information on the color and plates of rejected cars and call the police if they see something off.

If asked, owner has to present how his horse run. Individuals from surrounding crowd yell, slap animals back or throw things to scare them. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

The horse sellers tend to be aggressive towards the activists. There’s name calling, threats, and sometimes an elbow to the face. Often the situation gets to a point where traders have to hold back their pissed off colleagues. Yet some come with whole families, stand aside, and let the inspections go on peacefully.

17 year old mare was just bought by an activist from south-eastern Poland. Horse will get a new name now and will spen the rest of it’s days in animal- asylium. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

The regulations are not harsh at all and easy to fulfil. One can even modify a standard van into an animal transport. By law, ventilation holes and a delivery ramp are all that’s required. But the rules don’t do enough to protect the animals. There are legal trucks here that squeeze five horses next to each other, forcing them to stand in their own excrement with bent necks for hours, struggling not to fall everytime the van moves.

The first edition where selling horses for meat is prohibited.

First-timers are shocked by the suffering, but a Centaurus Foundation veteran, who helps coordinate the inspections, tells me that today is nothing compared with what they witnessed when the campaign started almost 10 years ago. This year is the first edition where selling horses for meat is prohibited.

Country fair and whole identity of Skaryszew is built upon figure of horse. Common image of strong animal is in contrast to market reality. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

Big trucks carrying horses to slaughterhouses are being stopped by the road inspection. In the end, more than 70 trucks are turned away. It’s a success after years of tough, intense fighting. But the activists have no illusions: only minor, insignificant traders que now, the big deals are being made on the outskirts.

Volunteer inspector checking trucks. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

A group of 50 men immediately surround the trucks entering the market square. Some are potential buyers, but most are spectators. Everyone is excited and there’s a lot of  swearing, laughing, and repeated threats launched at the activists standing aside with cameras.

Unloading is a tense moment. The ramps are too steep and horses don’t want to go out into the darkness and raucous crowd. They have to be pushed and pulled with ropes tied to their lower jaws. They are taken to a 30-meter-long shed and tied to the barriers. 300 horses are unloaded this way; 500 less than year ago.

Traders from Poland and Romania are setting a deal. There are also Slovakians, Germans, Baltic countries and Balkan representatives present here tonight. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

After this maneuver, volunteers try to calm the horses down. Traders start to grab animals roughly and check teeth. Once in a while somebody will ask to see if an animal runs well. The owner will pull the horse around the shed provoking an explosion of excitement. Somebody slaps the animal’s back, another throws a snowball at it.

If activists happen to be around, they’ll start to protest. Traders only listen when talked to using their own way so there’s no place for courtesy. Monika gets surrounded by a group of men twice her size. They are quick to insult her, but she fights back and seconds later they beg her not to call the police.

Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

Soon after I meet up with Piotrek. He’s a professional Polo player who has been working with horses since childhood. He’s heard of Skaryszew’s cruelty for a while, but this is his first chance to check if the stories are true. He’s visibly angry. “I hate this people and this country! It’s always going to be like this,” he says.

He shows me horses whose tails have been wrapped in duct tape. One has just been shaved and nobody has even thought about putting a blanket on his back. He’s freezing to the bone. Piotrek has had enough and wants to leave.

For the sake of the town’s humanity it’s time to get rid of the notorious horse traders.

The market takes two days so there is still a lot to do. The animal rights movement is quite popular and their campaigns attract people with many different social and political views. Internal conflicts are quite common. Different foundations and individual activists have very different methodologies for dealing with the trade. They can be very critical of each other and always bicker about what is better for the horses.

One of the oldest carts in queue. Small and in bad shape. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

Tensions also arise from the money involved. Activists skrimp together funds to buy horses from the traders and pay for their upkeep in stables. There’s a lot of emotional conflicts around which horse to buy and for what price. Luckily that hasn’t stopped people from creating change that has significantly improved the whole event.

The unload is a most sensitive moment. After long legislatory fight ramps are now obligatory but most of them are made carelessly, too steep so horses try to jump over them hurting their legs. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.

The horse market is always accompanied by a country fair. Skaryszew’s main street is filled with stalls selling toys, tools, and traditional barbecue. It’s a holiday for the whole region, but I see no reason for the animals to be present anymore. There is no way to make the traders invest in proper transportation equipment, let alone change the way they treat animals. It’s a shame because it gives the town a bad name it doesn’t deserve.

Obvious example of insufficient ventilation. Some trucks have to wait up to 5 hours loaded. If something is wrong, they have to turn around and animals have to spend more time in harsh conditions. Photo by  Jakub Szafrański.

Skaryszew city centre shares architectural characteristics with other towns that had big Jewish populations before the Second World War . When I look at those buildings I instantly remember a thesis from a young Holocaust researcher, Professor Michał Bilewicz. His argument was that humans were able to accept the horrors of the Holocaust if they grew up accepting everyday cruelty towards animals. If he’s right, then for the sake of the town’s humanity it’s time to get rid of the notorious horse traders.

Some traders are agresive and often a police has to intervene. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Bits made of cheap rope hurt animals mouth making it obedient. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
There are three sheds on a market square: sparate for stallions, mares, ponys and geldings. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
First day of market is for utility horses or cold-blooded as they are called. Sport and recreational ones are being sold on second day. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
This year is first time when sell of meat-horses is strictly forbidden. Some activists warn me to look for cheap, rope bridles that can suggest sellers bad, hidden intentions. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Most animals are ised to presence of people they know but visitors to the market are far too many. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Activist comforting the horse. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Traders checking horse teeth. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
1:25 A.M Activists look for vans without vantilation or unloading ramps. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Marcin „Różal” Różalski was a leading polish MMA fighter. Now he is respected horse and dog rescuer and animal-rights ambassador. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.
Activist surounded by angry mob of traders. Photo by Jakub Szafrański.


Jakub Szafrański
Jakub Szafrański is a journalist, photographer, and member of the Krytyka Polityczna club in Lublin.