Without any question the biggest equestrian news story of the year so far has surrounded the well-known Irish race horse trainer, Gordon Elliott.

Banned by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) for 12 months, with the last six months suspended, Elliott has also been ordered to pay costs of €15,000 after being found guilty of bringing the sport into disrepute.

This judgement followed the publication of a photograph on social media of Elliott making a telephone call and gesturing to the camera as he rested on the body of a dead race horse which apparently had succumbed to a heart attack while out exercising.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) followed the IHRB race ban, which means that Elliott missed this week's Cheltenham Festival and will miss the prestigious Grand National. However, the horses he trains will be able to compete in Britain if they are transferred directly to other licensed trainers before Elliott's suspension started on March 9.

Needless to say, the photograph in question went viral on social media platforms and horse lovers across the globe concurred with the IHRB statement that the photo showed 'appalling bad taste' and a 'complete absence of respect' for the horse.

It would appear that Elliott regretted the hurt he had caused to those around him and took full responsibility for his actions. He has accepted the punishment and would not appeal.

We are unlikely to see him near a race course during his term of punishment, however that is unlikely to be the case at his training yard, where fellow Co Meath trainer, Denise Foster, has taken over the licence during Elliott's suspension and by the ruling, can take his horses to Cheltenham.

Elliott is reported to have commented that he had 'been disrespectful to a dead horse, an animal that had been a loyal servant to me and was loved by my staff.'

Significantly, he didn't say that it was loved by him, something which horse lovers must feel hard to accept. But accept it they must, for horses – like the dead one – are simply commodities in the eyes for some within the racing industry.

I'd like to think that this represents a minority view and the majority of trainers and people within the industry do genuinely love their horses. However, it has, nevertheless, ignited once more the welfare issues surrounding the racing industry which is highlighted by the alarming high number of equine casualties the sport experiences both on and off the track.

More generally, for some it rekindles the argument against using animals for sport and financial gain.

There is no question in my mind that race horses are well looked after for this is in the vested interests of owner and trainer alike. Additionally, they are loved by their grooms and work riders otherwise they wouldn't work for little money and long hours if they didn't.

As for trainers, I think most of them are true 'horsey' people with a love for equines, however, there are bound to be exceptions and as for owners, the verdict is out for me especially when it comes to the large syndicates who are involved in the sport for reasons best known to themselves.

If owing a bridle as well as horse is a mark of an owner's true interest in the equine, I suspect few own one which tells its own story.

There is some speculation that the publication of the photograph was part of a personal attack on Elliott. Only a few days after its appearance, a photograph capturing a jockey sitting aboard another dead horse endorsed the fact that uncaring and ignorant people at all levels are around us.

Both images have been highly distressing to a very large number of people and so significant that they made it to the headlines of national news.

However, is there a welfare issue at stake here? Since welfare issues generally surround live animals, I'd find it hard to make the case.

By any standards, 43-year-old Elliott has exceptional talent as a trainer having taken out his trainer's licence in 2006 following his retiral the previous year as a very successful point-to-point and National Hunt jockey.

Coming from a non-horsey family in Co Meath, he entered the racing world at the age of 13, working for trainer, Tony Martin, at weekends and holidays before taking out a licence as an amateur jockey when he was sixteen.

Elliott extended his experience with a year under the 'master' trainer, Martin Pipe, whose knowledge has been pivotal in Elliott's success.

In 2007, he become the youngest ever trainer to win the Grand National – a victory he repeated in 2018 and 2019 with Tiger Roll. He has also enjoyed special victories at the Cheltenham Festival with a Gold Cup win in 2016 and was top trainer there in 2017 and 2018.

Since 2011, his horses have been based at Cullentra House Farm, Longwood, Co Meath, where he has developed an outstanding training facility with accommodation for over 200 horses.

His stable included a substantial number from the O'Leary brothers' (of Ryanair fame) Gigginstown House Stud, whose horse, Morgan, appeared in the photograph.

Despite being disappointed by the unacceptable photo, it would appear that the stud will stand by Elliott. Does this not tell its own story about the stud’s attitude towards its horses?

Not so for the Chevely Park Stud's leading horses which have already moved to other yards for the rest of the season and the Cheltenham Festival.

It scarcely seems like 12 months when the Festival controversially went ahead in 2020, despite the news of the Covid-19 virus having arrived on British shores. As it happened, concerns were well founded as news of infections linked to the meeting were recorded in the weeks and months following.

It will be a much different race meeting this year as it takes place behind closed doors, but better that than not at all as many equestrian activities have suffered.

The severe lock-down restrictions had done much to bring equestrian competition to a standstill in Scotland over recent months, however there good news emerged at the end of last week as the Scottish Government rolled out out plans to further ease restrictions.

The updated guidance (March 11) by sportscotland provided a guide to enable Scottish governing bodies of sport to develop sport-specific guidance for the return to sport and physical activity.

As mentioned in a previous column, horsescotland has played a pivotal roll in providing equestrian guidance throughout the pandemic and needless to say within hours of the sportscotland guidance being made available, its education and development manager, Fiona Rawson, had updated the horsescotland guidance which was approved by government within a 24-hour period.

Horsescotland chair, Grant Turnbull, was full of praise for the hard work underpinning this quick response and stated that he was 'delighted to see activity again opening up for the equestrian community in Scotland.' He urged competitors 'to work with us (horsescotland), member bodies and the wider community to ensure progression is speedy and continuous.'

With a range of restrictions lifted at various levels for a wide range of age groups, he personally believed that further relaxation measures were likely to be accelerated and that Scotland's riders can look forward to much greater freedom in the not too distant future.

Let's hope so.

(Full details of the new rules are available on the horsescotland website and Facebook page or, indeed, on the official sportscotland website.)