A WOMAN has told how her horse had to be put down after it was spooked by a low-flying hot-air balloon in Henley.
Liz Jones, 52, was in a field with her thoroughbred mare Della at Friar Park Stables in Gravel Hill when the red Virgin balloon passed low overhead after aborting a landing at Henley Rugby Club on Saturday evening.
As the pilot fired up the burners to rise, the roar caused the 18-year-old horse to bolt and she fell to the ground. Seven other horses in adjoining fields began to stampede.
Della, who was already unwell, was unable to get up and a vet from Aylesbury was called. As the mare could not be saved, the vet administered a lethal injection.
Mrs Jones, of St Mark’s Road, criticised the balloon pilot, saying he shouldn’t have used the burners when that low over livestock.
She said: “The recommended minimum height is 500ft around livestock but this was hovering at about two or three times the height of the town hall when it came over the field. It had been even lower than that beforehand.”
She said there was a “massive roar” as the flames came out of the gas canisters to make the balloon rise.
“Horses are flight animals — such a sight and sound will immediately put them into a panic,” she said. “It is pure instinct.”
Mrs Jones, an accountant for Henley Town Council, said she had been in a hot-air balloon that launched from Henley Rugby Club and travelled over Remenham and Crazies Hill but her pilot had been sympathetic to livestock.
She said: “There are a lot of studs around there but the pilot was very mindful of where the livestock was.
“He didn’t put on the burners as we went over the horses so they weren’t disturbed at all. That’s what these pilots should be doing.”
Ruth Lovejoy, who owns the stables, was at home watching TV when she noticed the balloon flying low. She ran outside knowing Della would be in danger but could not prevent her from falling over.
She said: “I looked outside because the dogs started barking. The balloon must have been low for me to have seen it through my window.
“It was much lower than it should have been and the burners made a hell of a loud noise.
“The other horses were just going round and round frightened to death. Any of them could have panicked and speared themselves on the fence or broken their limbs.”
The low-flying balloon was seen as it went over the town and many people took pictures of it on their phones.
One woman who saw it said: “I was with a friend and we both stopped to see if the balloon was in any trouble as it seemed too low in the sky.
“The pilot tried to use the burner but it was descending fairly rapidly and wasn’t gaining any height.
“It dropped down behind the houses so it was difficult to tell what happened next but other people were stopping and staring and expecting an impact.
“I couldn’t say exactly how high it was but it wasn’t much higher than the rooftops of the houses along Hart Street.”
Mrs Jones, who is married to Howard, 53, an IT consultant, with two children had owned the 15.3-hand bay mare for eight years.
The animal had been unwell for five days due to a complication of the central nervous system, which made her weak and unstable on her feet. She was put out in the field on the advice of a vet and her owner hoped she would recover after a quiet night.
Mrs Jones said: “Her chances were 50-50 if she had got through the night but I was deprived of the hope that she might survive.”
She said her horse had been a massive part of her life and her daughter, Kathryn, 23, was “devastated”.
She said: “I’ve always been into horses and I would go out to see Della twice a day.I rode three or four times a week and Kathryn used to ride her before she went to university.
“You can develop a very strong bond with a horse. She was a really sweet, friendly and special horse to me. It feels like a member of my family has died.”
A spokeswoman for Virgin Balloon Flights said: “One of our balloons took off from Chiltern Airfield carrying 16 passengers on Saturday evening travelling east.
“Unlike other forms of aviation, balloons travel on the direction of the wind and do not have designated places to land but are permitted to use open spaces and grassed areas.
“After a pleasant flight over the Chiltern Hills of the usual hour’s duration, the experienced pilot initially selected regular landing spot Henley Rugby Club to bring down the balloon.
“However, for safety reasons, due to wind speed, the pilot decided not to complete this landing and continued to fly until performing a normal and upright landing at Park Place estate.
“The balloon was legally permitted to be below 1,000ft as it was on approach to landing.
“We are very sorry to hear about this sad event. Unfortunately, this area was not marked as a sensitive area on the ballooning maps and is used as a regular launching and landing spot for balloons, with no previous incident.
“This area will now be marked as a sensitive area so balloonists are aware of it.”