All parts of the equine industry must work together in efforts to remove the hurdles impeding the transport of horses and equestrian goods between Britain and the European Union, according to speakers at the 29th National Equine Forum on 4 March 2021.
The changed arrangements since the UK left the trading bloc on 1 January are causing delays and increased costs that threaten the domestic industry’s biggest overseas market. But if these problems continue, they may also produce unacceptable equine welfare issues and cause irreparable damage to the future of UK equestrian sport, the speakers suggested.
Three speakers, representing different parts of the equine sector, described the effects of the post Brexit arrangements on their businesses. Claire Williams, executive director of the British Equestrian Trade Association, suggested that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed between the UK and EU at the end of December 2020 was “not the Christmas present that our people were wishing for”.
Brexit: government, trade, transport, events and welfare
The export trade in equine equipment, feed etc is worth around £500,000 a year with half of that revenue coming from the EU. But the new arrangements impose a massive increase in bureaucracy which have increased the time and cost of shipping goods to Europe. She feared that higher costs along with the unreliability of deliveries may force many customers to look elsewhere.
Henry Bullen is a director of Peden Bloodstock which manages the transport of sporting horses to events across the globe. He said the UK’s departure has produced a huge increase in the paperwork needed to import and export horses and there is often confusion between different officials over these requirements. Delays of several hours while horses are held at the dockside have become commonplace – this situation is unsatisfactory now but could imperil the welfare of the animals later in the year when temperatures are higher, he warned.
Simon Brooks-Ward, chief executive of events organiser the HPower Group said international sporting events provided a shop window for the UK’s £8 billion equine industry. If the problems already described are not addressed, it is unlikely that European competitors will want to appear at UK events and talented British riders may decide to move their horses permanently abroad. He urged the UK equine industry to come together to campaign for more seamless export arrangements and to hire professional lobbyists to persuade UK and EU ministers to treat the equine sector as a political priority.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble, parliamentary under secretary of state, Defra, insisted that Brexit has provided opportunities to improve welfare standards for all domestic livestock. One key government priority will be to end the trade in live animals for slaughter abroad. The 2020 Agriculture Act, which he guided through the House of Lords, demonstrated the government’s vision for the rural economy. It included provisions for safeguarding the future of Britain’s native breeds and providing more opportunities for people to enjoy participation in equestrian activities.
National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters said the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit has encouraged more people to spend their leisure hours in the countryside. Her organisation welcomed this and the opportunities that it may provide for diversifying farm incomes. However, this could be a double-edged sword if visitors do not understand how to behave around livestock. Farmers across the country are reporting increasing problems with loose dogs and she recounted how she found a walker on her land giving a cheese and tomato sandwich to one of her rams. The farming and equestrian industries will have a shared interest in promoting a better understanding of the countryside code, she said.
Equality, diversity and inclusion
Another session at the event looked at the efforts to broaden participation in equine activities among people from currently under-represented groups such as those from ethnically diverse communities.
Jess Cook, chair of the equality engagement group at British Equestrian, noted that it was illegal under the 2010 Equality Act to discriminate against or treat anyone unfairly on the basis of certain personal characteristics, such as ethnic origin, gender, sexuality, disability, age. It was a cause for concern that there was such limited involvement of many groups referenced within the act in the equine industry.
Two members of the BAME Equine and Rural Activities Focus Group (BERF) described some of the positive actions being undertaken to address this imbalance. The group’s founder and chairperson Sandra Murphy reported on plans for the proposed BAME Rural Activities Centre of Excellence in Lincolnshire which will provide residential training for members of minority communities in equine management, and related areas such as veterinary and farriery services.
Meanwhile, veterinary surgeon and BERF committee member Navaratnam Partheeban noted the need for better information on the factors shaping the involvement of members from ethnically diverse communities in the sector. He hopes to offer some guidance on providing a more welcoming environment for people from ethnically diverse backgrounds on completion of the Nuffield Farming Scholarship he is undertaking, entitled ‘Encouraging and supporting an ethnically diverse workforce in the agricultural, farming and veterinary sector’.
Rose Grissell, head of diversity and inclusion for British racing, pointed out that as well as there being a moral and legal obligation to support equality there was a sound economic case for doing so. For the future health of the sport, it is imperative to engage a wider, more diverse audience of supporters, as customers who will come or bet on racing, as owners and as employees and the sport’s future leaders.
Imran Atcha demonstrated that anyone with a passion for working with horses can achieve their goals with determination, energy and a little luck. He grew up as part of the Asian diaspora in inner city Gloucester, a deprived area with many of the social problems common to other much larger cities. After developing an interest in riding and caring for horses, he has created the St James City Farm Riding School which provides children from the local community with opportunities to encounter and interact with ponies. He was able to raise funds and support from influential local bodies like Hartpury College to help build a facility with seven stables and an all-weather arena.
Digital data collection
This year’s NEF also looked at the increasing influence of digital data collection and storage on all owners of livestock. Britain has developed a world leading system for recording data on cattle, sheep and pigs, Simon Hall, programme director of the Livestock Information Programme told the meeting.
This was a joint initiative between government and the livestock industry to provide accurate up-to-date information which will be essential for strategic purposes, such as disease monitoring and control. But by providing whole life data on each individual animal, it will also be a valuable source of commercially valuable performance data, he said.
The Livestock Information Programme has been developed to unify and digitise databases for cattle, sheep and pigs and Equine Register (provider of the Central Equine Database) has been assisting with its delivery. Equine Register’s chief executive Stewart Everett explained the benefits to horse owners of being able to keep their information up to date through the Digital Stable using its smartphone app and that the move to digital management of horse data is a global precedent. Accurate central information will not only help in tracing animals that have been lost or stolen but also build robust structures to support enforcement, movements and surveillance.
Continuing the work of the AHT
Since the last NEF meeting the equine sector has lost one of its most valuable and trusted sources of information on animal disease with the closure of the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. In his round up of the current activities of the British Horse Council, its chairman David Mountford said that his organisation was working with various other equine bodies in the UK and abroad to ensure that the vital services provided by the AHT would continue in some form. This was particularly urgent in view of the concerns about the rapid spread of equine herpesvirus 1 (EHV-1) in Europe.
Benefits of novel technologies
Although the technologies used in equestrian sport may appear ageless, there is always scope for innovation to improve the comfort of the human participant and the welfare and performance of their horse.
Dr Russell MacKechnie-Guire, director of Centaur Biomechanics, described his research into developing better fitting saddles, girths and bridles. He said that novel technologies such as advanced pressure sensors and high-speed cameras were allowing him and his colleagues to analyse the forces imposed on the horse by the rider and the tack that they use. He said this information will support riders to choose equipment that will allow them “to optimise equine health, comfort, welfare and performance”.
Health and safety on the roads
The health and safety of both rider and horse was also a concern of Alan Hiscox, director of safety at the British Horse Society. He updated colleagues from across the equine industry on progress with the BHS’s Dead Slow Campaign aimed at reducing the number of road traffic accidents involving horses. The society was also working with the Department of Transport on a proposed review of the Highway Code which would give clearer guidance to motorists on how they should approach and overtake a horse and rider on the road.
What can happen when things go wrong was explained to the online audience by Amy McKinnon who was riding on a bridleway that crosses a busy road near her home in Sussex when her horse Rambo was spooked by the sound of a motorcycle. Rambo darted into the road and was struck by a car driven by Sadie Jeater. Although both horse and rider suffered serious injuries, they are now fully recovered. Amy’s mother Gaynor McKinnon emphasised that no blame could be levelled at either driver or rider, although better signage and maintenance of the hedge beside the bridleway would have improved visibility and reduced the risk of similar incidents.
Summary of special interest webinars
This year’s NEF meeting was very different from all previous events in being an online meeting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as well as creating major challenges for the organising team, it also provided opportunities to explore different ways of providing information to participants. As well as the main event, the committee arranged two subsidiary meetings this year exploring the role of technology in safeguarding the future of Britain’s native pony breeds and addressing the growing threat of obesity to the country’s equine population.
Professor Tim Morris, vice chair of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust provided a summary of the first of those two special interest webinars held on 13 January. Professor Pat Harris, director of science at MarsTM Horsecare described the key findings from the second event on 27 January and social scientist Dr Tamzin Furtado issued a call to action for horse owners and professionals to say what they plan to do to help address the obesity epidemic.
The event’s patron HRH The Princess Royal then provided a summary of the day. In her concluding remarks, The Princess Royal also noted the potential health and welfare issues that might have arisen in horses as a result of the efforts to contain the human disease: “What has been hugely encouraging from today was that there is so much going on … and people have understood what was needed and tried to make sure that as far as the animals are concerned, their lives have continued pretty well unaltered.”
Special Covid-19 Sir Colin Spedding award
The meeting closed with the announcement of the winner of the Special Covid-19 Sir Colin Spedding award to Claire Williams for her tireless efforts which helped equine merchants to stay open and continue providing a service to horse owners during the worst of the pandemic.
The replay of NEF21 is available until Sunday 28 March 23:59 BST at a cost of £10 per person. Those who registered for the live event will be able to register for the replay free of charge – they will have received an email from Eventbrite giving details of how to access the replay.
Picture courtesy of Craig Payne Photography and Redpin Publishing