Threats to industry sustainability in the spotlight at 30th National Equine Forum

Grave threats to sustainability within the equestrian sector, from workforce challenges to growing resistance to de-wormers, were in the spotlight at the 30th National Equine Forum (NEF), held in London on 3 March 2022.

In the presence of royalty plus governmental, veterinary, educational, charity and equestrian association representatives, a prestigious panel of speakers also discussed the EU, UK, Northern Ireland and Irish equine status post Brexit, equestrian safety, infectious disease surveillance and grass sickness. A special historical review was included to celebrate the Forum’s 30th birthday, and the memorial lecture also explored the advances in equine breeding over the past 30 years.

The event was live streamed around the world with virtual viewers including delegates from the USA, Japan, Israel and continental Europe.

“It was a joy to return to a face-to-face event this year,” said Tim Brigstocke, Chair of NEF. “The atmosphere was vibrant, the debate stimulating and the quality of presentations outstanding. We have already received highly complementary feedback from delegates, and we are delighted that no one needs to miss out as the entire event is now available to view via playback.”

Workforce sustainability in the equine sector

Chaired by James Hick, Chief Executive of The British Horse Society and NEF Committee Member, this session highlighted the alarming problems facing the UK’s workforce given that the supply of employees was not meeting the demand of employers. The session covered how positive changes had been made in the Thoroughbred Industry, supported by the British Horseracing Authority’s Careers in Racing initiative, and concluded that the sector needed to work together to offer more attractive employment in order to have a sustainable workforce.

A quick audience poll indicated that 75% of those who responded learnt to ride at a riding school which highlighted the growing problem outlined by James Hick, of riding school staff shortages coupled with an increased demand for riding lessons.

Alison Window, Owner and Proprietor at Mount Mascal Stables, and Ben Mitchell-Winter, BHS Coach and General Manager at Littlebourne Equestrian Centre, went on to present their views with Alison stating that the current situation was ”pretty catastrophic”, finding and retaining workers was very problematic and demand was exceeding the supply of yard and teaching staff. She explained that they have many people wanting to learn to ride but “without the workforce we have no business”.

Ben added that the industry needed to make riding centres more appealing to staff to keep the talent “at home” and avoid good staff moving abroad to work.

Lucy Katan, Executive Director of the British Grooms Association and Equestrian Employers Association, spoke about the view from the ground up, stating that the equine industry had been identified as a low payer. She said that the rise in the minimum wage in April would have an impact on businesses, with the associated concern that this could lead to sub-standard conditions for staff. She suggested that more creativity about recruiting staff and around the working practices of yards was needed to help improve recruitment and retention. “To have a sustainable industry we must ensure that good practice is the norm,” she said.

Linda Greening, Head of Inclusivity at Hartpury University, addressed the importance of taking an inclusive approach to recruitment and retention. She said that while the industry was doing well with LGBTQ+ and equality of gender, it was less open to cultural diversity. She added that ignoring racism was not the same as taking an active anti-racism stance and that we needed to open up to wider local communities and people from diverse backgrounds, listen to their needs and make people feel they belong.

Zoe Elliott, Head of Careers Marketing and Recruitment at the British Horseracing Authority, spoke about attracting and retaining racing talent. She explained that the Thoroughbred Industry had built a co-ordinated approach to attracting, training and retaining staffing in the industry over the past 15 years. A foundation training programme had been developed including daily riding and fitness training, to provide skills-based training to anyone wanting to start a career in the industry, enabling students to be job ready.

Equine anthelmintic resistance – a collective responsibility

Chaired by Dr Pat Harris, Vice Chair of NEF, this session discussed the real and present risk of equine de-wormers no longer working if their use was continued in a non-targeted way i.e. given on a regular routine basis rather than as required for an individual animal, based on information such as their age, clinical history, management and faecal worm egg count. A grave threat lay ahead unless the sector took collective, urgent action to reduce the critical health and welfare risks to horses posed by resistance.

Dr Claire Stratford, Head of the Efficacy Team and Anthelmintic Resistance Policy Lead and Dr Alison Pyatt, International Programme Manager and Training Centre Lead, both from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, issued a stark warning. They explained that resistance was now being seen to all classes of de-wormer; that the more anthelmintic was used indiscriminately the more resistance would build up and this resistance could be transferred between yards. “Uncontrolled, this will lead to critical health and welfare issues,” said Dr Stratford. The fragmented sector was a problem and there was a growing risk of not being able to graze horses on some pastureland as it would be contaminated with drug resistant parasites. A consistent pan-industry approach and best practice guidelines were needed urgently.

David Rendle, President Elect at the British Equine Veterinary Association, gave a veterinary perspective. He made the point that 90% of vets surveyed believed restricting availability of de-wormers would help to improve horse welfare yet he feared the wider industry “don’t appreciate the importance of the situation.” He maintained that education alone didn’t work as it was preaching to the converted and the science of human behaviour indicated that sufficient change will not result unless there is some restriction on access to de-wormers. He presented alarming figures that 120,000 faecal worm egg counts were used per year compared to 1.13 million doses of de-wormer being sold, equating to 11 doses for each test (rather than an average of approximately four tests per wormer if a targeted approach was being followed). 20 years of research and education had failed to change horse owner behaviour sufficiently and he suggested that if an equine welfare crisis was to be averted the supply of wormers would have to be limited to use within a diagnostic led plan that was revised every year. He added that the liberal use of de-wormer undermined the sector’s social licence as some drug classes were eco toxic and posed a real danger to invertebrates and aquatic life.

Claire Shand, Marketing Director at Westgate Labs, presented the RAMA/SQP perspective stating that there’s absolutely no place for routine non-targeted worming. She explained that the science of faecal worm testing could help reduce the use of de-wormers but “it’s not just doing the test itself but it’s what is done with the results that counts”. The results of faecal worm counts needed to be evaluated over time in all individuals within any group to enable an effective control plan to be developed. She also highlighted that the way pastures were managed could have a big impact on parasite burdens. Regular poo-picking, resting fields and cross grazing with sheep or cows were effective ways to help manage parasite burdens. She pointed out that harrowing was not an effective method in the UK.

“Don’t think just of our own horses, think of the bigger picture,” she said. “What will we do when the wormers stop working – please don’t wait to find out.”

Sara Jerman, Assistant Centre Manager of World Horse Welfare’s Glenda Spooner Farm joined the panel discussion after the presentations and gave a practical perspective from someone managing established groups of horses as well as new arrivals and those individuals being rehomed. She highlighted that parasite burdens and worm control needed to be given as high a priority as other horse health issues but should still be carried out through a target-led approach.

The Equine Industry in a Changing World

This inaugural session saw the Rt Hon Lord Benyon, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defra, proudly describing himself as Minister for the Horse. He discussed the economic importance of the equine sector which contributes an estimated £4.7bn in consumer spending each year and is the largest importer and exporter of livestock. Equine health and welfare, ID and traceability status and plans following the UK exit of the EU were also discussed.

Dr Robert Huey, Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland, Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs and Dr Martin Blake, Chief Veterinary Officer for Ireland, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, looked at the implications of changes to import and export requirements and how the fragmented sector could be strengthened and unified for health, welfare and economic benefit.

Equestrian safety

The British Horse Society (BHS) and the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) are calling on every equestrian to help improve safety across the sector by reporting all their equine-related incidents and accidents. It was highlighted that collecting and recording information about events that negatively affect safety was a core part of both organisations’ drive to help create a safer environment for equestrians.

Alan Hiscox, Director of Safety at The British Horse Society (BHS) updated delegates on the BHS’s initiatives to improve riding safety, including the incident reporting Horse I App which had now reached 12,000 downloads. He pointed out that BHS statistics had helped influence changes to the Highway Code in January this year and he was pleased to be able to note that road incidences had subsequently dropped by 23%.

Claire Williams, Executive Director of the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA), stated that their data indicated that 64% of riders had been involved in an accident while riding and that using the right protective equipment could improve safety. She announced that BETA had launched an accident and safety equipment reporting form aimed at anyone having an accident involving a horse that resulted in an injury, whether mounted or on the ground.

Equine Health

David Mountford, Chair of the British Horse Council, explained how the existing health pathway, which was a collaboration between the government in England and equine industry to help protect against infectious disease, was currently focussed on agricultural animals not horses. However, the BHC was working with other key stakeholders, including the Devolved Administrations, to put together an equine strategy and pathway to help protect against equine disease and improve biosecurity.

Dr Richard Newton, Director of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance, University of Cambridge, discussed the Equine Infectious Disease surveillance reports that are produced with support from the devolved UK governments and the British Equine Veterinary Association and funded by the UK’s Thoroughbred Industry. The reports include data collated from various diagnostic laboratories and UK veterinary practices. He emphasised that the threat of equine influenza was still very much here and a robust surveillance system was essential to managing it. He pointed out that the reports should help to inform owners and develop industry protocols for disease quarantine and biosecurity, as well as enable collaboration with international partners in the production of International Codes of Practice when managing disease outbreaks.

Dr Beth Wells, Principal Research Scientist and Knowledge Exchange Specialist at the Moredun Research Institute, spoke about Equine Grass Sickness; a complex disease with no clear cause or cure. “By working together we can get the answers,” she said. The development of a biobank of samples from horses that have suffered grass sickness was allowing researchers to gather data to improve understanding of the disease and more than one thousand samples had now been collected.

National Equine Forum Review

Professor Graham Suggett OBE and Miles Williamson-Noble, both Honorary Fellows of NEF recalled the past 30 years of the NEF with a look at those who had helped to develop the event into the annual highlight that it is today. NEF Vice Chair Dr Pat Harris emphasised the importance of the continuation of the event.

Memorial lecture: Breeding: past, present and future

Tullis Matson, Managing Director at Stallion AI Services Ltd and Cryogenics Ltd, took delegates on a fascinating journey through the advances of breeding techniques over the past 30 years and how the genetics of rare and endangered breeds could be safeguarded not just in horses but across the animal kingdom.

The event’s President, HRH The Princess Royal, provided a summary of the day and said that the 30th birthday was an opportunity to say a very big thank you to the founders of NEF and those who ensured that it would continue to exist.

The meeting closed with the presentation of the Sir Colin Spedding Award to Imran Atcha, a founder member of St James City Farm Riding School in Gloucester. Lynda Warth, British Horse Society County Access & Bridleways Officer for Cambridgeshire, was highly commended as the Award finalist.

The replay of NEF22 is available until Thursday 31st March 2022 at a cost of £20 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