Changes to horse training and management during Britain’s initial Covid-19 restrictions worried their owners, the findings of research reveals.
Owners surveyed by researchers were concerned about the effects of reduced owner access, changes in exercise levels that might lead to weight gain, and the health risks the changes posed to some older horses.
“I own a Highland pony who is on a strict diet and usually worked regularly to manage his weight,” said one owner who responded to the online survey. “I have continued to ride as I worry turning him away would be detrimental to his health.”
Britain introduced quarantine and social distancing measures on March 17 this year in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The move resulted in a rapid change to the way owners managed and interacted with their horses.
Equine researchers Dr Jane Williams, Dr Hayley Randle and Dr David Marlin conducted an online survey to evaluate the effects of Covid-19 on owners and their horses in Britain. In all, 6259 horse owners responded.
Generally, horse owners felt there had been mixed messages at local, national, and government level as to when they should or should not be riding or visiting their horse, and regarding what control messages should be implemented at equestrian facilities.
The researchers, writing in the open-access journal Animals, said: “This confusion had resulted in anxiety and worry, as well as polarised peer pressure to conform to different perspectives on social media and at a local yard level.”
One owner responded: “Would like to ride, but feel I can’t, due to if I hurt myself taking up emergency services’ time.”
Another commented: “Horse needs exercise but feel pressured to not ride.”
One noted that there had been a lot of “advice” or abuse on social media towards people who carried on riding their horse as usual. Another owner commented: “People need to stop online bullying towards people making different choices to themselves.”
The provision of consistent and clear guidance would have helped, the study team said.
One owner observed: “Struggled to obtain guidance on daily visitation to tend to horses, had to rely on interpretations from various equine organizations.” They continued: “One person on the yard is still riding whilst all others have chosen not to … would like clear guidance from government about riding of horses used for personal use/hacking etc.”
As well as being concerned over the impact of the pandemic on their own horses, respondents voiced a wider unease regarding the broader impact of Covid-19 across the equestrian sector.
These were mostly worries about the financial implications of the pandemic on individual horse owners and equestrian businesses, as well as equestrian charities.
Key fears were that a reduction in income would affect decision-making by horse owners and businesses, potentially compromising horse welfare as owners could not afford to manage their horses optimally.
“Cannot sleep for worry about paying for my horse,” one respondent said. “My employers have already cut my salary and today warned that redundancies will happen soon due to Coronavirus. Getting really depressed about it as my horse is my life and best friend.”
Another said: “I have already lost my income so extremely worried about the immediate future.”
Some voiced fears that this could result in increased relinquishments, leading to increased pressure and burden on equestrian charities.
Limited access to veterinary and other professional services was also a concern for horse owners, who felt that changes in how they accessed these services could harm their horses’ health and welfare.
“I had to have my mare put to sleep as she has been very poorly and I could not take the risk of the vet not being able to attend,” one owner said. “I’m heartbroken.”
Another commented: “Very concerned about welfare cases, think we will see more.”
One owner was worried about getting ill at the same time as their horse. “Who could cover for me to care for all the animals?” they asked.
Another aired their distress that their livery yard had banned visits. “Very harsh,” they said. “Also worried about getting horse shod properly as farrier only undertaking urgent work.”
Many owners felt they were negatively impacted on a personal level by the pandemic, with effects on their mental health and well-being.
“This was occurring as a result of increased stress and worry related to the pandemic and how they would adapt to future changes that could affect their horses’ management,” the study team said.
One woman noted: “As a widow living on my own, I really miss the time with my horse. It was time spent riding/with him that cheered me up.”
Another observed: “My pony is my sanity.”
Williams and her colleagues, discussing their findings, said their results provide a snapshot of the initial impact of the pandemic on Britain’s horse owners.
“The pandemic is influencing how owners interact with their horses across all UK regions and all types of livery establishments.
“The greatest impact to date has occurred in virus hot-spots: London and the South-East, and for owners who keep their horses at part and full livery establishments, where increased visiting and management restrictions were reported.”
They said the rapid implementation of the quarantine measures had an immediate effect on the equestrian sector, resulting in sudden changes to horse management.
“Based on our results, we would recommend key influencers in the equestrian sector, including the national federation, British Equestrian, and its member bodies work in partnership with equestrian charities to engage in increased communication and education strategies that support horse owners to manage their horses effectively through the changing phases of the pandemic.”
Swift changes in management regimes are not ideal, and can increase the risk for some equine diseases, such as laminitis.
The authors noted that a third of horse owners said they were worried they would experience a negative financial impact from the pandemic, which could affect the management decisions they made for their horse.
“The size and persistence of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is unknown,” they said.
“A short-sharp crisis is looking less likely, with experts predicting associated national and global recessions as a result of the pandemic.
“The disease is still spreading, and it is likely that social distancing measures will be imposed, nationally and globally, for between 12 and 18 months, or until a vaccine is developed to avoid severe public health consequences.
“These restrictions, combined with an increased burden on medical services associated with increased admissions due to Covid-19, will impact individuals, particularly those employed in sectors revolving around leisure, tourism and sport for a significant period of time.”
They say the broader influence of restrictions resonates throughout the equestrian sector.
“Restrictions are affecting all aspects of equestrianism, for example, competitive equestrian events have been postponed or cancelled, riding schools are restricted in what services they can offer to clients, and recreational riding is severely limited.
“For equestrianism, ancillary industries, such as the breeding and bloodstock sector, are also likely to be severely impacted.”
Overall, most owners were visiting and riding their horses less because of restrictions.
Social distancing and visiting restrictions had been implemented at most yards, but nearly half were not providing hand sanitization or disinfection protocols for the shared areas/equipment to prevent cross-contamination between users, the authors noted.
Horse owners felt that the reduced opportunities for horse-human interactions were negatively affecting their mental health and well-being.
Collectively, the findings point to the need for equestrian influencers and national bodies to advise, educate and support horse owners through the pandemic in the short, medium, and long-term.
Williams is with Hartpury University in Gloucester, England; Randle is with Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia; and Marlin is with David Marlin Consulting in Cambridge, England.
Williams, J.M.; Randle, H.; Marlin, D. COVID-19: Impact on United Kingdom Horse Owners. Animals 2020, 10, 1862.