Usual horse-care routines and standards were prioritised above human health in Britain’s livery yards as the pandemic unfolded last year, research has shown.
Maintaining usual care and standards was also prioritised above the business model of the yard, and above horse-human relationships, Tamzin Furtado and her colleagues at the University of Liverpool reported in the journal Animals.
Their just-published study noted that about 60 per cent of Britain’s leisure horses were kept at livery yards, under the oversight of a livery yard manager or owner.
These individuals have a big impact on the potential wellbeing of horses within each yard, but their role has received little research attention, they noted.
“This study used the Covid-19 pandemic as a lens to view the priorities and decisions of livery yard managers at a time when everything was already subject to change.”
Yard managers or owners of 24 diverse yards were interviewed up to three times over a nine-month period last year. The researchers also examined discussion forum threads on relevant topics about livery yards during the pandemic.
They found that those running yards were required to carefully balance conflicting priorities, which made change difficult within each individual yard culture.
The pandemic forced them to consider a series of complex moral dilemmas around client health and safety in terms of Covid-19 transmission risk, versus human emotional wellbeing, given that clients wanted to visit the yard for their mental and emotional health.
Many owners and managers described feeling under pressure to also navigate the emotional and mental health of their livery clients, by allowing them to spend time at the yard.
“Each yard adopted individual approaches to managing human health alongside maintaining equine management.”
The researchers found that, before the pandemic, equine care and management practices varied greatly across yards, and yard cultures were a product of the manager’s construction of good equine care, their business model, and the need to balance human and equine contentment.
The role of the person running the yard was to maintain an equilibrium between these interlinked factors.
During the pandemic, yards adopted new measures designed to influence the movement of horse owners and other people on to the property to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The owners and managers prioritised equine wellbeing by limiting change to equine routines and management wherever possible.
“Instead of altering equine management, there was an expectation that the lives of humans would be moulded and re-shaped to fit with the government Covid-19 guidelines.”
The study results highlight the importance of routines, traditions and cultures in each yard, they said.
Maintaining the standard of care for the horse was prioritised regardless of who provided that care, the authors found.
“The fact that yards maintained the status quo horse care as far as possible shows how deeply embedded those care practices are in the fabric of the yard culture.
“Each yard provided the care and management appropriate for the horse (within the limits of its land, facilities, and business model), and these care and management regimes appear almost impervious to radical change.”
Respondents suggested that human health was an area that was prioritised below horse health and safety, both by yard owners and managers, and in the general equestrian community:
When small changes were taken up – for example, allowing the use of an extra field for hacking or for additional turnout – those changes were often considered to be favourable changes by managers, who suggested that they may continue.
“However, one change that did happen on each yard was the move yard managers themselves made from their everyday role of managing the status quo, towards a role of leadership.”
They continued: “One interesting finding which has not previously been discussed in the literature around equine welfare and horse-human relationships is the divergence between people needing to see their horses, but perceiving that horses do not need to see their people.
“This study found that it was not considered to compromise equine welfare if the horse’s owner did not handle the horse, as long as its care needs were met by someone. It was, however, considered to seriously compromise human needs if people could not see their horses.”
Furtado and her fellow researchers described livery yards as important institutions in terms of their effects on equine welfare.
“This study furthers our understanding of livery yard culture and management, showing how each yard has deeply embedded equine care practices, the importance of which is so entrenched that they changed little, even in the face of an international pandemic.”
Each yard manager described making decisions that best suited the circumstances, with horses having the highest priority.
The study, they said, highlighted the complexity of yard management and ownership, and the lack of material, practical or emotional support for those running yards, particularly during times of change such as during the pandemic.
The researchers noted that many initiatives and researchers have suggested improving standards across livery yards would be one way of lifting equine welfare on a population level.
“In order to support yard owners and managers in changing to improve equine welfare, it is important also to provide support to the other areas of yard management, including the business model, client management, and emotional support.”
The University of Liverpool study team comprised Furtado, Elizabeth Perkins, Catherine McGowan and Gina Pinchbeck.
Furtado, T.; Perkins, E.; McGowan, C.; Pinchbeck, G. Equine Management in UK Livery Yards during the COVID-19 Pandemic—“As Long As the Horses Are Happy, We Can Work Out the Rest Later”. Animals 2021, 11, 1416. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051416