Coronavirus Q&A: horse riders, businesses and employees — all you need to know

This Q&A is designed to help answer some of the questions those living and working in the equestrian world may have during the current situation. We will endeavour to update this with any fresh questions and new information that comes to light as the situation develops...

On Monday 23 March at 8.30pm, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the United Kingdom to announce tough new measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, telling everyone to “stay at home” during this “national emergency”.

The statement said for the next three weeks people will only be allowed to leave their home if they are:

  • shopping for basic necessities, which should be done as infrequently as possible
  • taking part in one form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
  • any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.

In addition more than two people are forbidden from meeting, unless they are from the same household; all shops selling non-essential goods are to close; libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship are to close; and all social events​, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals are to cease.

So what does this mean for horse owners and those working in the industry?

Can I ride my horse?

The British Equestrian Federation’s advice (issued Tuesday 24 March) states: “There is currently no government guidance that we are aware of in relation to riding, so it is down to you to decide whether this is necessary.

“Given that health services are currently stretched to capacity, it’s sensible to avoid any activities that carry an increased risk of injury, such as jumping, fast work and riding a young, fresh or spooky horse. If you must hack out, be mindful of other people walking, cycling and running, and keep the two-metre distance. Lungeing, in-hand work and turn-out are good alternatives to ridden exercise.”

The BHS’s statement (issued Tuesday 24 March) states “there are no specific government guidelines at present” regarding riding, but adds “[The BHS] advise that it is not appropriate to put unnecessary pressure on the emergency services and everyone should make their own individual decision as to whether riding is necessary at this time.”

My horse is on DIY livery: am I allowed to care for him?

If you are a horse’s sole care provider, you are allowed to go and care for him, but it is important to have a back-up plan in place should you find yourself unable to do so due to illness, or if further restrictions are imposed by your yard and/or the government as the pandemic develops.

The BEF advice issued on 24 March states: “The welfare of horses, and other livestock, is still essential, making your travel as an employee, owner or volunteer to provide care valid under the current guidance. Please keep your own health and safety in mind, as well as that of everyone around you.”

The BHS concurs, saying on 24 March: “Horse welfare is critical and grooms or the sole carer for a horse should travel to provide care for horses. Where horses are kept in livery the BHS advises that horse owners respect the protocol put in place by the yard owner or manager and work as a team to agree a care plan for your horses.”

Advice for individuals who are caring for their horses

The BEF has issued the following advice for those providing essential care for horses, whether as owners, grooms or volunteers.

Going to the yard

  • Keep visits to a minimum without compromising your horse’s welfare – consider a buddy system with another livery
  • Go to the yard solo – no passengers, family or children
  • Change into clean yard clothes before leaving your house
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before leaving the house
  • Consider putting your horse on full livery if it’s available and financially viable
  • If your horse is on full livery, only make essential yard journeys. Keep in touch by phone, email or video call with the yard.

While at the yard

  • Respect any restrictions put in place by the yard owner or manager – they are for your safety and their own. It’s their business and/or home.
  • Wash hands thoroughly on arrival – take soap and water with you if the facilities aren’t available
  • Maintain social distancing with other liveries and avoid common areas, such as tea rooms, as much as possible. Keep at least two metres apart at any time
  • Use your own equipment. If you need to use shared equipment such as wheelbarrows or hosepipes, disinfect the areas you’re touching or wear disposable gloves
  • Avoid activities that carry an increased risk of injury and consider wearing an up-to-standard riding hat while handling your horse
  • Assess your horse’s diet, and reduce energy intake according to the reduced levels of exercise you may be providing
  • Limit the number of visitors to the yard, and ask that those who do visit closely follow hygiene and social distancing guidance

Leaving the yard

  • Keep your visit timely and avoid lingering – only carry out what’s necessary to ensure your horse’s welfare and wellbeing
  • Wash hands thoroughly before leaving the yard
  • If you have hand sanitiser that’s at least 60% alcohol, use it to clean your hands when you get into your car

Arriving home

  • Wash hands with warm water and soap straight away
  • Have a specific ‘yard visit’ towel to dry your hands on
  • Get changed immediately into clean, fresh clothes
  • Wash your yard clothes and the ‘yard visit’ towel

If you keep horses at home, many of these points, particularly around hygiene and clothing, should be observed.

Will I be able to buy food for my horse?

“Pet shops”, which include feed merchants, have been included on the government’s list of shops that will remain open during the current restrictions, so there should be no problem with getting hard feed and forage for your horse.

The BEF recommends taking advantage of feed, hay and bedding suppliers who offer a delivery service, and says owners should “liaise with them closely to ensure that their service isn’t impacted”. It also recommends making suitable provision of essential supplies without panic buying.

How should I prepare in case I fall ill and can’t care for my horse?

The BEF recommends making a plan with your yard owner or manager, or your fellow liveries, for what will happen if you’re unable to get to the yard. If you have any of the symptoms of COVID-19 or if somebody in your household does, even if they’re only mild, do not visit your horse. You will need to self-isolate for at least seven days or for 14 in a shared household.

The BHS recommends all owners prepare a care plan for each horse. This can include things like which rugs he wears, what he eats, any medication, where you keep your equipment and his normal routine.

Other tips include ensuring you have sufficient supplies — without panic buying – and keeping in touch with your fellow liveries and yard owner through a WhatsApp group. For more advice, click here..

My horse is on full livery: am I allowed to go and ride him?

The government is telling all people to stay at home, so while at the moment there are no restrictions specifically relating to riding, most full livery yards have closed to owners with all care being provided by livery yard staff. The BEF recommends keeping in touch with your yard by phone, email or video call so you only make essential journeys when absolutely necessary.

Are we allowed to hack out under the current restrictions?

At the moment “there are no specific government guidelines at present” regarding riding, but the BEF advice recommends avoiding any activities that carry an increased risk of injury and adds: “If you must hack out, be mindful of other people walking, cycling and running, and keep the two-metre distance [from other people].”

Can I call the vet out to my horse?

The British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) has advised its members to stop routine procedures, including pre-purchase examinations, routine dentistry, routine health checks and poor performance/mild lameness examinations. Routine six-monthly influenza booster vaccinations should be stopped, and BEVA recommends all other flu booster vaccinations be postponed for a month, to be reviewed after this time, and is in discussion with regulatory bodies on how to minimise the impact of reducing or halting flu vaccinations. Telephone or video consultations should be used when feasible.

Vets will still be maintaining a 24-hour emergency service for accidents and illness.

The statement also says: “Routine stud/reproductive work raises particular questions. On the basis of the government’s advice, and despite the ability to mitigate risks, we are currently struggling to see how this type of service is essential for animal welfare. However, we appreciate that this has far-reaching implications beyond the veterinary profession, and we have sought guidance from government and are in discussion with the breeding industry; we hope to provide further direction soon.”

Can my farrier shoe/trim my horse?

The Farriers Registration Council confirmed on Tuesday 24 March that its farriers can continue to provide their essential services to equines, using their judgement as to matters of priority and/or urgency, with the following provisos:

  • Any farrier showing the symptoms of coronavirus should immediately follow the NHS guidance on Covid-19
  • Farriers should follow the guidance on social distancing, maintaining the 2m distance between humans at all times
  • Farriers should regularly wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, and clean their tools and equipment, including between consultations

Can my horse or dog catch covid-19 or give it to me?

Advice from WHO states there has been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, but there is “no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit Covid-19”.

“Covid-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently and thoroughly,” states the latest WHO guidance.

“WHO continues to monitor the latest research on this and other Covid-19 topics and will update as new findings are available.”

Should there be extra biosecurity measures in place on yards at this time?

Employers have a duty of care to their staff and the government is also encouraging everyone to wash their hands frequently to reduce transmission of the viris. The British Horse Society recommends following and publicising the latest government advice all who have access to a yard, as well as yard owners updating the business’s risk assessment as required, based on footfall and venue-specific activities.

It also urges yards to ensure there is sufficient access to appropriate working hygienic hand washing and drying facilities and to provide sanitiser at key location points on the premises.

What will happen if the grooms on the yard have to self-isolate?

If staff or liveries on the yard need to self-isolate, it is vitally important that they do so. Be prepared, speak with your yard owner about contingency plans and practise good biosecurity at all times. Communication is really important and the British Horse Society has some useful information on what to consider when making a contingency plan here.

This includes yard owners thinking about freelance cover and giving current staff additional training to cover roles that might not be part of their current job.

Are we allowed to transport our horses away from home since the government recommended “non-essential travel” should stop?

On 18 March, the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) called for all “organised equine activity” to cease, which is based on the government guidelines surrounding non-essential travel. The full statement can be found here. A BEF spokesman also confirmed to H&H that this would include things such as travelling for training or clinics, although transporting a horse to a veterinary facility for emergency treatment would be acceptable.

“We continue to strongly recommend against any unnecessary travel, which includes transporting your horse for anything other than emergency care. Travel to competition or training venues, having a coach travel to your yard, having a lesson at a riding centre or riding in large groups is not advised,” said the most recent statement, issued 24 March.

Of course many businesses, venues and self employed trainers are going to be in a financially volatile position as a result of these restrictions, but these measures are not about denying them business but protecting the health of the vulnerable and alleviating pressure on the NHS. Some trainers are offering training online or via video link, while it might also be an option to support your trainer by buying a chunk of lessons now to use at a later date.

I’m a freelance groom, is this going to affect me and my income?

It may well do — you must follow government health advice even though it is a worrying time when freelancers are not entitled to statutory sick pay. However, yards may need freelancers to help cover staff sickness and/or self-isolation periods, plus the government has announced some measures in a bid to ease financial pressures. These include making it easier to apply for Universal Credit. The situation is changing rapidly and the British Grooms Association has more advice here

I run a yard — what happens if my staff cannot work through sickness or self-isolation?

The government has announced it will help businesses with fewer than 250 employees by funding two weeks of statutory sick pay. Make a contingency plan as to what to do if staff do need to have time off — the British Horse Society and Equestrian Employers Association have some helpful advice here and here

What happens if my staff need to take time off to care for their children now schools are closed?

All employees have a right to emergency time off during working hours where a dependant is concerned. The amount of time should be reasonable to the situation (usually days rather than longer term) and there is no statutory right to be paid for this — whether you are or not comes down to your employer. More information can be found here

Is there government help available for freelancers and businesses?

Yes — the situation is changing all the time, but Boris Johnson and the chancellor have announced some measures to help those who will be impacted financially. Information from the government for employers, employees and businesses can be found here 

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