Riding schools in ‘national crisis’ over ‘unfit for purpose’ licensing system

  • RIDING schools have called for changes to the licensing system, warning that the industry is facing a “national crisis”.

    Owners have told H&H that they are required to carry out vast amounts of paperwork and wade through endless red tape, which means a huge workload, and less time to spend on the nature of their business. The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 are due to be reviewed in 2023, five years after they were introduced, and it is thought this could be an opportunity for change.

    Sue Nevill-Parker, of Arrow Equestrian riding school, told H&H: “We need to act or it will all be swept under the carpet and in 20 years’ time, there will be no riding schools. We need to take licensing out of the hands of local authorities and put it with people who know what they’re doing.”

    Ms Nevill-Parker looked into the subject as she encountered issues with her licensing. Hers has now been renewed, but she feels strongly that the system needs to change.

    “The existing regulations for riding school licences are not fit for purpose and need a complete overhaul,” she said. “We should not be lumped together with kennels and catteries and while I agree that riding schools should be inspected so that they meet minimum standards, piles of paperwork do not prove that things are being done properly.

    “Furthermore, [some] licensing officers don’t know one end of a horse from the other, and the licensing inspection makes no reference to teaching which is, after all, our sole reason for existence.”

    Ms Nevill-Parker said vets visit to check all the horses, which she supports, but she does not understand the need for the “extra layer of bureaucracy, from people who know nothing about horses”.

    She said she now has to spend more time on paperwork than she does teaching, adding: “We’re all terrified the licensing officer will come on the yard, find one little thing they say is non-compliant and we’re out of a job. If it was in the hands of the [British Horse Society] BHS or [Association of British Riding Schools] ABRS instead, I don’t think anyone would complain, as they know the industry, know horses and would have good standards.”

    Paula Leverton, of Four Winds Equestrian Centre, is also an ABRS trustee. She told H&H that although Defra has recently updated the guidelines to make some of the language easier to understand, “a big issue is inconsistency”.

    “It’s how the guidelines are interpreted,” she said. “There seems to be no consistency in the documents people are asked to produce, and there’s so much documentation.”

    Ms Leverton said some requirements, such as documenting each horse’s workload, are simple as she uses an online booking system that records each animal’s hours. She also has to log the horses’ weight, saddle checks, worm programmes and field maintenance.

    “The idea is good, but I’d like it to be less onerous,” she said. “I nearly didn’t get a five-star rating last time because they wanted to see how we proved we mucked out. Anyone could look over a stable door and see if it’s clean or not, but it’s all the paper-shuffling.

    “I understand they need to see if horses are looked after, but there has to be a limit in what they ask for. Riding schools are a dying industry, which has had a wretched two years.”

    ABRS trustee George Baber told H&H many council licensing officers are very good.

    “In England, at least, I think the guidance is pretty clear,” he said. “Is all of it totally necessary? That’s a separate question, but licensing is essentially about the welfare of the horses, and I find most licensing officers pretty sympathetic. It does vary with individuals, but that’s on the whole.”

    Mr Baber said for the ABRS or BHS to take on licensing inspections, they would need a system of accreditation and quality control and a robust system to ensure consistency, which would cost a significant amount. It would also need relevant legislation to be amended, which he said is unlikely.

    “There’s no easy way round it,” he said. “We know it’s difficult for riding schools and that this system is burdensome, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. What the ABRS can do for members is help them navigate the regulations and achieve [licensing] in the best way they can.”

    Defra provided H&H with “background” on the issue, explaining that the licensing regulations brought in three years ago were “developed to help improve welfare standards across a range of activities involving animals that are licensed by local authorities and are accompanied by statutory guidance notes for each activity”.

    The review of the regulations next year will involve “key sector representatives” including the BHS.

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