Weathering the lockdown storm and dealing with the economic crunch *H&H Plus*

  • The equestrian industry has shown resilience in the face of previous recessions. Eleanor Jones analyses where the crunch points will be

    As the world reels from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it is inevitable that the economic impact will be significant. Restrictions implemented to slow the spread of the virus have already struck a major blow, but economists are divided as to what the long-term effects will be.

    In the equestrian industry, as others, major players can draw on their experiences from previous downturns, the most recent of course the 2008 credit crunch, the echoes of which are still sounding in the horse world.

    World Horse Welfare chief field officer Claire Gordon recalls a Westminster briefing on the Control of Horses Act, at which statistics were shared on the effect of that recession.

    “They showed that all species had an increase in reported welfare concerns in the years after 2008, but as the economy started to recover, these tailed off for all other species, but not for horses,” she says. “That really stuck with me because it indicates that the horses’ problem isn’t economic – and that’s why we’ve since been in a horse crisis rather than a dog or cat one.”

    Horses are undoubtedly expensive to keep, and breeding a greater number than that for which there are homes available also plays a part in the horse crisis. Indeed, so persistent is the problem that World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers has said it cannot still be called a crisis so many years on, but rather a systemic failure. However, it is not clear why horses have suffered so much more than other animals during hard times.

    “If we knew that, we’d probably be able to fix the problem,” says Claire, adding that one possible reason for the dumping of sick horses is that knackermen no longer pay to take them for meat; instead, the owner must often pay to have a carcass removed.

    “One thing we are looking to do is to ask the government to subsidise a fallen stock scheme. If charities can’t rehome horses, and we were at capacity anyway, this could potentially be the kindest thing for some horses.”

    Charities may also have to take former horses back, should their rehomers’ circumstances change and they are unable to care for them, adding to the pressure.

    “We went into last winter full, like all the charities, and it was a bad winter,” Claire adds. “We took in about 120 horses in January and February, and were really waiting for spring so we could start rehoming. We were already in a perfect storm, then this hit.”

    Defra has recognised however that rehoming is vital, and the charity is looking at ways this could be carried out at less risk of spreading the virus.

    The economic effects

    Marketing consultant Paul Bentham, a former Robinsons Country Leisure sales and marketing director who sat on the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) council and retail committee for 13 years, says no one can see with any clarity what the economic effects may be. But although it is not true (as he had hoped through part of his time at Robinsons) that the equestrian industry is almost recession-proof, there may be hopeful signs.

    “During the early 1980s downturn, we’d opened our first megastore; we did something different,” he says. “In the 1990s, we were perfecting mail order, and benefiting from that, so that one didn’t really affect us.

    “So there was a time I thought people with horses will always have them, and always need stuff for them. Then after 2008, when we hadn’t done anything different, we could tell [the recession] was going on; that was the first time we felt an impact. The lesson is, if you’re able to, do something different.”

    Paul accepts this is easier said than done, and as advice goes, it is along the lines of advising a business to “get a USP”, but those that can diversify or deal with customers differently should benefit.

    “But I think it is true that while not recession-proof, our industry is slightly more recession-retardant than some,” he says, adding that this is because riding is a way of life rather than a hobby for so many people; riders and owners will sacrifice spending in many other areas to preserve their passion.

    “In any situation where there’s uncertainty and change, there will be winners and losers,” he adds. “People who are online tend to be doing well so far, as do mail-order companies.

    “The good news in a way, for us, is that we’re not about selling things like furniture, or high-value items that take a lot of thinking about. Although show and travel gear I’m sure have fallen off a cliff, I think our industry is more resilient than most. It’s easy to look at the high street and say, ‘If they’re suffering, what about us?’ but I think the high street is much more precarious than our industry – we need to look at it the other way round and say, ‘At least it’s not as bad for us.’”

    The difference now to previous recessions is that the situation was not caused by a general financial worsening, but it was “like falling off a cliff” as movement restrictions were imposed. Add to that the timing – the start of the show season should have meant sales, but spring/summer collections have arrived in stores with little prospect of being sold.

    “It’s like we’ve hit a brick wall,” says BETA executive director Claire Williams. “It’s not looking good. But I hope it’ll be short and sharp and we’ll come out the other side. The breaking point for many might be having enough cash flow to keep going, but I think we’re pretty robust as a sector; we tend to bounce back.”

    In a BETA survey of members, cash flow was one of the main concerns raised, as was the need to keep businesses afloat so they can open when lockdown ends.

    “I think people are finding new ways of working,” adds Claire. “We’re all in this together and the industry has to come through it. If we don’t support each other, we will lose business.”

    Groundhog Day

    While some are still riding, all competition ground to a halt as the eventing season had barely started.

    For Andrew and Abigail Turnbull, who took over Richmond Equestrian Centre, North Yorkshire, in 2018, it is not the first time they have had to cancel their affiliated horse trials; a strangles outbreak last summer meant they have already been through the process. The couple were all set for this season, having also taken over the tenancy of two indoor and two outdoor arenas on 1 April.

    “It feels like Groundhog Day; you couldn’t write it,” Andrew says. “The difference this time is that we were in control with the strangles, we worked closely with vets and did test after test; without them, we wouldn’t have known where we stood, and that’s what they’re saying with this virus.

    “We knew roughly when we’d be able to reopen but now all people are talking about is when can we go out, and go back to work.”

    Andrew believes that we will see a phased lifting of measures, and although many horses have been turned away and they – and their riders – will need to be fitter, he hopes that Richmond will be able to run combined training and arena eventing fairly soon after we get the nod to go back out.

    “I’m hoping we can do something with British Eventing (BE) as we want to be part of helping them get up and running, but we’ve got sheep on the cross-country course at the moment, we’re diversifying,” Abigail said. “We’ve got them bleating away up there – and the going’s perfect.”

    Abigail described cancelling events as “soul-destroying” after all the work that goes into them, especially this year as their spring BE event was to be the comeback after last summer’s heartbreak.

    “But at least this time we’re all in the same boat, and we just need to support each other and keep going,” she says. “A lot of people had booked the arenas for events and a lot have said, ‘Keep the deposit for next year.’ No one has asked for a refund; everyone’s been so nice.

    “We all have to work together, and something like this puts it all in perspective; it’s not all about making money. We knew the strangles would end and so will this – and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

    Diversifying to survive: making it work

    Kate Morris, of Blue Barn Equestrian Centre in Kent, was naturally concerned about the lack of income from shows and arena hire – so she did something else.

    Kate is running Bertie’s Basics, a grocery shop, from her café – initially just as a home delivery and click and collect service but now opening to the public – and she is selling compost, topsoil, bark chippings and turf. She’s also selling strawberry and raspberry plants, to be delivered along with the above – and Bertie’s is licensed to sell alcohol.

    “We’ll make it; we’ll be OK,” she says. “I can live on a pittance so as long as my business partner and staff can cover their bills, we’re earning enough.”

    Kate said she tends to have a “glass half-empty” viewpoint, but she hopes that once the temporary restrictions are lifted, many people will be able to return to some form of normality fairly quickly.

    “It’s like someone’s turned the tap off,” she said. “I want to see people jumping in my arena again, having fun, eating burgers and enjoying themselves – it will be OK again.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 14 May 2020