It seems fewer horse owners in Britain are replacing their horses than in the past. But why? Lucy Higginson, who recently lost her own horse, thinks she may know
It’s one of the first questions people hear after news breaks that their horse is gone: “Will you get another?” In the space of one brief, awful phone call, I joined that club last September when my livery yard owner phoned to tell me the mare I’ve loved and owned for more than 12 years had been found dead in her box that morning.
As the rain began falling (relentlessly) in October, “a winter off” seemed in order before deciding how I’d answer that question, fairly certain that the new year would see me plotting to buy and co-own another horse with a fellow rider, as I’ve done successfully in the past.
But fast forward six months and I’m facing up to life as a “former horse owner”, at least for the foreseeable future. The funds that financed my mare each month seem simply to have evaporated. And as a 40-something woman, I fit both the classic horse-owning demographic and the “sandwich generation”, juggling work with caring for growing children and increasingly frail parents.
Of note for British equestrianism, I may be part of a wider trend. Last year’s British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) survey found 72,000 fewer people owned horses than five years previously. Many of the issues I’ve faced have no doubt affected others too.
Wages, as we’re often reminded in the news, have taken 12 years to claw their way back to 2008 pre-financial crash levels, while there’s been no sign of our farriery, feed or vets bills being frozen alongside them.
Horse owners are often self-employed (a better fit with yard work than fixed office hours), yet according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average weekly income for a self-employed woman in Britain is just £250.
Those who’ve kept a horse into old age know that the cost can be hefty. I preferred not to add up what my 17-year-old mare was costing in pain relief, gastric ulcer medication and remedial shoeing.
Fiona Charman, a nurse who lost her horse Shirley at the grand old age of 27 a couple of years ago, agrees: “It is both very costly and time consuming – I was visiting my livery yard six days a week to bandage legs. When I eventually went back to having riding lessons, it was almost a relief to be able to groom, ride and leave.”
Many find that, quite aside from time and money, it takes time to assimilate the sudden loss of an adored friend.
“Shirley was very special to me and I didn’t feel I could just go out and replace him straight away,” continues Fiona. Then, having done the maths, she decided against buying again or loaning “because I want to retire soon and it’s just too big a commitment. It’s not just the livery but the competition fees, hunting caps, kit and costs if something goes wrong.”
Catherine Penman, from Northamptonshire, was hit hard by the sudden death of her cracking Irish hunter Ted in June, aged just nine, to equine metabolic syndrome.
“I took a risk, buying him as a four-year-old, but he turned out to be my horse of a lifetime,” she explains. “For the first six months after his death, it was a proper bereavement. I remember my husband saying, ‘For God’s sake, it’s a horse.’ But I hadn’t realised what a connection I had with him.”
Now that grief is less raw, Catherine is undecided about what to do next.
“I’ve three children and I have massively noticed my time being well allocated elsewhere,” she explains. “I realise things weren’t as well organised at work or at home because of that commitment to Ted – and my bank account is much healthier than it usually is at this time of year.”
Climate change – hot, grassless summers and sodden winters – has certainly deterred me in the Home Counties where livery yard grazing is often poor anyway, and the latest wet winter has demoralised Catherine, too.
“These winters make it more expensive and harder work to keep them at livery because they can’t go out much,” she points out. “It’s just less fun now than it was in my first two seasons with Ted.”
Ask friends why they’ve not refilled their stables and their answers cast a light on the struggles horse owners face all around Britain: one tells of huge traffic increases because three local schools have closed and been replaced by a single new one half a mile away. For another, it’s cash flow – add intensive veterinary treatment to disposal costs and the bill is at least £1,500, before you even think about buying again.
It’s hard to revert to a riding centre beast, who will almost certainly be less supple and responsive than your own well-educated paragon, and friends who’ve tried loaning have soon been reminded that horses are often put out on loan because they are complicated to sell – on account of being sharp, intermittently lame or having stereotypies.
On the plus side, there are plenty of people out there looking for riders to share or help exercise their horses – how many of us have seen nice-looking horses on our yards that are woefully over-stabled and under-exercised? The same BETA survey that charted a decline in ownership also noted an increase in participation, speculating that former owners may be swelling the ranks of regular riders.
Equestrian Facebook groups are awash with horses in need of riders, sometimes for little or no financial input, though it is essential to have public liability insurance and to discuss what happens if the horse is injured in your care if you pursue this.
Business manager Tamsin Drew was taken aback to receive more than 80 replies to a “new ride sought” plea she posted when her competition horse, Ziggy, had to be unexpectedly put down after a serious injury. Tamsin chose to deal with the shock by diverting all the energy she usually invested in her riding to finding his replacement.
“When you only have one horse, it makes it so much harder to lose them,” she reflects. “You go from riding every day to riding nothing. I had the opportunity to borrow other people’s horses, but didn’t feel like it – for one thing, I expected to be able to ride them, but the first one I tried, I couldn’t do anything with! I couldn’t find the right buttons at all.”
Most of us know someone who is happily enjoying catch rides or has become a regular sharer, and sometimes the money not being spent on a horse can be spent instead on a riding holiday perhaps (to Colorado, in Catherine’s case). But, as with children, other people’s horses somehow never quite match up to your own: “He won’t go in a trailer,” and, “Watch out if you pass riders going the other way.” Or perhaps we become so familiar with our own horses’ quirks that we just don’t notice them.
Understandably, owners are often reluctant to let sharers jump, compete, hunt or take their horse away on trips. I may actually sob if I have to pay my annual visit to farming friends on the Quantock Hills without my horse and trailer on the back.
Fiona Charman knows the feeling: “Nearly two years on, I realise I miss being able to do fun rides, competitions, jumping and going further afield.”
So it’s easy to empathise with Andrea Worrall, in Herefordshire, who’s in a “state of suspension” about her horsey status. Having lost her beloved chestnut, Smartie, to colic, she feels obliged to divert her energies to the 15hh “pony” her son has rather lost interest in.
“But he’s had lameness issues, and sometimes I think, ‘If I’m having a horse, then I’ll have my own horse,’” explains Andrea. “Horseback is where I’m happiest, but is it a luxury I can’t afford? I’m getting older, I have a lot of financial responsibilities, less energy and, in winters like this, I don’t have the inclination.”
Catherine is slightly taken aback when I ask what “me time” she has now she’s horseless, around work and family. “That’s a good point,” she replies. “Maybe in the spring, I’ll look at it again.”
As the first blossom signals the end of a winter of interminable sludge, which fellow “horse orphans” will, like me, start pining for a horse again? Spending more than £200 to hire a horse for the occasional fun day out is no doubt still more economical than ownership, but is probably more than most of us can justify for a single day, especially when you can’t even be sure how well the brakes work.
For those who share Churchill’s assertion that “no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle” one thing at least is certain: a life without a horse may be endurable, but a life without riding is not.
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 March 2020