The new Coronavirus Restrictions Regulations came into force on 4 November 2020 and replaced the restrictions previously in force – some of the differences between the two sets of restrictions affect horse owners, riders and yard owners.
Generally, it is a criminal offence to leave home without a reasonable excuse. There are specific exceptions which will, if they apply to you, give you a reasonable excuse to leave home. You are allowed to take exercise outside with people you live with (or who are in a linked household) or one other person from outside, so hacking with company would accordingly be lawful, subject to those limits.
The exception which allows people to leave home if it is reasonably necessary to do so in order to care for or exercise an animal they own or care for, would also allow you to visit your horse for its day to day care and exercise. But if the horse is being looked after by paid livery services, it might be said that a visit to carry out only those duties yourself, through choice, was not ‘reasonably necessary’.
One question we were frequently asked during the first lockdown was whether it was lawful to transport horses to a different location to ride. There is technically no limit as to the distance a person can travel in order to exercise, but people are nevertheless encouraged to exercise in their local area and short journeys only would seem appropriate.
If it was found that you could have exercised your horse closer to home, it might be said that travelling a distance to exercise elsewhere would not be “reasonably necessary”. That may seem harsh, and clarity would certainly be welcome here, but we would recommend a conservative approach.
Horse owners will be glad to know that one exception deals with veterinary care – seeking that care, or veterinary advice, for an animal you own or care for, is a reasonable excuse for travel. Veterinary surgeons can remain open, as can agricultural supply shops which would include feed merchants.
In the text of the legislation itself, stables are expressly included in the list of examples of businesses that must close, being listed in the section which obliges ‘outdoor sports centres or amenities’ to close. If a livery yard were part of a business not required to close, for example, a farm with a livery yard attached, then only the stables would need to close.
Stables are not, however, within the list of examples given by the government in its published guidance on the regulations after a group of equestrian organisations, including BEF and the British Horse Society lobbied the government. These organisations advise that these facilities may now remain open.
It is unhelpful to have legislation and guidance at odds with one another. If you run such a facility and decide to reopen, you must consider carefully whether you can do so safely and observe all recommended practices to reduce the spread of the virus.
There are relevant exceptions to the restrictions on movement for elite sports people and for gatherings for education and training. One of the exceptions allows people to leave home for the purposes of education and training. Further, the limit of two people (unless they are in the same or a linked household) gathering indoors does not apply for people coming together for education or training.
The question then arises as to whether an instructor can hold lessons or training sessions for riders, who will naturally be keen to keep up with their training programme if they can.
If the training were to take place at a venue that can be classed as an outdoor sports centre, then the comments above regarding closure of outdoor sports facilities are relevant. If the land on which the lesson would take place is simply an open outdoor area, then in theory two people can gather if this amounts to exercise; but if there are any facilities by way of an arena or similar, this would contravene the strict wording of the legislation.
If the venue is indoors, then the restrictions covering gatherings are relevant. Two or more people who are not from the same or linked households can come together only if certain exceptions apply. One is that the gathering is reasonably necessary for education and training purposes. If it would be better be described as a leisure activity, albeit ultimately building up to a competition, the gathering might be said not to be “reasonably necessary” and thus would be prohibited.
Elite sports people, however, have wider exceptions. They are defined as those who derive a living from sport or are on a development pathway, and those who train them at senior level. They can leave home if reasonably necessary to do so for the purposes of training or competition.
Again, we are faced with a set of rather lengthy and technical regulations that will mean significant change for many riders and horse owners. The contradiction between the legislation and guidance does not help riders, but it is welcome news that we can continue at least to ride and care for our horses within sensible limits.