The responsibility of livery yards…

Every year from this time on I start to get calls from owners describing changes in their horse’s behaviour. These vary from increased reactivity and ‘spookiness’ under saddle to irritability and ‘grumpiness’ during grooming and tacking up. It is no coincidence that these changes in behaviour tend to surface shortly after a change in yard routine, as the livery yards move from summer to winter management. Fields are closed and stable time increases. In some yards, there is no possibility of turnout at all. In others, there may be one small paddock, but it is shared and it may be challenging for owners who work full time to organise for their horse to have time out. 
Having to share a small paddock brings up all kinds of issues. Resources are limited (space, food, shelter) and if these have to be shared with other horses then there can be conflict. Or horses may only go out individually, while the rest remain stabled. This in turn can show up anxieties relating to seperation from the herd.

Feeding routines are often fixed, with forage limited and delivered at set times through the day, leaving many horses standing stabled (or on all weather or muddy turnouts) for hours at a time with no access to fibre.

Managing these issues becomes a juggling act for owners and horses in which welfare is inevitably compromised. Let’s take a moment and look at the five freedoms, the guidelines on which welfare legislation is based. Animals should have:

1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition

2. Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort 

3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease

4. Freedom to express most patterns of normal behaviour 

5. Freedom from fear and distress 

Horses have evolved as trickle feeders. They require continuous access to forage (grass, hay, haylage) in order to maintain gut health and to meet behavioural needs. Although observations of feral horses have shown that they graze for 14-16 hours broken into bouts over a 24 hour period, many horses on restricted diets do not get this opportunity. 

Over the winter, horses that had spent the summer grazing alongside other horses may be separated from their buddies completely. Field mates may not be stabled within sight or physical contact of one another. There is no longer opportunity for social interaction such as grooming, loafing (resting together) or playing. Instead of moving continously throughout the day and having the opportunity to escape potential threats, horses are confined in small spaces. 

Some horses can become very stressed when socially isolated or confined. They may not lie down to rest, they may find it hard to relax. They may be forced to remain in close proximity to stressors varying from other horses that they don’t get on with, to people, noises and equipment that they find threatening.

Winter yard routines can be very challenging for horses, resulting in behaviour change that can be difficult and at times dangerous for owners to deal with.

I believe that livery yards have a responsibility to offer sufficient turnout, ad lib forage, and social opportunities in order to meet the physiological and behavioural needs of the horses in their care. This means that yards and yard owners need to have sufficient resources, knowledge and experience, in order to make the best decisions based on the needs of each individual, so that resources are sufficient and conflict is minimised.

So often I go out to see clients that have what I would call ‘winter problems’, to find that the required changes just can not be made due to the restrictions placed by yard owners and the resources available. This leads not only to a compromise for horse welfare, but also a safety issue for all involved in handling the horse in question. 

I believe that all livery yards must be able to offer care for a horse without severely compromising welfare during the winter months. Of course, I hear yard owners say ‘but in order to do that we would have to reduce the number of horses on the yard and/ or increase our fees…. In turn I hear owners say ‘but I couldn’t afford to pay more to keep my horse’…. 

There is a perception that ‘grass livery’ ought to be the cheap option. Perhaps we need to turn that perception on it’s head. A yard that can offer year round turnout, in paddocks that are sufficiently dry to allow the horse to comfortably lie down, that are sufficiently sheltered to offer protection from the elements, with ad lib access to forage, sufficient space to allow group living and sufficient knowledge to be able to manage groups of horses without conflict, and the option of stabling when required/ when appropriate and managed well, is a yard that is worth it’s weight in gold. This should be the standard that all yards aspire towards.

Unfortunately, not everyone running a livery yard has a lifetime of horse experience. Even those that have may be lacking when it comes to up to date, evidence based knowledge of horse welfare needs, or an understanding of horse behaviour. We live in a time when there are many owners new to horse keeping, who have not grown up with horses or had the benefit of family knowledge and experience. These novice owners rely on the support and knowledge of the yard owners. It is time that the industry attitude toward livery requirements changed. It is my opinion that horse welfare and owner safety demand it.
Coming next: an article discussing the issues livery yard owners face and suggestions for how they can improve their winter facilities in a horse friendly way.

Stabling and behaviour problems

imageBy Dr Helen Spence

You will often hear behaviourists say that horses benefit from increasing turnout time. A commonly used concept is the idea of increasing access to the three ‘Fs’- Friends, Forage and Freedom. I can honestly say that in all the years that I have been in business, I have yet to come across a horse that hasn’t benefitted long term from this approach. That includes some poorly socialised, seemingly agoraphobic (fearful of open spaces) and rather stressed horses. Yes, initially we have had to do work in order to help them cope, but in all cases, long term, they have ended up being happier, healthier, and most importantly for owners, less stressed and safer horses to be around.

However I occasionally meet resistance to the idea that a horse may benefit from increasing their time spent out of the stable, particularly in the winter months. This can be for a number of reasons. The most simple one often is that people feel sorry for the horse. Let’s face it, many humans wouldn’t like to spend their time outside in the cold,  wind and rain. Our natural tendency is to seek shelter from bad weather by hiding in caves. We feel safest when tucked away in a small area with an entrance that’s easy to defend. We wrap up in warm clothes in order to keep out the cold. We sit by the fire and pull the curtains against the dark, staying safe by huddling together.

On the other hand, horses naturally feel safest in open areas with a good view of the horizon. Being with the herd means that many eyes and ears can monitor for potential predators. They need the freedom to choose to be able to express their flight response in order to feel safe. They generally aren’t too bothered by the rain as long as they’ve plenty to eat. They will seek out shelter from the wind and the worst of the rain, but don’t be surprised to see them out in the middle of the field munching away even on very wet days. Horses have super duper winter coats that can adapt according to weather conditions.

It’s easy to be anthropomorphic (ascribing human attributes to a being that is not human) and say that, because you know that you would be happier in a cosy warm dry stable, that your horse is too. And here’s the tricky bit. To all intents and purposes, the horse may well appear to be happy. They may eat all their hay, lie down and sleep, stand calmly, and, proof most important of all, be hanging about at the gate at coming in time, seemingly eager to get in. Obviously your horse must love being stabled. Hey, in wet weather they just stand at the gate, begging to come back in, even when you have just put them out! Why does this happen?

In my experience, it’s all about habit and expectations. Food is a huge factor. So many people give their horses a bucket feed and a pile of hay when they first come in from the field. This food is a huge reinforcer for the horse. If you then get in the habit of bringing the horse in when you see them at the gate, the behaviour soon gets reinforced. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse actively wants to spend more time in the stable, simply that the act of waiting to come in has been heavily reinforced. This is particularly the case in winter, if horses are turned out during the day for just a few hours on to muddy pasture with little grass. Another factor is the need to remain with the herd. If all the horses go in and out at the same time, then this is a group activity. It is very important for horses to stay wih the group, safety lies in being with the herd.

So, we’ve established that your horse is happy in the stable. However you’ve got the behaviourist out because you’re having a few issues related to riding and handling. Your horse is perhaps spooky, or behaving unpredictably when you ride. They may be more reactive than normal, or finding it hard to deal with new objects and experiences, showing less curiosity and more fear than would be ‘normal’ for them. Perhaps they have become irritable about grooming, or they’ve taken a strange dislike to another horse that never used to bother them. The behaviourist immediately says, you need to decrease the time your horse spends stabled, and, ideally, you need to turn them out with friends and provide sufficient ad lib forage to keep them settled and happy together. Why does this change in routine help your seemingly unrelated behaviour problem?

The answer lies in what I’ve written above. Horses feel safest when they have the ability to choose to run away from potential threats. As soon as we take that choice away, we create stress for them. They are forced to stay in close proximity to all kinds of threats, whether that is the grumpy horse in the stable next door, the kid that plays football in the yard every day, or the shouty man that mucks out and can behave unpredictably. Or even very simple things like the wind causing a bit of tin on the roof to flap slightly, or the sound of traffic on the road outside. Whatever the stimulus is, the emotional reaction will vary from one horse to another. That’s why some cope better than others with stabling. However, the more stimuli that a horse is sensitive to, and the more they have to ‘bottle up’ their response, the more problems you are likely to see outside the stable, in terms of reactivity and the ability to deal with stress. If sustained over a long period of time this can start to have an impact on physical health, including suppression of the immune system.

So is it really as simple as just turning them out more? Unfortunately not! There are other factors to consider, including the quality of the turnout, whether there is a dry enough area for the horse to lie down and sleep (failure to be able to sleep deeply can also increase stress levels!), the amount of shelter available, the amount of forage available, and the stability of the social group. The ideal scenario is one in which the horse has freedom of choice, with open shelters, hard standing, pasture, good friends and plenty to eat. Unfortunately this is not a set up offered in most livery yards. Therefore, if you are having problems, seek expert advice from a suitably qualified and experienced equine behaviour consultant. During a behaviour consultation, the behaviour consultant will be able to look at you and your horses individual circumstances and give you appropriate, tailored advice.

Horse Behaviour Consultant in Northern Ireland

Clicker Happy Horse... Horse Sense with Helen Spence


I’ve been called a bit of a rare breed in my time. Funnily enough, the person who said that was English and unaware of the use of the term ‘rare’ in Northern Ireland to imply anything other than ‘unusual’. She went on to explain that, in her line of work (working in a large and well known animal welfare organisation) she came across many horse trainers but very few that had relevant academic qualifications. She also came across academics, but very few that had substantial practical horse training experience. She suggested that I was bridging a gap in the horse world, given that, as well as a psychology degree, I also have a behaviour/ welfare based PhD (my research was on ‘The Influence of Owner Personality and Attitude on the Behaviour and Temperament of the Domestic Horse’ and involved me doing behaviour assessments on over seventy horses and questionnaire surveys…

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