Keeping horses on farms
How to meet expected welfare, trading and health and safety standards in the horse industry if keeping horses on farms in the UK
This guidance has not been fully checked or updated - it is due to be reviewed in due course.
Under UK legislation, a horse is an agricultural animal if it is used to farm agricultural land or farmed for meat or hides.
This guide provides information about horses kept for both agricultural and other business but non-agricultural purposes - eg in livery stables. It also explains animal welfare, health and safety and horse passports used for identification and international trading purposes.
It contains details of horse manure and waste management, land use and planning for livery stables. Finally, you will find information on horse breeding, fallen stock and diseases.
(section added December 2015)
The Control of Horses Act 2015 deters people from illegally grazing or simply abandoning horses on public and private land, which is known as ‘fly-grazing’.
Horse welfare and rural organisations have published guidance on fly-grazed horses in England for the general public and private landowners.
The Animal Welfare Act
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the wellbeing of all horses is protected by law. It is an offence to cause or allow unnecessary suffering and you have a duty to ensure the basic welfare needs of all horses under your ownership and responsibility by:
- providing a suitable place to live, including housing with or apart from other animals
- providing a suitable diet
- protecting them from pain, injury, suffering and disease
- making sure they exhibit normal behaviour
If the horse is used for an agricultural purpose, eg working the land, and/or is intended for meat or other by-product production, then the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) 2007 (as amended) applies, with additional legislative requirements. However, this does not include horses used for producing pharmaceutical products such as antisera, where welfare is covered by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Code of Practice for horse owners provides practical advice on how best to look after a horse’s health and wellbeing, including information on diet, exercise and the legal responsibilities of owners. Compliance with this code can provide positive evidence of ensuring the welfare of your horse(s) whilst non-compliance could be used against you in any welfare prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act.
The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) is responsible for enforcing the health and welfare of farmed horses only. This includes animal welfare inspections to any single farm claiming payment under cross compliance regulations. Local authorities may also enforce farmed animal welfare, including horses, and are responsible for any licensing requirements associated with livery establishments. Non-governmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) may enforce the welfare of all horses where suffering is found, as well as offer advice and support in emergency situations.
Horse manure and other types of waste
Farmers who keep, produce, carry, treat, recover or dispose of waste are subject to various requirements. However, these have been simplified and the separate waste management licensing and pollution prevent permitting regimes of the past are both regulated through environmental permits and exemptions as set out in the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010.
In the UK, horse manure, while subject to certain controls, is not considered waste if all of the following apply:
- it is used as soil fertiliser
- its use is part of a lawful practice of spreading on clearly identified parcels of land
- its storage is limited to the needs of those spreading operations to be carried out on agricultural holdings, whether yours or someone else’s
If you store or spread horse waste near to water, it can be harmful to both the environment and human health. You must therefore comply with Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) and groundwater legislation if your land falls under their remit when spreading either manure or slurry.
For more information on:
- permitted levels of manure storage and use, see the guide on landspreading
- NVZs, see the guide on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones
- groundwater, see the guide on water pollution on farms
You must use a suitably licensed facility to dispose of solid waste. Solid waste includes items such as:
- contaminated bedding
- food containers
- faecal matter
- empty pesticide and other chemical containers
- plastics such as silage wrap, bags and sheets
- tyres, batteries, clinical waste, old machinery and oil
Before using a composting plant, you must register it with the Environment Agency. You may not require an environmental permit for on-site composting, but the open burning of controlled wastes is an offence. You should contact the Environment Agency or your local authority to see which sites take industrial waste.
Clinical waste - which is defined as hazardous waste - will need to be collected separately. This includes:
- infected linen
- used syringes
- empty medicine containers
For more information, see the guide on managing your hazardous waste.
Common areas of pollution
To prevent pollution, you should in particular pay attention to:
- run-off from dirty yards
- washing out of stables
- soaking hay to suppress dust
- exercise pools - due to the presence of treatment chemicals and associated sediments or solids
If your stables or livery yard are in a remote location, away from mains drainage, you should also watch out for:
- the storage of oil - particularly heating oil
- the storage of chemicals - including sterilizing agents, biocides, disinfectants and medicines
- foul drainage - including that from associated houses and offices
To avoid any pollution, you should keep your premises secure, with properly designed and installed drainage and sound waste management and spillage control measures in place.
You should direct the run-off from contaminated yards, manure heaps, stable washing and hay soaking to either an impermeable lagoon or a sealed effluent tank, where it can then be removed or land spread.
You should not spread the water used to backwash filters from exercise pools on land.
You should avoid locating temporary heaps of field manure where there is risk of run-off to cause pollution:
- near field drains
- within ten metres of a watercourse
- within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole that supplies water for human consumption
You may have to leave exercise pool water to stand for seven days after chlorination or other chemical treatment before disposing of it.
When disposing of waste to the sewer or receiving waters, you should take care to control the rate of discharge to prevent any sudden increase in flow that may cause harm.
You should store pool chemicals in a secure area or within a bunded storage area, preferably covered by a roof. The store should be sited on a solid base, with a surrounding wall that is resistant to chemical attack. There should be no drainage outlet, and chemical spillages should be contained and soaked up with an absorbent material. If chemicals enter or might enter surface water drains, you must contact the Environment Agency immediately.
Land use and planning for livery stables
Your local planning authority deals with planning arrangements on a day-to-day basis, but the Department for Communities and Local Government has overall responsibility. If you disagree with their planning decisions, you can appeal to the First Secretary of State.
In general, any plan should be in accordance with sustainable development principles and take into account how:
- to respect the needs of everyone affected
- the environment can be protected and enhanced
- prudently you intend to use natural resources
- your plan contributes to economic growth and employment
Before moving forward with a planning project, you should always consider taking independent professional advice from a planning consultant, preferably one who has experience with the type of project you have in mind. You may find that one of the following bodies can offer advice that may help with a planning proposal:
- British Horse Society (BHS)
- Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)
- Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)
- British Institute of Agricultural Consultants (BIAC)
Often, the owner of a horse does not keep the animal on their premises, instead choosing to use a livery yard. At a livery yard, horses are housed and cared for in return for payment or reward but are not the property of the proprietor. The code of practice is to ensure that there are minimum standards for livery yard facilities to provide basic welfare standards for horses. Livery providers and all staff should be familiar with the Equine Industry Welfare Guidelines Compendium for Horses, Ponies and Donkeys.
Different types of livery
There are different terms of responsibility for the type of livery service you use:
- full livery - the care of the horse is the responsibility of the provider of the livery or yard manager
- part livery - the management and care of the horse is shared between the owner and livery provider
- DIY livery - the care and management of the horse is the responsibility of the horse owner
- working livery - takes part of the payment by allowing your horse to be used by the livery provider - if this entails the hiring out of the horse then a licence is required
- grass livery - without individual housing for your horse
Basic standards also apply to studs, showing and breaking yards, point to point and hunter yards. Jockey Club guidelines and inspections deal with racing yards.
Stables, stalls and boxes
When using or designing stables or stalls, you should consider the health and comfort of the horse. The basic requirements to prevent disease and injury include:
- ease of access
- fire safety
You must provide adequate storage for manure away from the stable area.
Feeding and watering
To maintain the good health of a horse and to satisfy their natural needs and promote a positive state of wellbeing, you should give a horse supplementary feeding according to:
- their age
- their size
- the amount of work carried out
The equipment used for the feeding and watering of non-stabled horses should be placed and maintained to minimise contamination and competition between horses.
You must maintain grazing land in suitable condition for horses, and provide a restricted area if necessary. You must inspect pasture and hedges for poisonous plants and remove any if present. Fields used for sustenance must have enough grass to keep each animal. When a horse is not stabled, you should provide protection from adverse weather and at all times allow access to a well-drained lying area.
You must provide secure and safe horse-proof fencing. If barbed wire is present, it must be separated by a secure guard fence or electric tape.
To avoid any suffering, horses kept in a livery should be inspected at regular intervals. You should immediately care for any horse that shows signs of illness or injury. If they do not respond to such care, call for immediate veterinary advice. If necessary, a sick or injured horse should be isolated in suitable accommodation with, where appropriate, dry comfortable bedding.
If you own a horse, it is your responsibility to keep a record of all medicinal treatment given to the animal. An owner must carry out, under the control and advice of a veterinarian, a yard parasite control programme and vaccination programme. You must register all animals with a veterinary practice and with a registered farrier.
Health and Safety: Chartered Institute of Environmental Health
You can receive professional advice on environmental health from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH). The CIEH is a registered charity which sets standards, accredits courses and qualifications for the education of its members and other environmental health practitioners.
The CIEH provides information, evidence and policy advice to local and national government, and environmental and public health practitioners in the public and private sectors. It also offers vocational qualifications, events and support materials on topics relevant to health, wellbeing and safety to develop workplace skills and best practice.
Through a network of over 10,000 registered trainers and 6,000 registered training centres, the CIEH provides over 50 certification training programmes, including:
- food safety
- health and safety
- environmental awareness
Transport of horses: passports and welfare
Horse owners and keepers with primary responsibility, eg full livery yard owners, must under the Horse Passports (England) Regulations 2009 ensure each and every animal is correctly identified. All horses (this includes ponies, donkeys and other equidae - including zebras, other exotic equidae but not semi-feral equidae residing in designated areas) must have a passport and those which were identified after 1 July 2009, must be micro-chipped before a passport can be issued. This continues to apply when exporting horses to other EU member states, ie there is no need for a silhouette in the passport if the animal is micro-chipped.
However, if you plan to export horses to a third country, ie not an EU member state, an official veterinarian must complete a silhouette of a micro-chipped horse and a full description of the animal on the Export Health Certificate, if its silhouette has not been completed in its passport. Certain countries - eg the United States - require that the silhouette and description on the certificate must be completed for all horses even if their passports contain a silhouette.
As importing countries can change their requirements from time to time, you must check with them in advance that the Export Health Certificate meets their requirements and whether or not you will require an import permit.
If you own a foal, the passport must be obtained on or before 31 December of the year of its birth, or by six months after its birth, whichever is later. Older horses still require passports and if you have not yet applied for one you should do so immediately.
Horse passports are issued by Passport Issuing Organisations (PIO), such as the BHS. Find a full list of organisations issuing horse passports in the UK on the Defra website.
Horses and other equidae must be accompanied by their passport at all times, except when:
- at pasture
- moved on foot and where the passport can be retrieved within three hours
The revised passport format includes a new Certificate of Origin that records pedigree details. Requirements were also tightened for the availability and update of passports when equidae receive any veterinary products.
Animals kept under wild or semi-wild conditions on Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest are exempt from passport and microchip requirements.
Horses used for human consumption
Horse passports include a section (IX) which allows the owner to declare as intended or not intended for the food chain - this must be signed if a veterinary medicine is administered which is not authorised for food-producing animals.
Owners are encouraged to think carefully before they sign their animal out of the food chain. Once it is signed, you cannot reverse this declaration and this may limit the disposal options when their horse reaches the end of its life.
The micro-chip is now used as the main form of identification and if a horse is micro-chipped then a silhouette showing the animal’s distinguishing marks is no longer required. Some breed societies may still require both.
Horse welfare whilst in transit
You should not transport a horse in a way that may cause harm or distress to the animal. It is an offence, under the Animal Welfare Act, for any person who is responsible for a horse, either permanently or temporarily, to allow an animal to suffer or to not care for an animal.
If you are transporting horses commercially you must also be authorised and hold Certificates of Competence. If you make journeys over 8 hours, your vehicles must be approved. There are also requirements on fitness to travel, vehicle construction, maintenance and operation and travel documentation.
See the guide on farmed animal welfare during transportation which also includes guidance on the rules applying to horse transport.
The National Equine Database
The National Equine Database (NED) is a joint government and industry scheme that was designed to be of benefit to both. Defra uses the database to:
- monitor passport compliance
- control disease
- carry out equine surveillance
The industry-owned element is a website, NED Online, which makes available horse passport data and other resources for the industry, and allows the purchase of reports containing information on a horse’s pedigree and performance supplied by Breed Societies and competition disciplines.
Horse breeding is a specialised activity and can be scientific when utilising artificial insemination. If you are a horse owner, you will want to know more about it if you decide to buy from a breeder or you want to carry on the bloodlines of a stallion or mare.
You can purchase reproductive material from another stallion or you can put your own stallion out to stud after genetic and physiological testing. You may decide to designate an especially worthy animal as a broodmare, selling or keeping the offspring to create a new line.
Before choosing to breed a horse, you should know about:
- keeping animals healthy until foaling
- choosing the right pair of breeding animals
- normal breeding behaviour, including the rut and estrous or heat, actual breeding days, pregnancy, gestation, foaling and the development of a foal
If you have never bred horses before, you should seek professional help and advice.
Mares have a natural breeding season which begins in spring and continues until autumn. Daylight stimulates receptor centres in the mare’s brain, which trigger the production of reproductive hormones and initiate the pattern of regular periods of heat, known as estrous. If you use electric lights in a stable to artificially increase the amount of light, it is possible to stimulate the breeding season earlier. This practice is very common in thoroughbred studs.
The ideal time for a foal to be born is between May and July, when most grass is available to help the mare’s milk supply. Because pregnancy in horses lasts 11 months, the best time to have the mare covered is from June through August.
You can breed regularly with a mare until it is old and suffers no ill effects, but it is more difficult for an old mare to foal for the first time.
A filly (young female horse) becomes sexually mature at around 18 months old. They can breed as a two year old, but it may hinder their growth, so it is best practice not to begin breeding until four years of age.
Artificial insemination uses frozen semen to inseminate a mare and is commonly used as a technique in horse breeding. In addition to veterinary surgeons, artificial insemination of mares can be carried out by a lay person, who holds an Artificial Insemination (AI) certificate following completion of an approved training course.
UK stud owners should ensure that a completed certificate is included with every dose of semen shipped from their premises. Mare owners, inseminating vets or licensed AI technicians are advised to check that a certificate accompanies any semen they receive. You can find a link to a shipped semen certificate for use in the 2010 stud season on the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) website.
Support for horse breeding
The government supports the improvement of horse breeding and associated good practice. This is achieved through sponsorship of the HBLB. The HBLB assesses and collects a levy on bets on horse races. This levy is then distributed for the purpose of improving breeds of horses and horseracing and the advancement or encouragement of veterinary science and education.
If a horse dies or has to be put down on your premises, you will have to arrange its disposal as fallen stock under animal by-products (ABPs) legislation. ABPs are entire animal bodies, parts of animals, products of animal origin or other products obtained from animals that are not fit or intended for human consumption.
You must promptly deal with ABPs to prevent harm to people, animals and the environment. In most cases, this will mean arranging for its transportation to approved premises. For more information, see the guide on fallen stock and the guide on dealing with ABP.
The National Fallen Stock Scheme is run on a not-for-profit basis by the National Fallen Stock Company Ltd (NFSCo) and can help you to meet the obligations under the regulations.
If your horse is a pet, you may be able to bury your animal. You will need to contact your local animal health office for advice. Please note this applies only to England. If you live in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, please contact your respective national agricultural departments for advice.
Horse diseases: controls when moving horses between countries
If you suspect that a horse or other equidae has a notifiable disease then you must immediately notify your local AHVLA Office.
Horses that are imported to the UK for sale and breeding, or horses that travel from the UK to other countries for shows and competitions, may carry disease. There are regulations in place to ensure the welfare of horses being transported. These include regular inspections to make certain horses do not suffer distress when travelling. The results of these inspections - and of any testing carried out for notifiable diseases - are published in the annual report of the Chief Veterinary Officer. There is a system of health certification in place to ensure that horses already absent from the UK are free from diseases.
For some diseases, such as Contagious Equine Metritis (CEM) and Equine Viral Arteritis, there are codes of practice developed by the HBLB. You can access the codes, AI certificates and approved laboratory lists on the HBLB website.
An official sample for disease testing may be taken by your veterinary surgeon working as a local veterinary inspector or by Government veterinary officers. There are other organisations that can carry out testing of samples, for example the AHVLA screens and identifies equine influenza viruses.
Diseases of Horses Order
Under the Diseases of Horses Order 1987, the following horse diseases are botifiable:
- Equine Infectious Anaemia
- Epizootic Lymphangitis
- Equine Viral Encephalomyelitis
- Glanders - including Farcy
- West Nile Virus
CEM and Equine Infectious Anaemia are known to occur in the UK, but the other five diseases listed above do not ordinarily occur in this country and are usually considered low risk to local equidae.
You should be aware that under the Diseases of Horses Order, inspectors have the power to:
- declare an infected place where disease is suspected
- carry out a veterinary inquiry
- prohibit the movement of horse carcases and other things onto or off a premises
- require cleansing and disinfection
Defra carries out risk assessments to estimate the chances of disease entering the UK. Defra reviews control measures to prevent the spread of disease in the UK and export controls to prevent a further spread abroad. If there has been a delay in detecting or reporting disease, Defra look back over exports to see if they were the cause of the outbreak.
For significant risks, the International AHVLA Division will take action to improve the situation, normally working with the EU. Defra may take independent safeguard measures to block legal imports from countries or regions with outbreaks of disease. Defra also traces and checks recent imports of animals to identify potential risks.
Organisations that can help
Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. It also oversees a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls. You can call the Defra Helpline on Tel 08459 33 55 77.
The BHS is a charitable organisation that represents the interest of every horse and rider in the UK. The BHS focuses on issues such as horse welfare and livery yards.
The Horse Trust is the oldest horse charity in the world and is committed to promoting education and welfare within the equine world and is the largest provider of equine welfare grants and horse research grants in the UK.
The NEWC has a base of over 60 welfare organisations, including equine welfare charities and organisations from the equestrian and veterinary sectors of the horse industry and provides advice and up-to-date information.
AHVLA has the responsibility for ensuring that farmed animals in the UK are healthy, disease-free and well looked after. Read about the work and services of AHVLA on the Defra website..
For contact details of your local AHVLA Office use the postcode search tool on the Defra website.
You can also contact your local authority for advice on a number of topics, including animal welfare, farming, land use, food standards and environmental regulations. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.
Environment Agency Incident hotline
0800 80 70 60
The Horse Trust helpline
01494 488 464
0844 848 1666
0845 054 8888
08459 33 55 77
Published: 13 September 2012
Updated: 3 December 2015
- Added section on fly-grazing and link to fly-grazing guidance.
- First published.