by Linda Chamberlain
Students have called for better care of horses used in education after a leading university admitted one of its animals died after a behavioural study went horribly wrong.
A spokesman for Nottingham Trent University said: ‘This was an incredibly sad accident and not caused by neglect or bad practice.’
But ex-students have warned that the incident was among a long list of concerns about the treatment of horses – including whipping, long periods of stabling and working animals too hard for their age and fitness.
The students are among a small but growing number of whistleblowers from around the UK who are calling for better care of horses used on equestrian courses. Some left their studies in disgust, others stayed vowing to do what they can for horses who work in the equestrian industry.
Sammi Hancox (above) finished her degree in 2016 at Nottingham Trent University in equine sports horse management and coaching and is now a riding teacher who runs her own livery yard.
She said: ‘It was my dream to go there. I felt damaged by the time I left.’
The death of a horse called Woody was among the most shocking for her. Said to be one of the slowest on the yard, Woody was being used for another student’s dissertation into how horses might react to an interactive screen. He was penned into a section of the indoor school and his heart rate was monitored before and after the screen was put on. University staff were present but at some point Woody tried to jump the barrier fencing him in.
The university’s spokeman said Woody broke his leg after changing his mind part way through the attempted jump. A vet was called and he was put to sleep.
What upset Sammi, and others, most was the life Woody led before this happened. One, who wished to remain anonymous, said: ‘He was so slow that no one could get him moving in a lesson. I remember an instructor using spurs and two schooling whips to get him going but the horse’s legs were swollen and filled up the next day.
She said: ‘The day he died, I saw him lying in the school, covered in a rug. It was very upsetting.’
Sammi added: ‘He appeared to be very ill and yet he was made to jump in lessons. Dying was a release for him.’
Some of the university’s horses came from a rescue centre and students claimed that Woody wasn’t the only one being made, through the excessive use of whips and spurs, to work beyond his capabilities. They claimed the horses were ridden, even if they were lame.
One said: ‘When we complained about lame horses the yard manager said – Well, when you get out of bed in the morning you might have some pain but you have to work with your aches and pains.’
Harsh treatment was common, she said, particularly from riding instructors. ‘One pony ran away when a student was trying to mount. An instructor whipped it repeatedly once it was caught.’
Students didn’t always get a gentle approach either. They were split into groups according to ability and she said they were put in a higher level if they showed they could pull the horse’s head in tight when ridden.
‘I remember an instructor shouting, Get that ****** horse’s head in when someone was riding. That’s how it was. Whips were constantly being used – not least by the instructors. Awful.’
The university spokesman denied the students’ claims. ‘We follow correct principles of equitation and do not use – and have never used – the whip to punish a horse,’ he said. ‘This is completely against equine welfare principles. We have a policy of training the horse, not punishing it.
‘The wellbeing of our horses is our highest priority. They are never worked if lame, in pain or unwell – and never have been. Our staff are highly experienced and professional and would not allow this. It is also completely against our welfare policy and entirely counterproductive as it would make lameness more difficult to cure. If a horse has any health problem it is always treated appropriately under veterinary advice.
‘Unlike commercial farms, our horses don’t have to ‘earn their keep’ and we give them the time they need to recover from injury. Because of this, and our highly-experienced staff and excellent facilities, we have an excellent record of recovery.’
He said all horses used for teaching were checked by a vet at the beginning of the academic year and again, independently by another vet on behalf of the local authority, before being granted a riding school license. There were also unannounced and planned inspections by the British Horse Society.’
Nottingham Trent made headlines in 2015 for its groundbreaking study into the harm caused by traditional stabling. Researchers measured levels of a stress hormone in those kept in individual stables, group stables and in paddocks. They found that the animals became more stressed and difficult to handle the more isolated they became.
Changes were introduced and the university’s stables are now thought to be the only one in the country that has some horses stabled with a companion. The majority, though, are still individually housed. According to students their free time in a paddock is minimal although this is denied by the university.
Nottingham Trent isn’t the only university where students and ex-students are making complaints. A former lecturer I spoke to said the hike in fees and the contrast between what is taught in the classroom and the stable yard is causing discontent and challenges.
Stuart Attwood, who was Team Leader – Higher Education Equine at Hadlow College in Kent, said: ‘This is not an historic issue. In my opinion there is a disconnect between the yard – staff and practices – and the lecturing content and, in some cases the personal views of the lecturers and an increasing number of students.
‘Some further education qualifications are based on British Horse Society values but increasingly degree programs are trying to present a newer approach to riding, handling and training. An increasing number of students (FE and HE) are seeing newer ways of handling horses and riding. They want to learn more of this and may even ride like that outside of college but this enthusiasm is stamped on as the BHS values are held more relevant to getting a job.
‘Students are rightly questioning many aspects of colleges – not just equine – as to the value of these courses and the content and how they are taught. The yard issues are real and students do ask questions, and are starting to challenge things like lack of turnout, feeding, stabling, use of bits and harsh control methods. It’s as if the colleges seem to want to just teach what they feel comfortable with, what the BHS book tells them, what’s convenient rather than newer approaches and views ‘because that’s what the industry wants.’
Another lecturer, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that college yard managers commonly treated horses and students harshly. Their job was to produce graduates that the industry needed. Students who were sensitive usually dropped out. Some, who have contacted her, didn’t get further than the open day.
‘The ones who stick it out get sucked into the system; they get hardened and desensitised. They learn to be very tough.’
She said horses have to put up with harsh treatment and very little time out in a field. Colleges have the land but choose not to use it. Lecturers, even those who teach horse welfare, had very little influence and the turnover among teaching staff was high due to disillusionment.
‘They keep the horses as if they are animals that go to bed at night instead of sleeping for just four hours a day. They teach the students that in the classroom but do something else on the yard.’
Sarah is a mature student who is determined to finish her course at Hadlow College but struggles with the way horses are kept.
‘I hate the way they are managed. Yes, I find it hard. There are a lot of sad horses there – they are used as tools.
‘You just have to stand outside the stables at Hadlow and you can smell the urine. And the horse has to spend all day inside.
‘They get minimal turnout. It’s supposed to be for 4 hours a week but they don’t even get that. Staff are reluctant to turn them out because they can’t catch them again! My dad went to prison when I was younger. He had more turnout than those horses.’
She was even more appalled at the condition of the horses being used at Kent Equine Academy where her 17-year-old daughter was doing a diploma. She gave up the course last year, unhappy with the way the horses were treated.
Sarah said: ‘Every time I went to collect her, I saw lame horses. And they were ridden. There were a lot of complaints but students were told to ride them through it. One horse was badly lame. I’m quite blunt sometimes. The member of staff on the yard couldn’t see it was lame so I told one of the tutors and she said ride it more forward. She blamed the rider’s ability.’
I was unable to get a response from the academy – it’s website gives the information that student funding has been lost and the academy is being forced to close this year.
A spokesman for Hadlow College said: ‘We’d like to invite you to the college and our equine yard for a tour to see for yourself the excellent conditions in which our horses are kept. Their physical and mental welfare is always our priority. The visit would also hopefully provide answers to your questions.’
Lengthy stable confinement is the common denominator in the complaints from students. Allie Gilbert who finished her studies at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire 16 years ago remembers the horses she rode as part of her studies rarely had free time in a field – never in winter when fields were wet. She said the animals were stressed as a result.
She described her dissertation looking at the effectiveness of a calming feed produced by Dodson and Horrell. She tried different things with the horses such as walking towards a lorry and loading – ‘The horses were either like zombies with no zap left in them or they simply legged it. They were impossible to handle. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken out more.’
A spokesman for the university said: ‘Due to Hartpury soil being heavy clay and therefore poaching very quickly, turnout is largely restricted over the winter months when conditions are wet. While we do offer sacrifice paddock turnout, alongside many exercise options (including a sand paddock, two horse walkers, several schools and hacking), we are unable to support those horses who benefit from all-year turnout. As all horses adapt and cope differently, we appreciate that this environment might not suit every horse.
‘We are clear about turnout when students make initial enquiries about livery at Hartpury. Many horses thrive in this busy atmosphere of a working livery, but we are clear that it is not an environment that will suit every horse. When the ground conditions are suitable, horses do benefit from turnout. This can be overnight, during the day, or both.’
Amelia Phillips (left) did an BHS equestrian course in Cheshire as part of a youth training scheme nearly 30 years ago. She was aged 16 and tried to complain about the conditions for the horses.
‘Nobody listened. I complained to the tutor on site. I complained to the yard manager where I worked and I complained to the tutor who was overseeing my YTS scheme. I was told it was a good yard, very expensive, it was accredited by the BHS!! I was told not to be rude, ignorant or to question those who knew better than I. Most of the other course participants felt the same, except those who really had no experience or other yards to compare to. The whole experience was miserable. I had not one happy day there. That I can see in my mind, the grime, the sweat, the bony protrusions, the gloom, now, 29 years later, quite vividly, speaks volumes.
‘I kid you not, we had to wear our hats with hairnets, long boots with no long sock showing (or we were not getting on), body warmers, long sleeves and gloves, yet the horses were faeces-stained, muscle-free remnants of good animals. Even the tutor looked out of place because she was smart and clean. The yard had a real feel of despair.
‘There has not been a horseless day in the last 30 years of my life and I have never seen a professional, accredited, learning establishment since be so poorly equipped with such down-trodden, distressed, abused horses. I hear about college teachings now ( I am currently helping a young lad studying horse care who came last year for some equine assisted therapy), the material content has not changed. How depressing, when science has moved forward such a long way.’
Sammi Hancox kept a dossier during her time at Nottingham Trent University. While there, she and a fellow student discussed their experiences with an equestrian professional outside the uni and were challenged by college management as a result.
‘I was on my own with this committee from the uni asking me questions,’ she said. ‘They accused me of slandering the university so I told them everything I said was true. No action was taken against me.’
My investigation into the students’ concerns was prompted by a simple post on Facebook. It was from a mother seeking support because her distressed daughter wanted to drop out of a college in the Midlands. She couldn’t stand the way the horses were treated and eventually left her course. Sadly, she felt too upset to contribute to this article.
I was struck by the number of students and mothers who shared similar stories on Facebook – some recent, some long ago.
Many horses have a hard-working life, without free-time in a paddock. But what made me investigate the student claims further was the fact that equestrian colleges should be leading the industry, paving the way for improved welfare. Thanks to high tuition fees and government funding they are publicly accountable. They should be responding to the burgeoning interest in alternative ways of keeping and training horses. They should all be listening to the groundbreaking research conducted by one of their own number – Nottingham Trent University – into the harm caused by stabling.
They should be setting up and discovering the rehabilitation and health benefits of track systems (above) – where horses are out 24/7 in a herd and owners report increased fitness and contentment. They should be curious, if not leading the way, on barefoot horse riding.
SOMEONE, PLEASE FIND ME A COLLEGE THAT OWNS A SET OF HOOF BOOTS! For non-equestrians who don’t realise, boots can be taken off after a ride. They can improve hoof health and don’t cause the damage sometimes seen with nailed-on shoes…
Isn’t it time colleges took another direction?
But what do you think? If you’ve been to equestrian college or work in education, why don’t you let me know?
BOOK NEWS BOOK NEWS BOOK NEWS
SEARCH FOR A STAR…I am looking for an agent for my next novel about the mysterious life of the world’s biggest name in horse welfare – Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty. I will keep you informed! In the meantime, I am looking for a Black Beauty look-alike to help me with publicity. I have been inundated with beautiful, black horses on Facebook – check out the post – very exciting…! Please enter if you have a black horse with a white star and a heart of gold…there is a copy of my novel, The First Vet, to be won…
Book links and reviews are below…
My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.
My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This page-turning book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society.
‘I originally bought this book from Linda at a horse show a couple of years ago but only just got round to reading it. I wish I had read it ages ago! I was absolutely gripped from the first page. It is brilliantly written, well researched, and told with compassion.’ – Amazon UK reader.
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