Brits have now had six weeks to get used to being out of the European Union (EU), and what brutal weeks they have been for anyone transporting livestock to the continent.

The “transition” year of 2020 gave no real clue of what lay ahead. Now many horsemen who voted “Leave” wish they’d ticked “Remain” in our life-changing European Union (EU) referendum of 2016.

The costs, bureaucracy and mind-numbing delays experienced by horsemen who have so far braved the new-look crossing are 10 times worse than expected. Some have reported nine-hour waits at the same border control posts they breezed through just seven weeks ago, not to mention being caught up on highway tailbacks outside the ports along with other exasperated drivers of freight. That is before you tot-up costs of new paperwork for transporting three or four horses to Europe by land and sea ‒ an increase of around €2,000 (CAN $3,080) per trip.

If there is this much chaos when just half a dozen horseboxes are being processed each day, what will happen on a “normal” summer Sunday night when 50-odd horse trucks descend on France’s main cross-channel hub of Calais, homebound from shows, events and race meetings?

In pre-EU days the most onerous requirements were a carnet (the internationally-recognised permit which allowed the tax-free temporary export and re-import of goods and livestock) and a Coggins test (for Equine Infectious Anemia, a disease no longer present in the UK.) But now truck drivers must obtain over a dozen different types of vehicle and operator licences, horse health papers and customs declarations before crossing as an “alien.” On top of that, ferry operators and Eurotunnel have cynically raised fares and concocted extra charges.

Each of 33 pages of health papers per horse must be signed by a veterinarian, then scanned and emailed to the French authorities in advance, who tend to return them for amendments for which you also have to pay. One rider tells me she printed out a “tree’s worth” of documentation only to find that the “horse examination” at Calais extended to an “un, deux, trois” headcount. Other riders have reported a similarly cursory “inspection” after being made to wait many hours, despite the absence of other trucks ahead of them.

There is a growing sense that while some of this is inevitable, the excruciatingly slow processing of trucks and their occupants at Calais in particular is punishment for the UK leaving the EU. One very distinguished racehorse owner with a hotline to President Macron is rumoured to have called him up in a fury after learning his truck had been stuck there all day, and got it waved through. Unfortunately, 99.9% of us don’t have that sort of influence.

Ladling all this on top of Covid means there is a serious threat to the world-leading status of Britain’s racing, bloodstock and sport horse industries. It’s not just the prohibitive new cost of competing abroad; professional producers are so alarmed about being cut off from the prime marketplace they are already thinking about relocation.

Costs and delays work in both directions, of course. Post pandemic, will British CCIs, CSIs, CDIs and race meetings seem too much trouble for continental visitors? Will the Canadian and US teams skip the traditional UK/Ireland legs of their transatlantic tours? Ireland is still part of the EU, but now geographically blocked from Europe by two stretches of water and an “alien” state. Brexit must be making the organisers of even headlining fixtures such as Badminton, Burghley, Hickstead, Royal Windsor and Dublin very nervous about the post-pandemic future.

The true extent of the new regulations only just sunk in. UK equestrian and racing authorities advised against cross-channel travel in the first two weeks of January while “teething troubles” were ironed out at the ports. Few in fact attempted it until this month. This is partly because Britain went into a third Covid lockdown on January 5, leading some to query the ethics of showing abroad during the pandemic. Moreover, the obligatory new approvals for horseboxes could not even be applied for till 2021.

Racing and show jumping has woken up to it now, because of the prospects for Irish runners at next month’s Cheltenham Festival and recent experiences of show jumpers making their annual pilgrimage to the CSI 2* and 3* winter and early spring tours in Spain and Portugal.

Competing abroad became the norm even for amateur British equestrians in the halcyon days of free movement between 27 other countries, particularly for show jumpers. There is a huge selection of CSIs each week in many countries the size of Vancouver Island, with no difficulty getting entries at 2* and 3* level.

Europe provides a massive and eager captive market. Sport horses at the middling FEI levels can be sold for 20-30% more than in the UK. This spun traditional British jumping shows into decline. Britain is still the centre of global eventing, but the opposite has happened to its domestic show jumping. There is now a serious shortage of opportunities to jump 1.40m in the UK because these classes have become unviable.

It was generally assumed that industry bodies were working with DEFRA (the government agency in charge of livestock) to secure a workable system from January 1. However, alarm bells rang in December with rumours that Eurotunnel was planning a massive surcharge per horse, plus very late advice that truck drivers would have to take separate competency tests in both UK and EU.

Sarah Lewis, who produces young horses not far from Hickstead, spelled out the new obligations in a detailed blog. Regarding set-up costs Sarah says: “I have now had my lorry inspected in the UK at a cost of €380. Lorries now need lashing points every 3 metres, thermometers with 24-hour downloadable readings, and in some cases downloadable satnavs (GPS) too. These minor upgrades were a further €400. My lorry is now ready to be booked in for a European Inspection at European Horse Services (EHS) in Ostend (Belgium), so two empty ferry journeys at €200 each, an inspection cost of €150 and a €500 annual contract with EHS to act as my EU agent. We also need a Carnet for the horses which is approximately €800 per annum.” And that, dear readers, is just part of it.

(BEF has put together a good “Costs of Travelling Horses to Europe post-Brexit” comparison chart of  HERE.)

The UK government’s “trade and cooperation” agreements with the EU were so last-minute that ordinary citizens had no time to scrutinise the small print ‒ not that we could have changed anything.

It was only last week that the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) flagged up new EU requirements for travelling grooms, another costly burden which had escaped many peoples’ attention.

Riders have started tackling politicians off their own bat. Scott Brash has compiled a factual dossier for his owner, Lord Harris, an influential businessman and philanthropist with many contacts in government. Others are helping fellow riders write letters to Members of Parliament. Dane Rawlins, organiser of the former Hickstead CDIO, is launching a petition on the UK government portal, emphasising the horse welfare impacts of drastically prolonged journeys because of the serious delays at border control. If it garners 100,000 signatures, parliament will automatically debate that topic. But there isn’t much intersport mixing in Britain, which means many people are beavering away on parallel tracks.

The FEI and the European Equestrian Federation (EEF) are also trying to help. On the face of it, it should make sense for British riders to stay over in Europe for four to six weeks, but non-EU citizens may spend only 90 days in Europe in any 180-day period. But half of those 90 days could be “wasted” on travel and rest days between competitions. There could be fewer opportunities for Brits abroad to win rankings points on which FEI jumpers are especially dependent. (The complexities of the 90-day rule, which will limit the number of times Brits can compete abroad, are further discussed here.)

Anyone with a serious chance of winning 5* anything, a Pattern race, or who is determined to send their broodmare to a top stallion in France will just swallow the extra costs and tolerate the long wait at border control. But the majority of the horse sector works on very small profit margins. Many horse producers grew their businesses as a direct result of the easy continental commute. If you live in central and southern England you can get home from northern France, Holland, Belgium and Germany overnight on Sunday, leaving time to ride your other horses and catch up with other practical tasks before setting off for the next show in the early hours of Wednesday.

The horse industry’s complexities cannot be straightforwardly explained to the politicians who are already being bombarded by other imperiled industries. “If it’s not to do with Covid, we can’t think about it right now” is the usual response. The general public still perceives horses to be a rich man’s hobby  and not a proper trade, so we can be pretty sure that horse sports are not on priority lists in either Westminster or Brussels.