David Owen

Opinions about Brexit are as divided here at insidethegames as in most other parts of the United Kingdom.

But, like it or loathe it, the clock is ticking and the beast looks set to be released from the smoke-filled rooms and debating chambers to which it has so far been largely confined, possibly as soon as March 29.

Of course, its unignorable presence has already been reflected in pockets of real life such as the currency and financial markets, the discreet boardrooms where international investment, and disinvestment, decisions are made and the changed life-plans of people who had got used to treating most of Europe as a single space.

But March 29 is when it might start to affect the day-to-day lives of millions, including quite a few in the sports industry we endeavour to cover.

Transportation is a big issue for those who organise and take part in international horse sport at the best of times.

This is for both veterinary and logistical reasons; last year's World Equestrian Games in the United States was preceded by the largest commercial airlift of horses in history.

What I wondered might be the detailed, practical consequences for UK-based horse owners expecting to send animals to competitions in Continental Europe this spring and summer in the event that the most abrupt change - a so-called No Deal Brexit - is not avoided?

I was directed to guidance from both the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the British Equestrian Federation (BEF).

Brexit negotiations could have an impact on horses and equestrian sport ©Getty Images
Brexit negotiations could have an impact on horses and equestrian sport ©Getty Images

Having read this very slowly it looks to me like, while you might deem the changes a waste of everyone's time since the facts on the ground in the industry will not have changed one iota, the extra administrative burden may - may - not be as taxing as some might have feared.

On the health side, the BEF says that horses leaving the UK to enter the EU would need a new type of Export Health Certificate.

This would require blood tests signed off by an official veterinarian and would last ten days.

This might sound rather onerous, but, as I understand it, current certificates also last only for ten days.

There is a catch: this assumes the UK will be designated a "third country" when it leaves the EU.

In all probability, this is what would happen; DEFRA says it is "seeking discussions with the European Commission to allow the UK to become a listed third country on the day we leave the EU".

Should it not happen, though, for whatever reason, then the consequences do look, well, drastic.

Says DEFRA: "In the event that the UK is not a listed country equine movement to the EU could not take place."

To repeat however, at least for now, this appears a theoretical worst-case scenario under a No Deal Brexit, rather than a state of affairs that is at all likely to come to pass.

The extra requirements imposed by the EU on third countries depend on perceived levels of disease risk.

DEFRA says the new process "could involve increased cost if additional blood tests are required".

It estimates the cost of these at between £200 ($260/€230) and £500 ($650/€560), "depending on the third country category the UK is placed in".

Again, I am advised that the prospects appear good of the UK being placed among the highest category of third countries, with the least onerous additional health requirements.

According to Göran Akerström, veterinary director at the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), "there is a very strong common will among veterinary authorities to solve issues in the best possible way to minimise problems for the horse industry".

A huge operation is required to transport horses to events such as the World Equestrian Games ©Getty Images
A huge operation is required to transport horses to events such as the World Equestrian Games ©Getty Images

He goes on: "DEFRA are very highly respected worldwide.

"That is a good sign; that would indicate that the health status of horses would be on the top level for a third country."

There is currently a tripartite agreement that streamlines the movement of some types of horses between Ireland, France and the UK.

For example, for movements between the UK and Ireland, only an identification document is required.

There is, moreover, no requirement for horses to move between countries via a border inspection post.

According to DEFRA, if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, this tripartite agreement would no longer be valid.

This suggests that, under those circumstances, a border inspection post would have to be used.

DEFRA also explains that, while existing horse passports would continue to be valid for EU travel for horses registered on a studbook or pedigree register, or with a national branch of an international organisation, other horses travelling from the UK to the EU would need a new government-issued identification document.

The new documents would be produced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) on behalf of the Government, except in Northern Ireland, where they would be the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs..

DEFRA advises that the documents would need to be signed off by an official vet and that charges, as with any additional pre-travel clinical checks, would "depend on individual vets".

The documents are expected to be valid for one return journey.

One piece of positive news to have emerged from all of this is that the FEI is endeavouring to accelerate development and implementation of a new electronic registration system.

"Brexit has fast-tracked development of our electronic database," Akerström says.

"We have for a time been looking into an electronic registration system for the traceability of horses.

"It could also be used to give reassurance to authorities that the horses are traceable because traceability is a key element in risk management of infectious diseases."

Huge traffic jams approaching ports and borders would present problems for horse owners ©Getty Images
Huge traffic jams approaching ports and borders would present problems for horse owners ©Getty Images

Brexit-related red tape, then, may not be too exasperating for well-prepared horse owners and equestrian sport participants, even if existing arrangements seem more sensible and efficient.

What I suspect would give horse-sport practitioners a worse headache at the outset if a No Deal Brexit were to materialise would be the threat of traffic-jams and other protracted hold-ups.

If the motorways approaching the main English Channel ports were to become anything like as snarled-up as some have suggested, it is difficult to see how horse transporters could avoid unpredictable and extended delays until systems learnt to cope with the new demands being placed upon them. 

For humans in transit, long delays are boring, a nuisance and potentially a source of extra cost; for equine passengers, they can become a welfare issue, especially in the summer heat, not to mention a potential menace to optimal sports performance.

"It is absolutely important that horses are not kept waiting at borders," Akerström says, adding: "This has to be a top priority in all these discussions."

If I were a UK-based rider entered for a competition somewhere in Europe in the early part of April, I think I would be minded either to get my horse to its end-destination before March 29, or to withdraw, stay in the UK and assess how the Brexit cookie was crumbling.

In a rational environment, No Deal Brexit simply should not happen; yet, as I write this, we are little more than 50 days away from the earliest date on which it might materialise and it looks by no means out of the question.