Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i In Focus i In Focus 2024 i Theme: Work-related deaths i No horsing around with the work environment for the Swedish equine sector
No horsing around with the work environment for the Swedish equine sector

No horsing around with the work environment for the Swedish equine sector

| Text: Fayme Alm, photo:

The Swedish horse industry faces challenges both in terms of high accident risks and heavy labour. To improve the work environment, they offer training and also use research to find new methods and tools to create better conditions. Now, a new equestrian centre where new technology will be tested is nearing completion.

"Women are twice as likely as men to suffer serious accidents when working with animals. The horse is the one most frequently involved in serious work-related accidents," according to statistics from AFA Insurance. 

Yet the horse industry faces challenges beyond accident risks. Working with horses involves a lot of manual labour, heavy lifting, repetitive tasks and awkward postures, all known risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders.

Horse industry work environments

In Sweden, there are 34 horses per 1,000 inhabitants, totalling around 355,000 horses. This in turn generates 18,680 full-time jobs. The figures are from The Horse Industry in Numbers. 


The industry encompasses activities like breeding, riding schools, tourism, farriery, boarding, competition, training, veterinary services and rehabilitation.

It is a large and diverse industry, and efforts are being made to improve the work environment. Some of these include courses in Better work environment (BAM), systematic work environment management in practice, and labour law – all run by the Swedish Horse Industry Foundation (HNS) in collaboration with the Hästsportens folkhögskola (the equestrian folk high school). The Horse Industry’s vocational board is tasked with promoting good and safe work environments. 

Cecilia Lindahl"The entire horse industry realises the need to change the work environment to recruit and retain its staff in the future," Cecilia Lindahl tells the Nordic Labour Journal. She is an agronomist with a PhD on the risk factors for occupational injuries during cattle handling on dairy farms, at Rise, the Research Institutes of Sweden.

Involvement is crucial

That is how she got involved in work environment issues. After her dissertation, during one of her horseback rides, she began thinking how it might be equally interesting and relevant to investigate these issues in relation to working with horses. Like cattle, horses are large and powerful animals that can react in unexpected ways.

"I looked into this and found that one of the challenges in the horse industry was how to practically implement efforts to improve the work environment," she says.

With financing from the Foundation for Equine Research, Cecilia Lindahl carried out a study called "Improved Work Environment in the Horse Industry through New Methods and Tools" in collaboration with Ing-Marie Andersson, a professor of work science at Dalarna University, and former doctoral student Åsa Bergman Bruhn at the same university. Additional funding from AFA Insurance allowed more riding schools and trotting stables to participate in the study.

It consisted of two parts. One was a survey "aimed at identifying how employees in the horse industry experience their current jobs and which factors they consider most important for a job to be perceived as attractive." 

Horse 2

"One of the most interesting findings from the survey was that employees at both riding schools and trotting stables rated their work as very attractive. The result stood out compared to other industries that responded to the same survey," says Cecilia Lindahl. 

The second part was an intervention study that demonstrated the importance of managing work environments systematically, such as employee participation and the variation of tasks.

An interesting method

One of the methods the participants in the study found particularly interesting was Visit. The method was developed at Dalarna University, Cecilia Lindahl explains.

"It involves the employer gathering employees for an activity where they collectively choose which areas of their operation they want to focus on. It could be the main stable, the small stable, the feed room, the paddocks, staff areas or the entrance, for example. 

Horse 3“They then go around and look at each area with fresh eyes. How do things work here? What is good? What could be improved? Anything they come up with is written down or photographed," she says.

The group then goes through their list to see what needs to be addressed most urgently, while also noting what works well. This can create a basis for an action plan which can then be regularly reviewed.

"The method has worked very well. Employees feel they are being listened to, and change happens. I also think the fact that everyone feels they are part of the work environment effort is a strong motivator. So, to sum it up, it's an effective and simple method," says Cecilia Lindahl. 

"When everyone participates in work environment efforts, it becomes a natural part of the operation. If only a few people are involved, there's no guarantee it will be implemented across the entire workforce. In that case, some staff may be dissatisfied with the work environment efforts even if the riding school meets the requirements for systematic work environment management. It must be more than just a sheet of paper in a binder. Involvement is crucial."

Building for the future

A concrete example of the future sustainable work environment within the horse industry will soon be unveiled. In southern Sweden, between the country's two largest lakes – Vänern and Vättern – lies the Axevalla Equestrian Centre. Their new facility’s ambition is that "architecture and technology should make things easier for people and create more natural conditions for horses." The new centre will be ready by this autumn.

This is where the Västra Götaland Region – one of Sweden's 21 regions – will consolidate its horse education programs. Options include:

  • Equestrian upper secondary education teaching equestrian sports, harness racing and Icelandic horse sports.
  • Vocational adult education – a one-year training program for stable hands.
  • Vocational college – the Biological Vocational College offers green industries courses, and will run a three-year farrier training program at Axevalla.
  • Contract education including short courses and longer programs, such as saddle fitting and Året på hästgården (A year on the horse farm).

The new facility will house a total of 60 horses – riding and Icelandic horses as well as trotters, which will remain in the original building.

“The reason we are building this is because there's a need for the entire industry to take a step forward both in terms of mechanisation to improve the work environment for people and to address the needs and welfare of the horses," Elin Göransdotter, deputy principal at Axevalla Equestrian Centre, tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

Robots facilitate

There will be eight loose pens where each group of horses will have access to their own long feeding table. A robot will mix the feed and also dispense it onto the tables.

"There will be a maximum of eight horses in each pen, and we'll group them according to their nutritional needs. We prefer to increase chewing time, i.e., how long the horse stands and chews the hay. They are designed to graze and search for food for a large part of the day. 

“If they eat too quickly, it can lead to prolonged stress. This can cause gastric ulcers or other stress-related problems. Or we may also end up with overweight horses," says Elin Göransdotter.

Today, humans manually pack and weigh feed bags – a very time-consuming process since every day each horse is fed between four and five bags weighing 4 – 12 kg. 

"There are similar robot systems for other livestock in agriculture, but the type we've chosen hasn't been tested on horses yet, so we're curious to see how it will turn out," says Elin Göransdotter.

A robot will also pick up horse manure, but for now, the planning group for the new facility has not found a model that works in gravel paddocks like these. Therefore, the task will be performed manually for the time being. 

Axevalla Equestrian Centre already uses a robot in the horse paddocks. It is similar to a large wheelbarrow that follows the person doing the cleaning, without having to be pushed. The wheelbarrow is battery-powered and controlled by buttons and levers via a belt worn around the person's waist. 

Improved welfare for both humans and animals

An improved work environment reduces the workload, but it also means more time to learn about the horses, believes Elin Göransdotter. These are things she hopes will lead to more people staying on as stable hands instead of leaving the profession for an entirely different career after a short time, which is common today.

"When manure management works as intended and less time is spent packing feed, there is more time to spend with the horses. It also gives students a better chance to learn more about communication, training methods, and memorisation. They also become better at using their hands and detecting early signs of the horse's health status.

“Many say that the feeding time is when you can tell if the horse is feeling good or not. That concept is one of several challenges we will face. But we must dare to try new things for the industry to offer better welfare for both horses and humans – as well as a sustainable work life," says Elin Göransdotter.


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment