Whether or not you need to obtain planning permission to change the use of land which is currently an agricultural use to allow equestrian activities depends on whether the equestrian activity falls within the statutory definition of "agriculture".
Planning permission may appear not to be relevant to the keeping of horses on agricultural land, as no operational development per se is required. Nevertheless, the keeping of a horse in a field can constitute a change of use of the land from 'agricultural' to 'recreational' or 'other', which will require planning permission.
NB: Planning permission will be required for any operational development that takes place on the land. For instance, any permanent equestrian construction including a stable, a permanent field shelter, or a riding arena. The discussion of planning permission for operational development is beyond this focus on 'material change of use'.
What is agriculture in planning law?
The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 defines "agriculture" as including horticulture, fruit growing, seed growing, dairy farming, the breeding and keeping of livestock (including any creature kept for the production of food, wool, skins or fur, or for the purpose of its use in the farming of land), the use of land as grazing land, meadow land, osier land, market gardens and nursery grounds, and the use of the land for woodlands where that use is ancillary to the farming of land for other agricultural purposes.
The Courts have held that the "breeding and keeping of livestock" does not apply to the breading and keeping of horses, unless the purpose of breeding and keeping the horses is for their use in the farming of the land.1 For example, the use of land as a stud farm will require planning permission. Similarly planning permission would be required for the breeding, keeping and training of horses for show-jumping or racing because they are for a specialised form of sport and not farming.
Using agricultural land as grazing land for horses will fall within the statutory definition of agriculture and will not require planning permission. If the land is being used for grazing, the courts have held that it will not matter whether the land is being grazed by a racehorse or a carthorse.2 However, the primary purpose of the land must be grazing; any ancillary use may cause planning permission to be required.3
Factors the local authority will consider when determining whether horses are solely being grazed on the land
- Are the horses fed? – If the horses are being fed by alternative feed and any grazing is secondary, the use of the land is unlikely to be considered agricultural.
- Use of the field – where the horses are being exercised and ridden in the field, the use of the land will not be considered agricultural.
- Structures on the land – any structures related to the horses' welfare or training, such as jumps, horse exercises or a schooling surface, will point towards the horses being kept there for leisure rather than agricultural purposes.
Overall, planning permission for equestrian land uses, on currently existing agricultural land, is a complex area that requires all the above factors to be taken into account. However, in summary, for the equestrian use of land to fall within the definition of "agriculture" and not require planning permission, the horses must be working horses on the land (for example pulling a plough) or horses turned out solely for the purpose of grazing that land.
1 Belmont Farm Ltd v Minister of Housing and Local Government (1962) 13 P. C.R 417
2 Fox v First Secretary of State  4 P.L.R 26
3 Sykes v Secretary of state for the Environment (1981) 42 P. & C. R. 19
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.