Northern Ireland

Just what is a horse solarium?

Horse solarium Image copyright Monarch Equestrian
Image caption Horse solariums can be used to dry the animals and to heat up their muscles

While the the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme has lurched from controversy to controversy, one of the more unusual uses for an RHI wood pellet boiler came to light on Monday.

It emerged that the wife of former Ulster Unionist MLA Neil Somerville has a wood pellet boiler under the scheme in a family business.

The boiler is used to power a horse solarium.

"My wife runs the business which also includes the grooming and clipping of horses, but due to the type of work she does, it wasn't possible to carry it out all year round," Mr Somerville explained.

"The installation of the wood pellet boiler has meant that my wife is now able to carry out her work on a year-round basis and a horse solarium has been installed. We are happy for an inspection to take place."

But perhaps the question many people asked - as images of goggle-wearing dobbins tanning themselves leapt into their minds - is just what exactly is a horse solarium?

David Kirkpatrick, of the Equine Council for Northern Ireland, who has one, said they are the "same as what a physio would use for the human populace".

While the solariums can differ, Mr Kirkpatrick's consists of three rows of 500 watt bulbs which the horse stands under.

Image caption Former UUP councillor Neil Somerville's wife uses a wood pellet boiler to power a horse solarium

"I would use the solarium for my own horses after work. The whole purpose of it is that the heat gets into the muscles," he said.

"You put your horse in for probably half an hour a day maximum, or maybe half an hour twice a day, it's not a continual process, at least I've never heard of anyone using it on a continual basis.

"You can also use weaker solariums in stud farms to falsify the length of the day - you're encouraging your mare to come into season, to think it's spring."

He added: "They are becoming more and more common equestrian wise. Ten years ago they were unheard of. But it is something that is becoming more and more common and more equestrian people are starting to use them."

The horses seem unfazed and no goggles are required.

"My fella just stands and eats hay, he just goes to sleep underneath it," Mr Kirkpatrick said.

Image caption The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is approximately £490m over budget

"The only welfare issue is to make sure that if he throws his head up, he doesn't smash a bulb."

Warm the muscles

Fiona Parker, who works for a West Midlands-based company which sells horse solariums to both Northern Ireland and the Republic, said they have two main uses.

"Number one, if you wash a horse, it can dry them and it keeps them nice and warm," she said.

"The other thing that people use them for, is that when you ride a horse you have to spend so much time warming it up - like you would, you wouldn't go straight out there and sprint you would do a few warm-up exercises to loosen up the muscles.

"So if you've got a competition yard and you've got a lot of horses to ride, what a lot of people do is put them under the solarium and it just warms their muscles slightly.

"It's just a preventative thing to prevent injury."

So as the RHI scandal continues to burn, if someone asks you what's the most surprising use for one of the scheme's boilers, you can reply "there's neigh contest".

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