The equestrian community must take heed of how the wider public views the use of horses in sport, the head of a leading international equine charity says.
World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers, addressing today’s FEI General Assembly in Uruguay, argued that equestrian sport should pursue a social licence with the wider community.
A social licence is an unwritten, non-legally binding contract where society gives horse sport the right to operate. Owers said it would involve building trust with society that horse sport can operate in an ethical and transparent manner.
“And it is important to recognise that we are all responsible for cultivating that licence,” he told delegates in Montevideo.
He said the concept had gained considerable traction over the past couple of years in horse sport.
“There is no doubt that in many countries around the world there is a small but growing view that horse sport – or any use of horses especially for profit or entertainment – is inherently cruel and unacceptable.
“This growing movement to recognise the rights of animals is often conflated with animal welfare.
“But,” he stressed, “animal welfare is about improving conditions and treatment of animals, not seeking to ban their involvement with humans. There is a big difference.
“This is where the concept of horse sport needing a social licence to operate could be useful. Not only does it place a focus on making the right ethical choices for our horses – which is of course nothing new – but it also considers the changing attitudes of society – which are certainly shifting to an ever increasing extent – quite possibly fuelled by the medium of social media.
Owers noted the comment of European Equestrian Federation president Hanfried Haring at the equine welfare seminar in Gothenburg during the European Championships earlier this year. Haring said: “It is no longer just us, the horse people, who decide what is right and wrong. The pressure from society on the treatment of horses is increasing.”
Owers continued: “For racing, a large focus over the last decade and more has been to reduce the level of fatalities and serious injury on the racecourse. This in part is driven by a growing public belief that equine deaths in racing should never be just accepted as a by-product of the sport.
“Equally, the use of the whip for encouragement in racing has long been a source of controversy – with varying impact – as today some countries effectively have no limit on its use, the UK allows up to eight strikes whilst other countries such as Sweden have banned its use altogether.
“Using the whip for encouragement can be a welfare issue but more often it is a perception issue – though it would be a grave error to discount it just because it is the latter. We believe further changes in the whip rules are inevitable in part to maintain racing’s social licence.
“For horse sport and the FEI, there is certainly a firm foundation with high standards of equine welfare.”
The FEI Code of Conduct, co-written with World Horse Welfare, clearly states that the welfare of the horse must be paramount.
“Enforcement of the rules is clearly fundamental to protecting our equine athletes both on the field of play and off it. Indeed, as I have discussed in previous years, this responsibility goes throughout the horse’s life, from birth to death, and most especially in the training yards.”
It had, he said, been an interesting 12 months, with developments including the Danish Federation’s decision to change their rules on nosebands and taking action on neurectomies – surgical removal of all or part of a nerve.
So, asked Owers, what practical actions might there be for horse sport from the concept of the social licence?
“Firstly, I would suggest ignore the concept, or certainly public perception, at your peril. Or, put another way – the consequences of ignoring public perception whatever the reality – can have hugely negative consequences.”
The horse-sport community needed to be proactive, he said.
“Establishing a social licence is not about mob rule but it is important to seek to get on the front foot.
“Respond to public perceptions by actively engaging and showing all the excellent welfare practices you have in place. Ask for independent opinion on your rules and regulations, as we have done for the German Federation and British Dressage over the past year.
“Ensure everyone involved in your federation understands that, together, we need to cultivate this social licence: be honest, transparent and move swiftly to stamp out anything that harms the welfare of the horse – and by extension the reputation of the sport.
“The past year has seen some incidents that have done just that. Outrageous acts of abuse – such as punching a racehorse – on any level have to have a zero-tolerance approach and a penalty that fits the crime. The message must always be clear that the horse comes first and that the horse is the chief stakeholder in the social licence.
“Thirdly, we need to more clearly articulate the true relevance of horse sport and the wider horse sector to society today.
“All too often horses are seen as a pastime for the rich and the elite which in itself can damage the social licence. In reality nothing could be further from the truth as across the world horses have a multitude of uses.
“Furthermore, the horse sector creates millions of jobs (in many countries being the second largest rural employer) and provides significant income to the global economy. Too many politicians and policy-makers around the world are completely ignorant about these clear and simple facts.
“And fourthly and finally, we need continue to highlight how unique the horse-human partnership is in equestrian competition, and the huge respect our equine athletes are held in by equestrians.”