Maintaining a social license “crucial to the future of horse sport”

© FEI/Jon Stroud

Welfare decisions around horse sport need to involve the wider public in order to maintain the social licence to operate, a leading Australian official says.

Julie Fiedler, the chief executive of the South Australia equestrian body Horse SA, was speaking at a meeting last week that drew together parties from across the equestrian spectrum, including racing.

Fiedler told those gathered in Hahndorf, South Australia, that involving the public in welfare matters was important, because such decisions attracted a global audience.

“Through having a structured approach to address horse welfare it provides organisations with a framework to build capacity among all participants when contributing to public conversation on sport horse welfare,” she told delegates.

“Sport participants, after all, are the primary interface with the public.”

The gathering, hosted by Horse SA, pulled together equestrian industry, business and social leaders to discuss sport horse welfare and the social licence to operate.

A social licence refers to the ongoing acceptance of standard practices and operating procedures by the general public.

The event provided a platform for leaders from a wide range of racing and equestrian disciplines to learn, network and constructively discuss the incorporation of state-of-the-art animal welfare assessment frameworks in the Horse Sports context.

© Horse SA

Participants travelled from all over Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, and included sport governing body executives, veterinarians, equine scientists and social leaders representing both racing codes, and a wide range of equestrian and recreational disciplines.

As well as Fiedler, keynote speakers were Emeritus Professor David Mellor, foundation director of the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethical Centre at New Zealand’s Massey University; Martin Burns, the general manager of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing; and Dr Andrew McLean, co-director of Equitation Science International;.

A recorded welcome message by Roly Owers, who heads World Horse Welfare in Britain, set the scene for the event, featuring the key message that social licence is about bringing trust and accountability for horse welfare to the public.

The Five Domains Model of Animal Welfare.
The Five Domains Model of Animal Welfare.

The event proposed the Five Domains Model as a structured and constructive approach for continuous monitoring and welfare assessment of horses in sport, a concept that New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) is embedding in their new welfare policy.

Burns gave an overview of NZTR’s welfare review process and the reasons for adopting an evidence-based approach:

“The Five Domains Model brings credibility and gives us a workable framework,” Burns said. “We’ve been lucky to work with Professor Mellor, a world leader in animal welfare science, who made himself available and engaged with us from the beginning.

“The minimum standards in our upcoming policy are set higher than the minimum standards in legislation because NZTR want to set conditions and provisions for horses that are adequate or very good.

“After consultation with our industry, we will make it available for everyone else to review, copy or adapt. If other horse pursuits pick it up as a common approach that will be great, because then we will all be speaking the same language.”

Adopting a structured way for continuous assessment and monitoring of welfare improvements will be crucial to the sustainability of all horse sports and recreational organisations because welfare underpins societal acceptance of how we use horses.

McLean reflected on the levels of uptake of evidence-based research world-wide over recent years.

The first slide of the presentation quoted Schopenhaur (1788-1860): All truth passes through three stages: First it is ridiculed, secondly its violently opposed, third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

McLean went on to stress the need for equitation science to be included within university courses world-wide, for horse trainers to eliminate the use of the term “naughty horse” when conflict behaviours present and, instead, to incorporate how horses learn (learning theory).

Dr Andrew McLean
Dr Andrew McLean

Finally, horse carers must consider what is positive horse welfare and not just ‘good care or well-being’ of the horse.

The meeting was praised for providing an opportunity for leaders and influencers from different areas of the horse sector to build strong relationships, bounce ideas and establish partnerships.

South Australian Racehorse Owners representative Ken Cock described the event as useful “and an enormous learning experience”.

“It’s helped me to understand that we all have a responsibility, everyone within the industry, to actually present the industry in the best light possible with the understanding that not everybody sees things in exactly the same way as we do.”

The chief executive of Pony Club Australia, Catherine Ainsworth, said: “Pony Club Australia is the foundation of equestrian sport and we recognise the critical role we play in education, and the role of education in promoting horse welfare.”

The event had provided an excellent framework to help the organisation complete its new equine welfare policy based on the Five Domains.

“The networks developed over the last days link us together around the common interest of optimum horse welfare throughout the animal’s life – for example the retraining of ex racehorses for a riding career with a Pony Club Member.

“It is a big step forward to establish a common language on what constitutes good animal welfare for a sport horse.”

The event was made possible through support provided by Thoroughbred Racing SA, NZ Thoroughbred Racing, Equitation Science International and The Haus Accommodation Group.

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