Bush racing in South Africa and other traditional equine sports have been brought under the umbrella of the South African Equestrian Federation (SAEF) in order to improve horse welfare.
A new discipline “Indigenous Horse Riding” has been created and is affiliated with the federation. It is open to any type of traditional or cultural horse sport.
A project funded by international working equine charity Brooke to improve the welfare of horses used in illegal bush racing led to Indigenous Horse Riding becoming a fully regulated national sport, with welfare standards and rules recognised by the SAEF. Races normally take place over a distance of 2km.
Bush racing is a historic sporting activity that has been practiced for centuries by all ages, young and old as part of the local culture. Virago Agri Consultants (VAC) and Brooke identified the need to improve conditions for horses after it became clear that most riders and horse owners had little to no education on the care and management of horses, meaning that wounds were often left untreated and there was little food or water given. These conditions, coupled with the fact that most of these animals also worked full weeks ahead of race weekends, signalled the need to take action.
Whilst Brooke does not endorse racing, the sport is deeply ingrained within local culture and traditions. Simply put, the practice would have continued with or without Brooke’s involvement and it was deemed to be far better to have a voice at the table than not in order to enact positive change for the animals involved.
From January 2019, VAC began working with community leaders and owners to educate them on the need for better welfare regulations and the importance of safe harnessing. This was welcomed by the community as more than 200 people and 80 horses attended the biggest training day, kick-starting a culture shift towards better welfare for all of the animals involved. There was a particular focus on the youth of the community, who it is hoped will take these learnings into the future.
“This project has had great success,” VAC Project Manager Gerda Liebenberg said. “People did not only hear about the changes and horses looking better, they were part of it and could see it happening with their own eyes, this was a huge motivation for all other riders and owners to follow. The project has opened up so many opportunities, especially for the horses, their lives have improved dramatically.”
As well as working with the community, VAC lobbied the SAEF on the urgent need for regulation within the sport. The federation listened and soon got to work on making Indigenous Horse Riding a national sport with rules and regulations. Such regulations include the need to have a vet on-site to conduct pre-race inspections on all horses involved, horses under the age of three should not take part, and the design of the course should not put unreasonable or dangerous demands on horses and riders.
Today, there is a far greater consideration for the welfare of horses involved in the popular sport. Owners and riders have quickly made horse care and welfare a priority and neglectful behaviour has become shameful within communities. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has added difficulties in engaging with communities, VAC continues to support owners using Whatsapp to share welfare advice and link them to government veterinary services when needed.
The yearlong project was made possible thanks to Brooke’s Innovation Fund, which enables Brooke to work with other organisations to address persistent problems affecting working equines in new and effective ways.