An ethical equestrian journey: A road map to a happier, healthier future for horse sport

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"Public, media, regulatory and governmental unease about health and welfare issues in sporting equines across disciplines is growing."
Photo by Louise Pilgaard

A researcher has laid out a framework to help the world’s many equestrian pursuits determine whether their use of horses meets acceptable ethical standards.

Madeleine Campbell, writing in the journal Animals, acknowledges that horse sport is important to society in terms of spectator enjoyment, benefits to human mental and physical health, as well as its economic impact.

However, it inevitably exposes horses to potential physical and psychological harms.

“Whilst the use of horses in sport continues to be accepted by the majority of the public, that social license is increasingly tenuous,” she writes.

“Public, media, regulatory and governmental unease about health and welfare issues in sporting equines across disciplines is growing,” she says. Issues include injuries, death, ill-treatment or neglect, training techniques, transportation, doping, and the fate of horses after their retirement.

Campbell says that while the need for the development of ethics for the use of animals in sport is anecdotally recognized, efforts by regulators and stakeholders in equine sport have tended to be discipline-specific and ad hoc.

“No coherent interdisciplinary examination has been undertaken to provide an overarching ethical framework which could be applied across equestrian sports to improve practice,” she writes.

A step by step explanation of how to use Madeleine Campbell’s ethical framework. Graphic: Campbell et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11061725

Campbell says it is presupposed in the writing of her just-published paper that the use of horses in sport is generally ethically justifiable, but that such use should be constrained by certain specified central principles.

Ethical frameworks, she says, can help stakeholders make appropriate decisions about what should or should not be done in a particular situation.

“However, when existing animal welfare frameworks and existing sports ethics frameworks are reviewed in this paper, it becomes clear that none provide us with a suitable or sufficient tool for considering ethical issues which can arise in situations where the athlete is a non-human, non-consenting participant.”

Campbell proposes a new ethical framework with the aim of providing equestrian industry stakeholders  — whether they be regulators, owners, trainers, riders/drivers, vets, legislators, members of the public or others — with a tool that they might apply to the ethical questions that inevitably arise in horse sport.

“This framework may be used in international, national or local settings, across equestrian disciplines.”

Its use, she suggests, will serve both to underwrite the continuation of the social license to use horses in sport and also to enable those within equestrian sport to critically assess existing and proposed practices and make welfare-improving changes when or if necessary.

The central tenets of the framework centre around minimising negative welfare effects and maximising positive welfare effects; identifying and reducing unnecessary risks to horses; and complying with appropriate governing body regulations and the law.

Campbell, who is with the Department of Pathobiology and Population Sciences at The Royal Veterinary College in England, says the first step is to define the ethical issue or question being considered and assess its scope.

The next step is to identify stakeholders and their interests, who can range from horses owners, breeders and jockeys, to veterinarians, regulators, policymakers and animal charities.

The relevant evidence then needs to be assessed, which could come from journals, books, reports, expert opinions, and the input of the stakeholders. Relevant laws and regulations also need to be considered.

While the need for the development of ethics for the use of animals in sport is anecdotally recognized, efforts by regulators and stakeholders in equine sport have tended to be discipline-specific and ad hoc, Campbell said.
While the need for the development of ethics for the use of animals in sport is anecdotally recognized, efforts by regulators and stakeholders in equine sport have tended to be discipline-specific and ad hoc, Campbell said. Photo by Philippe Oursel

Campbell then proposes the use of what she calls a stakeholder matrix to lay out the various interests of each stakeholder, while also applying a harm–benefit analysis to the question or issue at hand.

A preliminary conclusion or decision can be reached based on the harm–benefit analysis. This must then be tested against the central tenets of the ethical framework.

“If any of the central tenets are compromised by the preliminary conclusion/decision reached through the harm–benefit analysis, reassess both the analysis and the conclusion,” she says.

Testing the preliminary conclusion against the central tenets will help in weighing up different stakeholders’ interests, she says.

“Testing initial conclusions from the harm–benefit analysis against the central tenets is a balancing and rebalancing process.

“The framework deliberately does not say anything about the relative weighing of different (sometimes conflicting) interests amongst humans — that must be left to the users of the framework, with appropriate acknowledgment of conflicts where they occur.”

"Public, media, regulatory and governmental unease about health and welfare issues in sporting equines across disciplines is growing."
“Public, media, regulatory and governmental unease about health and welfare issues in sporting equines across disciplines is growing,” Campbell says. Photo by Markus Spiske

Conflicts may occur between stakeholder interests, she warns. “Can any conflicts be resolved by further reference to the central tenets of the framework? Can any conflicts be resolved by reference to evidence?

“Sometimes, apparent conflicts of interest are in fact disagreements over facts, and can be resolved by elucidation of those facts or by gathering further evidence.

“It is to be expected that conflicts will occur. Where this happens and they cannot be resolved, they should be noted, along with a brief explanation of the reason why they cannot be resolved.”

A final conclusion/decision or outcome should then be agreed, with any dissenting opinions noted. An action plan can then be established to implement it.

Campbell, whose work was supported by the charity World Horse Welfare, says her framework is designed to be applicable to all equestrian sports.

She cautions that ethical frameworks which are over-general are unlikely to be helpful in practice as their very generalisability makes it harder for stakeholders to easily see the applicability to their own situation.

“It is therefore anticipated that individual equestrian sports may choose to use this ethical framework as a starting point, and subsequently to develop sport-specific codes of ethics.”

She says the framework is currently being practically tested and refined in consultation with industry stakeholders. That research will be submitted for journal publication in due course.

Campbell, M.L.H. An Ethical Framework for the Use of Horses in Competitive Sport: Theory and Function. Animals 2021, 11, 1725. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11061725

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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