Future of horse riding isn’t a given, leading vet says

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At a webinar last week titled “Will we be riding in 20 years time?“, Dr Jane Nixon, an equine veterinarian of 44 years, said that through globalization, horse sport has become exposed to a new and unfamiliar audience with no prior concept of equestrian cultural traditions and practices.
Image by Astrid Schmid

A leading British veterinarian says the biggest threat to equestrianism today is the “social licence to operate”.

The social licence to operate refers to the ongoing level of acceptance of standards and norms within an industry or company by both stakeholders and the general public.

At a webinar last week titled “Will we be riding in 20 years time?“, Dr Jane Nixon, an equine veterinarian of 44 years, said that through globalization, horse sport has become exposed to a new and unfamiliar audience with no prior concept of equestrian cultural traditions and practices.

“In order for the general public to accept that horse riding remains socially acceptable, we need positive equine images,” she said.

The webinar attracted an audience of more than 450 registrants and 306 attendees who learned about the issue in the webinar presented by Nixon, who is Chair of The Showing Council and British Horse Foundation.

After the presentation, a panel of several leading industry figures joined Nixon to answer audience questions, including World Horse Welfare Chief Executive Roly Owers, Beverley Racecourse CEO Sally Iggulden, Kezia Allenfrom the British Horse Foundation, Chartered Physiotherapist Elizabeth Beckerlegge.

The webinar was supported by SEIB Insurance Brokers and before it took place, SEIB ran an online poll that asked the general public if they believe horse riding will be socially acceptable in 20 years’ time. Out of 622 respondents, 550 – 88.4% – said yes, it will be socially acceptable and 72 – 11.58% – said no, horse riding will not be socially acceptable. 93.8% of respondents were women with the remaining 6.2% men. Most respondents were in England.

Dr Jane Nixon

Another simple poll kicked off the webinar. It asked the audience the same question, and 82% of respondents stated that yes, they believe horse riding will remain socially acceptable with the remaining 18% answering otherwise. After Nixon’s presentation, the poll was re-run and the same question was asked. There was a sway in the results, with 79% of respondents answering yes, and 21% indicating they felt that horse riding would not be socially acceptable in 20 years’ time.

Nixon’s presentation firstly looked at what the social licence to operate is and how and why it is so important. She said that in order to have social acceptance of horse riding, with harmonious images of horses and their riders, we must have horses that are fit for purpose.

“To have horses that are physically and mentally fit for purpose, the period of time from conception to two years old is absolutely key. A multi-disciplinary approach is essential with foals and young horses, so that any opportunity for harm is avoided by a correct and meticulous approach. We must never be dismissive of those that disagree or don’t understand but always be inclusive and persuasive.”

In the question and answer session, a fascinating debate ensued around the role of riding schools and the public demand for riding lessons, for which there simply is not enough supply. Owers said that the viability of riding schools must be improved. “Accessibility, diversity and sustainability are big challenges. We must safeguard their future viability.”

Referring to a question indicating that attitudes on horse riding only affect a small section of society, Iggulden said: “Horse sport is under scrutiny, people have an opinion on animal welfare. In the past horses were owned by the wealthy, now they are increasingly accessible and often seen as pets. We need to be clear on what is acceptable.”

The question of members of the public being required to take a test before owning a horse was raised with a mention that this is now law in France.

Owers argued that the equine sector in France is highly centralized and so their system is better suited. He warned: “A licence would create a rule that would need to be enforced. It has merit but could be difficult to put into practice.”

This led to a point about requiring tack checks at shows. Nixon pointed out that incorrectly fitting bridles are very detrimental: “Buckles that are too high are at risk of impinging on the jaw joint. Nosebands that are put on high up catching cheekbones. Neither of these things leads to a harmonious picture.”

In answer to a question about training methods, Nixon returned to her fundamental belief that the crucial developmental time in a horse’s life is between conception and two years old. “Yes, disciplining the horse is necessary. But we must ensure this is done without any physical or mental harm. Once a learned behaviour is instilled, we must recognise and accept that retraining the horse takes time.”

Owers added: “We must think about the outward images we are projecting with our horses. It is no wonder people question the efficacy of equestrians when the media projects negative images. We need to tackle these things head-on.”

Iggulden added: “Education is key, horse sports need some joined-up thinking between the participants and the wider public if we are to continue in a positive way.”

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