Horse world urged to up its equine welfare game

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The equestrian world has been urged to “do more, faster” to prioritise equine welfare, as public perception of horse sport is increasingly in the spotlight.

An event this week hosted by international charity World Horse Welfare highlighted the challenges and opportunities faced regarding public perceptions of welfare in equestrian sport, and explored how they can be addressed.

About 100 members of the equestrian world and the media attended the event “Social licence and the involvement of horses in sport” on Tuesday. The results of an independent survey conducted by YouGov last month were discussed, particularly the finding that “40% of the general public would only continue to support the use of horses in sport if their welfare was improved, while 20% would not support their use in any circumstances”.

World Horse Welfare supports the responsible use of horses in sport and for several years has been championing the concept that equestrianism can only flourish with public support, so long as it has a social licence to operate.

Chief Executive Roly Owers said that the survey was of a representative sample of the general public, and the vast majority of respondents (over 90%) had little or no recent contact with horses.

“This is a snapshot of what some may dismiss as ‘uninformed’ opinions about horses in sport,” he said.

“However, our research indicated that people who do understand horses have similar views. While the sample size was just too low for statistical confidence, the results showed that even among those who said they do have regular experience with horses, 22 out of 48 supported the continued involvement of horses in sport only if their welfare is improved, while 27 in 48 thought there should be more safety and welfare measures in place.

“And some 8 in 48 did not support horses’ involvement in sport under any circumstances. So welfare concerns in horse sport, it seems, do not exist only among people who do not understand horses.”

A 40-minute discussion with panellists from across the horse sport world ranged across whether the survey results came as a surprise, how much each sport has considered their social licence to operate, where improvements have already been made and where others could be and whether attitudes and actions had changed with social media capturing fleeting good or bad moments.

The panel agreed that the equestrian world wasn’t always good at getting the positive stories and the background care, management and training of the horses across to the public. It was suggested that there is a real need to bring in the voices of more of the team around the horses, such as farriers and vets.

Dr Barry Johnson, Chair of British Racing’s Horse Welfare Board, pointed out that racing was ahead of some other sports in its response to social licence. “Racing has researched these issues, and this is what precipitated our report, A Life Well Lived, and the setting up of an independent welfare body,” he said.

“Trainers and racecourses have opened up their facilities and invited the public in to see what happens before and after racing. It’s a change of culture which has allowed things like the whip consultation to take place.”

He said that racing had always been seen as the sport that stays out on its own. “But now there is an appetite to work with other horse sports and it’s vital that we all work together. We must develop trust between each other and trust with the public that what we are doing is for the benefit of the horses.”

Christian Landolt, dressage rider and eventer, trainer and FEI ground jury member was not surprised by the survey results: “There is a big discrepancy in how people manage their horses, of horsemanship at all levels and it worries me. There needs to be a push on education.”

“As a judge, I’m also aware that riders often don’t know the rules of the sports they compete in — I sit a little exam each year for the FEI and I’d like the riders to do that too before they can compete,” Landolt said.

David Morley, Chair of the Hurlingham Polo Association Pony Welfare Committee, said the polo world was a little surprised by the survey results but went on to admit that it had not been good at sharing the work that is being done within the sport during the lifetime of the polo ponies.

“We have woken up to social licence. Our sport is different in that we deal with a string of ponies rather than a one-to-one relationship, caring for the classroom rather than one pupil at a time. But we hold owners responsible for the ponies, when they are working and when they retire.

“We have a system to sign ponies out of polo so that if retired they cannot return to the sport. There are limits on how much a pony can do in any one day and we look at how welfare can be improved.”

Olympic eventer Pippa Funnell MBE shared her experiences with social media, saying riders have to be honest when things don’t go according to plan, but it was upsetting when the rare wrongdoings of a very small number of people involved with horses can tarnish others. “It’s a way of life and it’s important to get that across to the public. To me, the horses are family members. You can’t put into words the emotions you have for these animals.

“Education is key. There could be a system where respected riders can be there with an armband and be open to approach by anyone wanting advice. And it puts them in a position to pick out someone doing something wrong by the horse and tactfully educating them.”

Dr Madeleine Campbell, Senior Lecturer in human-animal interactions and ethics at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has worked extensively on the horse-human relationship. She said communication was key: “Competitors talking about their horses and how they are managed is really helpful to those not familiar with horses. It’s important that we can explain to the public that we are including demonstrable welfare in policymaking.

“The Ethical Framework provides a tool to make ethical decisions that can be easily explained. We also need to think how we communicate with the public around the nature of the horse-human relationship. When it’s well done there is a benefit to the horse as well. We need to explain that and communicate the horse’s positive lifetime experience.”

Owers concluded the event saying the idea of a cross-sector forum to work together on these issues was a fascinating option, and to build on what racing does when it opens its stables to the public.

“There is an opportunity to shine a light on what makes the horse-human partnership so genuine and inspiring. I think we need to focus as much on the horses as we do on the riders, and we need to demonstrate the care and individual relationships we have with our horses and celebrate their success as true partners.”

He then asked everyone attending to make three commitments:

  • Challenge yourself to consider what you should be doing better to prioritise the welfare of your horses.
  • Review your sport’s current practices – and work together with others – to make improvements that will directly benefit horse welfare, and
  • Work with the media to promote the benefits of the horse-human partnership, with a particular focus on the benefits to horses.

“If we can commit to this, and to work together in the months and years to come, I have no doubt that we can ensure a really positive future for the horse-human partnership which lies at the foundation of responsible horse sport.”

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