Equestrianism must “walk the talk” to maintain its social licence – review

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Achieving consensus about what constitutes ethically acceptable equestrianism in the 21st century will not be without challenges, say the authors.
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Threats to horse sport’s social licence to operate are only likely to grow unless all involved adopt a proactive approach and commit to the highest standards of welfare and ethics, according to the authors of a review.

“The demise of a number of animal-use activities, including some that involve horses, makes it clear that the sustainability of equestrian sports depends on its ability to evolve and, in particular, to address issues relating to ethics and equine welfare,” they said.

In their just-published paper, Janet Douglas and Roly Owers, from the British charity World Horse Welfare, and Madeleine Campbell, with the University of Nottingham, examined strategies that have proved helpful in maintaining a social licence in other industries.

The trio, writing in the journal Animals, said most societies regulate human activities using laws that state clearly what is, and is not, legally permissible. However, there is a second layer of permission that is granted — or revoked — by the public, known as a social licence to operate. It represents an intangible, implicit agreement between the public and an industry or group.

The public may approve of an activity, in which case it can proceed with few formal restrictions, or it may disapprove, which may herald legal restrictions or even a ban.

The concept of a social licence to operate first arose in 1997 in relation to mining and has since been extended to other natural resource management industries such as fishing, forestry, and energy production. It is also relevant to animal-use industries and activities, including dairy and sheep farming, wildlife use, zoos, hunting, circuses, marine mammal parks, and equestrianism.

The authors examined the social licence concept in relation to equestrianism, looking at what it could learn from other industries that rely on a similar concept.

“Social licence is not an ‘all or nothing’ phenomenon, and public acceptance of an activity can sit at any point on a continuum from psychological identification with the activity to outright rejection,” they said. If the public rejects an industry or activity, legal restrictions are likely to follow, they cautioned.

The review team noted that public disquiet about animal welfare has grown over the decades.

“This change — much of which is likely to enhance animals’ quality of life — has been fuelled by a population that is increasingly urbanised and that expects a more compassionate and ethics-based approach to the welfare of animals used in recreation than was previously the case.”

For animals, such as horses, that belong to a social species, this includes providing the opportunity to engage in equine bonding activities.

“The evolution of the public’s views on animal welfare is illustrated by the altered attitude regarding animal-use activities that were once deemed socially acceptable, including the use of animals in circuses, marine mammals in aquaria, caged animals in zoos, the hunting of wildlife, and dog fighting.”

The rise in vegetarianism and veganism in many societies is also partially based on animal welfare concerns, they noted.

The authors acknowledged the advances in the protection of horse welfare that have been made by individuals and equestrian sporting organisations. However, there remain substantial challenges to equestrianism’s social license to operate, they said.

The issues that pose the greatest risk are those that are publicly visible, such as injuries during competition, or that are brought to the public’s attention by activists, whistleblowers, and journalists, some of whom are involved in the sport.

“However, it is arguable that these are just the tip of the iceberg, and that many less visible welfare issues — which may, over time, enter mainstream public awareness — have a greater impact on horses’ quality of life. These include the approximately 23 hours a day for which many horses are stabled.

“In this context, the relative absence, in most jurisdictions, of regulations relating to horses’ ‘down time’ compared with the plethora of regulations relating to their experience during competition is notable.”

The trio said the threats to equestrianism’s social licence to operate are well recognised by those leading the sport. “This is a major step in the direction of positive change, since denial of the problem is a key contributor to the demise of an industry.

“However, the strategies that equestrianism adopts to address concerns about the validity of its social licence are likely to dictate the future of the sport.”

They said experience from the mining industry suggests that success in maintaining or repairing a social licence is best achieved through several simultaneous strategies, all of which require the industry to be proactive. “In this context, proactivity involves taking ownership of issues and embracing reform.

“When combined with the transparency of operations, this approach has been successful in both protecting and repairing an industry’s social licence to operate.

“This contrasts with a reactive approach to social licence problems which essentially involves denying that there is an issue and relying on positive public messaging for reputational repair.

“However, the public can distinguish between serious, science-based attempts to improve animal welfare and unsubstantiated positive messaging, and a reactive approach, although potentially successful in the short term, is unlikely to be effective in the long run.”

In addition, the longer an issue remains unresolved, the more difficult it becomes to change public sentiment, and the greater the likelihood of legislation. Legislation, once in place, is rarely revoked.

Establishing public trust is crucial to improving the status of an industry’s social licence, they said. “In this context, trust implies confidence that the industry will act with integrity and ‘do what’s right’.

“When faced with a negative slide in their social licence, some industries assume that they have an image problem when in fact, their problem is lack of public trust.

“This,” they said, “is an important distinction because, although image and trust are related; a problem with each of these concepts requires a different response.”

Research can be informative and can guide an industry towards beneficial change.

Data from the food industry suggest that the establishment of trust is based primarily on how much confidence people have in that industry to behave appropriately and, to a lesser extent, on how competent the industry’s practitioners are deemed to be.

“Since trust requires transparency, this must also be a high priority.

“Prioritising public trust is important for two reasons: Not only is it a key driver of social licence, but it also creates a ‘halo effect’ that may influence the public’s view in times of crisis or challenge.

“Any industry can unexpectedly reach a social licence ‘tipping point’, and it is helpful if public trust has been established prior to such challenges.

“Certainly, there is little question that if an organisation or industry has an unfavourable reputation, this will be a major liability in times of crisis. However, a good reputation will not protect an organisation from the detrimental effects of a problem if it mounts an inappropriate response.”

Whether an industry reaches the social licence tipping point largely depends on the way that it conducts its operations, they said.

Another key principle that will help to optimise an activity’s social licence is the establishment and communication of shared values with stakeholders.

“Along with transparency, this strategy is fundamental to establishment of trust. Its importance is illustrated by work carried out in the food industry, which has shown that shared values are three to five times more important in building trust than demonstration of competence.”

Positioning an industry as a front-runner in the establishment of good practice is also helpful in terms of keeping a social licence, they said. “This means much more than just meeting minimum standards.” It requires an industry to be proactive in identifying and mitigating threats to the social licence, addressing welfare concerns, and reforming quickly in the light of new evidence.

In natural resource industries, ensuring worker safety is a key element in maintaining a social licence. “By its very nature, equestrianism is a risk sport, but it is important that all those involved continue to pursue avenues that minimise the risk of injury to riders and handlers.

“An industry’s social licence can be supported further by proactively engaging with the media, explaining how challenges have been met, publicising positive changes, and promoting champions of good practice.”

The review team said the strategies they outlined all help to establish the legitimacy, credibility, and trust that are fundamental to the establishment of a healthy social licence to operate. “Such an approach requires leaders with the courage to steer an industry in a direction that may not be popular in the short term, but that is likely to be beneficial in the long term.

“Reflection on the fates of those animal-use activities that have lost their social licence suggests that brave action and a forward-thinking approach to equine welfare and equestrianism’s social licence to operate will always be of benefit.”

The trio sought to expand on two approaches to the maintenance of a social licence which they suggest are particularly relevant to equestrianism:

  • Engaging and communicating with the diverse range of organisations and individuals who comprise equestrianism’s stakeholders; and
  • Adopting a holistic, evidence-based approach to the assessment of equine welfare and the ethics of equestrianism.

Equestrianism’s stakeholders include national and international sporting bodies, sponsors, commercial companies, officials, professional and amateur owners, trainers, riders/drivers, breeders, grooms, ancillary staff, and volunteers, as well as fans, spectators, and the wider public.

“The key to optimal stakeholder engagement is honest, transparent, and collaborative consultation and communication. If communication is to be truly collaborative, the sport must gain an understanding of the beliefs and desires of all stakeholders — including the sport’s critics — and engage with them in a constructive dialogue.

“Undoubtedly, corresponding with the wider public and those who criticise equestrianism may be uncomfortable, but proactive engagement with stakeholders and the establishment of a shared vision for the future of the sport are key drivers of social licence.

“As part of this, it is important to listen not only to external stakeholders, but also to the people who work with the horses, as the views of this sector are currently not always respected.”

Achieving consensus about what constitutes ethically acceptable equestrianism in the 21st century will not be without challenges, they warned. “However, collaborative consultation can result in a surprising degree of convergence across a diverse range of stakeholders.

“Moreover, evidence from other industries shows that animal welfare groups will support those who engage in animal-use activities if they demonstrate transparency and a commitment to the optimisation of welfare.

“To some within equestrianism, engagement with external stakeholders may create fear of a ‘mob rule’ scenario, in which change is driven by those who shout the most loudly, rather than being based in evidence.

“However, all stakeholders share a common interest in and responsibility for the optimisation of equine welfare. Preparedness by those within the sport to engage with external stakeholders in finding collaborative, evidence-driven ways of working together is part of that responsibility.”

The review team said that messaging based on shared values will be more effective than that based solely on science. “For animal-use activities, focusing on both ethics and animal welfare is key. It is also important that any communications and messaging are underpinned by practice — in other words, equestrianism must ‘walk the talk’, aligning its behaviour with the values and expectations of society.”

It may also be helpful to adopt a ‘one welfare’ approach to strategy and communication, considering the effects of any change on equine welfare, human wellbeing, and conservation of the environment. “As part of this, promoting the benefits of the horse-human partnership to both horses and humans is likely to be beneficial.”

Communication strategies that have been shown to be unhelpful include dismissing public concerns as reflecting a lack of knowledge or understanding and adopting a defensive or aggressive response to criticism.

“Similarly, attempting to ‘educate’ the public in ‘the truth’ about equestrian sport is not effective, unless it displays shared values with all stakeholders.”

Reforms, they said, should be evidence-based if they are to have the desired positive impact on equine welfare.

“There should be clear acknowledgement that both ethical judgment and welfare science underpin the optimal use of animals, with a distinction made between the two. Equestrianism should therefore promote a culture whereby all stakeholders ask ‘Should I?’ before they ask, ‘Can I?’ ”

The scientific study of animal welfare should be promoted, they said.

“It is important that the ethicists and scientists who are involved in any research and monitoring are independent and that, as well as being scientifically credible, the resulting data are made publicly available.”

They noted that several equestrian sporting bodies have developed and published welfare strategies as part of a holistic approach to improving horses’ lives. This approach, they said, is likely to be helpful in maintaining the sport’s social licence to operate. However, the effectiveness of any welfare strategy in maintaining a sport’s social licence will be influenced by the extent to which its recommendations are promoted and upheld.

“It is incumbent on equestrian sporting bodies to promote equine welfare science education to all those who are involved with horses and to empower and support officials and judges at competitions to act when they see examples of poor welfare.

“Both the rules of the sport, and the knowledge of those within equestrianism, should reflect a welfare-focused mindset that is based on the latest findings.”

It has been argued that many of those working at high levels within equine sports are not familiar with animal welfare science, they noted. “This may include the involvement of veterinarians, who should play a key role in safeguarding equine welfare. It is also important that vets’ obligations towards the protection of equine welfare are understood by all stakeholders, including vets themselves.”

The review team, in concluding its findings, said experience from other industries suggests that, to maintain its social licence, equestrianism should take an ethics-based, proactive, progressive, and holistic approach to the protection of equine welfare. It should establish the trust of all stakeholders, including the public.

“Trust will only ensue if society is confident that equestrianism operates transparently, that its leaders and practitioners are credible, legitimate, and competent, and that its practice reflects society’s values.

“Earning and maintaining this status will undoubtedly require substantial effort and funding — inputs that should be regarded as an investment in the future of the sport.”

The review team said the situation of horses in sport is unique, even within the gamut of animal-use activities, and equine-specific issues must be considered. “Should exploration of these issues lead to the conclusion that, overall, the use of horses in sports is detrimental to their welfare, we would fully support the sport’s discontinuation.

“In the meantime, however, equine welfare is best supported by diligent attention to those welfare issues that are of concern to people from both inside and outside equestrianism.”

Improvements in welfare are undoubtedly ongoing, they said. Examples of best practices in equine care span numerous disciplines and countries, and many branches of equestrianism are taking positive steps to maintain their social licence.

“However, current threats to horse sport’s social licence to operate are only likely to grow unless all those involved adopt a proactive approach to the issue, commit to the optimisation of equine welfare, and are able to justify their actions from an ethical standpoint.”

The establishment of trust and transparency will be crucial in this endeavour, as is effective communication.

“In this regard, scientific underpinning of the sport’s practices is important but, to quote Theodore Roosevelt, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’.

“Communications should therefore be based primarily on values that are shared with all stakeholders (including the public) and should make clear all of the positive actions that equestrianism already implements to promote ethics-based practices and optimise equine welfare.”

Such communications must, however, also reflect the reality of practice, as unsubstantiated positive messaging, which they termed “welfare washing”, will not result in a sustainable sport.

“Equestrianism can learn from the experience of other animal-use activities that have faced challenges to their social licence to operate — both those that have survived and those that have not — as it maps its future.”

Douglas, J.; Owers, R.; Campbell, M.L.H. Social Licence to Operate: What Can Equestrian Sports Learn from Other Industries? Animals 2022, 12, 1987. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12151987

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

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