Call for an evidence-based welfare charter for sport horses

"The outcomes presented here suggest sporthorse welfare is a key concern to national and international equestrian stakeholders."

Researchers who pinpointed five areas considered essential to the welfare of sport horses have recommended the development of a welfare charter and evidence-based guidelines to support their management.

This would also aid in the monitoring of the health and wellbeing of these equestrian athletes, they said.

“Proactive engagement across all levels of horse sport is needed to establish and maintain equestrianism’s social license,” Jane Williams and her fellow researchers wrote in the journal Animals.

It would showcase to the public how the physical and psychological needs of sport horses are managed to provide horses with a good life and help safeguard the future of equestrian sports, they said.

The researchers set out to identify through the opinions of international and national equestrian experts the domains and sub-domains essential to managing sport-horse health and welfare among those that compete in showjumping, dressage and eventing.

The international study team noted that horse sports are popular worldwide, providing spectator enjoyment, benefiting human health, and contributing substantially to national economies. However, the public is increasingly questioning equestrianism’s social license to operate.

“While the focus historically centered on horseracing, increased scrutiny is now being placed on how dressage, showjumping, and eventing are addressing equine management and welfare concerns.”

Training and management practices used to care for sport horses are generally based on tradition rather than science, they said. This, combined with the high-risk nature of horse sport, has led to the public questioning if sport-horse health and welfare are being compromised.

To understand better how sport horses are managed, 104 nominated equestrian federation and equestrian organization experts actively involved with dressage, showjumping, and eventing were consulted across four rounds of a Delphi study.

This approach allowed participants to interact to reach a point where everyone agreed on core areas (or domains) that they felt were essential to sport-horse management.

Five areas were rated as essential — training management; competition management; young horse management; health status and veterinary management; and the horse-human relationship.

Stable and environmental management, and welfare assessment were rated as important but not essential, as most experts felt that these areas were already managed well.

“Participants felt increased education and guidance combined with further policy development and regulation are needed to support stakeholders to optimize sport-horse management,” the researchers said.

“An appetite to engage with research to generate evidence that promotes sport-horse welfare was evident.”

The development of a sport-horse welfare charter and evidence-based guidelines to inform the management and monitoring of their health and welfare were recommended by the study team to provide horses with a good life and to safeguard the future of equestrian sports.

The study team, discussing their findings, said their work provides the first consensus report summarizing international equestrian expert opinion on which factors are essential within the contemporary management of sport-horse health and welfare.

Individual expert opinion was found to be consistent across the rounds of the Delphi, but varied widely between participants, reflecting a disconnect across equestrian stakeholders.

The results, they said, showcase the diversity of opinion present across individual equestrian stakeholders and highlight the need for clear, agreed, and evidence-informed industry guidelines to support all levels of equestrian stakeholders to manage their horse’s health and welfare well.

“Equestrianism has a strong traditional base, with many management decisions underpinned by historic practice or individuals’ experiences. This can result in a dogmatic stance where existing anecdotal practice is continually reinforced to be the best approach, rather than being questioned.”

While the application of science into practice and the uptake of evidence-informed approaches were advocated across the management of sport horses, the results suggest there are barriers to implementation.

The challenge facing horse sports combines a lack of observation- or experience-based evidence to underpin practice with stakeholders who can struggle to keep themselves updated on emerging research and technology, either due to a lack of time or lack of access to the “best” information sources.

“Effective scientific communication to relevant audiences is acknowledged as challenging not just in the equestrian sphere.

“This, combined with a general lack of evidence-based research to inform practice in many of the areas highlighted as essential across core domains and sub-domains, indicates areas requiring education and further research.

“This sentiment was echoed by our experts,” they said, “who articulated a need for greater education and engagement to generate change and promote evidence-informed approaches to sport-horse health and welfare.”

The authors said a key outcome of the Delphi approach was the lack of consensus that welfare assessments should be considered a core domain of sport-horse management.

“Interestingly, welfare assessment in training, equine quality of life, suitability of training and the environment, and post-career management were all highly rated as essential areas individually, but these topics did not score highly within related core domains, e.g., training management, and competition management.”

These results suggest a disconnect in how experts value welfare assessment across different contexts.

“When questioned, participants stated the future of equestrian sports was uncertain and they felt that there is a poor awareness of equine welfare across the equestrian industry.

“The outcomes presented here suggest sport-horse welfare is a key concern to national and international equestrian stakeholders, but the context for how and where it is assessed is more difficult to ascertain consistently.”

This, they said, highlights an interesting dilemma as the public and broader equestrian population feel competitive sport-horse welfare is currently lacking and not prioritized.

“The experts voiced a need for increased credibility for individuals and national and international federations with regards to equine welfare. They want more education and guidance to inform practice, monitoring, and decision-making, with increased regulation and acknowledgement of existing good practice.

“The dichotomy that exists across stakeholders valuing the importance of equine welfare but then not rating it as a core domain and proposing that further education and guidance is needed, suggests welfare is poorly understood, perhaps because it is a complex multifactorial concept.

“The results here suggest health and welfare can be interchangeable concepts when evaluating equine quality of life, and there is a need to consider how welfare assessment, embracing the five domain model approach, contributes to a horse having a good life.”

The study team said there appears to be an opportunity for key global stakeholders to work together to support their members and showcase to the public that horse welfare is being prioritized, which is recognized in the recommendations of the FEI’s Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission.

“The challenge to bring together a diverse international community such as exists across equestrian sports and achieve a unified perspective and adoption of shared welfare guidelines should not be underestimated,” they said.

“It is unlikely that one simple solution exists to achieve this, and different perspectives and actions will need to be implemented to achieve success and upskill different audiences, under the leadership and direction of global regulatory stakeholders.”

The authors said one of the main challenges in assessing sport-horse welfare is the potential conflict between the demands of training and competition, and how the basic needs of the horse are met.

Sport horses are acknowledged to have some sense of control over their own actions and behavior, they said. For the equine athlete, engagement is not entirely voluntary, and while superficially it may appear to the public that horses can be made to engage in competitive activities, in reality, only horses that are willing to perform will become elite sport horses.

“However, as a result of participation in sport, horses, as with all athletes, are likely to experience transient periods of physiological and psychological distress and are exposed to the potential for injury and possibly fatality.”

This can lead to a disconnect between the horse’s “best” life and their life as an athlete.

“Bearing this in mind, it may be prudent to assess sport-horse quality of life as a continuum rather than engaging in episodic welfare assessments that do not consider the full repertoire of activities, behaviors, and environments that the sport-horse encounters.” Such an approach was advocated by David Mellor in a 2016 paper, they noted.

“Developing such an approach would be beneficial and could be utilized to justify the ongoing use of the horse in sport if the horse’s quality of life overall can be evidenced to be positive.”

The study team put forward several recommendations.

They suggested that the opinions of a wider group of equestrians and the public be sought to provide broader insights. This, they said, might help to identify and prioritize areas as more or less urgent to investigate and/or optimize in the future.

They proposed that evidence be gathered to understand what practices/management are being implemented across different countries, disciplines, competitions, and individuals. In addition, more research needs to be undertaken to generate data to support evidence-informed practice.

“Increased monitoring, record keeping, and research will enable good practice to be identified and showcased to the wider equestrian communities and the public to generate a culture in which quality of life for sport-horses comes first.”

They said that national and international federations should be encouraged to provide targeted education and guidance, policy development, and regulation to improve the management of sport-horse health and welfare.

“Specifically, there is a need for increased education to improve understanding of what is welfare, how to assess it, and how it can enhance equine performance across equestrian stakeholders.

“Development of effective dissemination strategies for education, tools, and guidance should also be adapted for different community needs.”

The researchers said there is an opportunity for core stakeholders to come together, using the consensus from the study, to accelerate change to promote good practice through the development of a sport-horse welfare charter and production of evidence-informed guidelines to support the management and monitoring of these areas.

“Proactive engagement across all levels of horse sport is needed to establish and maintain equestrianism’s social license and to showcase to the public how the physical and psychological needs of sport-horses are managed to provide horses with a good life and to safeguard the future of equestrian sports.”

The study team comprised Jane Williams, Lise Berg, Hilary Clayton, Katharina Kirsch, David Marlin, Hayley Randle, Lars Roepstroff, Marianne Sloet van Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, Michael Weishaupt and Carolien Munsters, variously affiliated with a range of institutions in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, the United States, Australia, Sweden, The Netherlands and Switzerland. All are linked through the Sporthorse Welfare Foundation, a not-for-profit group that supports sport horse health and welfare through innovative research and education.

Williams, J.M.; Berg, L.C.; Clayton, H.M.; Kirsch, K.; Marlin, D.; Randle, H.; Roepstroff, L.; Oldruitenborgh-Oosterbaan, M.S.v.; Weishaupt, M.A.; Munsters, C. A Delphi Study to Determine International and National Equestrian Expert Opinions on Domains and Sub-Domains Essential to Managing Sporthorse Health and Welfare in the Olympic Disciplines. Animals 2023, 13, 3404.

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

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