The general public will only support the continued use of horses in sport if their welfare is improved, according to an independent survey commissioned last month by the international charity World Horse Welfare.
The United Kingdom-based charity hosted an online panel discussion June 21 with British industry experts including Olympic eventer Pippa Funnell and dressage rider, eventer and FEI official Christian Landolt to discuss findings of the YouGov survey, which questioned 2,000-plus adults in the United Kingdom.
Forty percent of respondents only supported the continued involvement of horses in sport if their welfare is improved, while 60 percent said there should be more safety and welfare measures in place in horse sports. Twenty percent of respondents did not support the continued involvement of horses in sport under any circumstances. Only about 50 of the respondents identified themselves as people who regularly interact with horses.
“My entreaty to you today—there is no doubt the tide is turning. We can hide or we can do something about it. We have the opportunity to grasp the future or be dictated to,” said Roly Owers, chief executive of World Horse Welfare, in an opening statement that launched the panel discussion.
“We will not change the views of the 20 percent who will likely never support the involvement of horses in sport. But we can influence the other 80 percent,” he continued. “And we need to, because it’s their opinion about whether we take care of our horses or not that will partly determine whether horse sport has a future. We are not creating a problem by talking about social license; society’s concerns are real and growing, and they will only escalate further if we do not address them. This is not about giving in or giving ammunition to opponents, or giving an inch only for others to take a yard. It’s about taking control of our sports, and doing the right things for the right reasons, and leading on welfare rather than reacting.”
The panel, moderated by journalist Lucy Higginson, included leaders from several different sectors of equestrian sports:
• Dr. Madeleine Campbell, senior lecturer in human-animal interactions and ethics at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London
• Pippa Funnell, two-time Badminton winner, Rolex Grand Slam winner and Olympic medalist in eventing
• Dr. Barry Johnson, chair of British Racing’s Horse Welfare Board
• Christian Landolt, dressage rider and eventer, trainer and Fédération Equestre Internationale official
• David Morley, chair of the Hurlingham Polo Association Pony Welfare Committee
The panelists all described a growing awareness in their sports in recent years of the importance of public perception, especially when misdeeds can be caught on mobile phone cameras and instantly shared with the world via social media. The discussion centered around the idea of “social license to operate”—that any given endeavor requires the general acceptance of society at large to continue—and ways that horse sports can improve the public’s understanding and, hopefully, ongoing acceptance.
Here are some key points from the discussion:
Providing A More Complete Picture To The Public
The importance of helping the public understand the entirety of the horse-human partnership was mentioned repeatedly, with many participants stressing the value of showing outsiders more than just a competition. Rather, they said, the focus should be widened to show everything that goes into preparing a horse for those competitive successes and the partnerships shared with their humans, including care professionals like grooms and farriers.
“We probably also need to think a little bit more about how we communicate with the public, around the nature of this horse-human relationship. There’s perhaps a bit of a feeling in the public that it can only be a negative relationship, and as someone who spends almost all of my days with horses, I honestly don’t believe that that’s true when it’s well done,” ethics professor Campbell said. “There is definitely, in my mind, a benefit to the horses as well as to society and to the humans involved. And so we need to explain that.
“The important thing is that across a horse’s lifetime, its overall experience is a substantially positive one. And it’s important that we really A) work on that, and B) communicate about that, as part of maintaining the social license,” she added.
Landolt mentioned that, after some outcry in the dressage world about horse welfare, top riders like Carl Hester and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl have made an effort to include on their social media images and videos of top competition horses hacking out or enjoying turnout, providing a fuller picture to the non-riding public of what these athletes’ lives are really like.
“I think when when we are lucky to have big exposure, like Burghley and Badminton [three-day events], and maybe championships as well, it would be nice if instead of just interviewing the big stars … that maybe there could be a little bit more of a push to show the behind the scenes and talk to the grooms who actually live and breathe the horses, and I mean, none of us could ever compete without them,” Landolt said. “Every time there is a big program, spend two, three minutes or however long as possible on the behind the scenes and make it inclusive, instead of only talking to the top rider.”
Racing has already embraced this approach in the U.K. Johnson said that the industry conducted a similar survey several years ago, with similar findings, and this led to the creation of the industry’s independent Horse Welfare Board, which he chairs, as well as the adoption of as a five-year welfare strategy called “A Life Well-Lived” that outlines a culture of lifetime responsibility for race horses.
“For racing, this has come about with a change of attitude to it. Trainers and racecourses have opened up their facilities and explain to the public, invite the public in to see what happens before and after racing, showing people what we can really do for the horse,” he said.
“I’d say we were surprised slightly by the results of the [World Horse Welfare] survey. And I think it highlights the fact that we haven’t shared the work we’ve done towards [polo] pony welfare,” said Morley, the polo representative. “I think [the discussion of social license] really brought it to mind and has woken us up. Previously, a lot of polo players would not have even given it a thought, carrying on in our own world.
“I think it’s important though that we unite all of the sports, we work together to build awareness and share the good stories and get the public’s confidence in all of us,” he continued, adding that showing “a day in the life” of a polo pony might help the public better understand how the ponies are cared for.
Education Is Key
A common thread from several panelists was the importance of educating participants in the sport, some of whom may not always be doing right by the horse simply because they don’t know better.
“I have noticed, whilst walking around competitions and stables, big discrepancies between how professionals and amateurs—and I’m not labeling everybody, it’s obviously [only] some of them—but there is a big discrepancy in how people manage their horses and the degree of horsemanship,” Landolt said. “And to me there’s a lack of education, knowledge and understanding of horses at times. I think potentially it may be due to the fact that in the U.K., the majority of people keep their horses at home and therefore haven’t got the supervision sometimes necessary. On the continent, and for myself [growing up] in Switzerland, I was in a riding school, with a qualified instructor who constantly monitored me and helped me and guided me.”
Landolt also mentioned that, as an FEI official, he has to take a yearly online exam on the organization’s rules, and he thinks something similar would be useful for riders.
“Riders are aware of the rules, but they’re aware of the generality of the rules; they don’t always read them thoroughly as we officials need to do,” he said. “I think if the riders, and especially the ones at the higher levels, were to sit maybe [for] that exam once a year and have to read the rules and read this wording. It’s paramount, actually; when you read it, you absorb it, and then it makes you think, ‘Oh, this is what’s happened,’ and it stays with you in the back of your mind.”
Funnell echoed the call for increased education and also called upon upper-level riders to be part of the solution.
“At some of these competitions, there are many, many competitors, but very few stewards and officials compared to the numbers, and they can’t have eyes in the back of their heads,” she said. ” I really feel that there could be a system where respected riders can be there—maybe with an armband, particularly if they’re not competing—that opens them up to be approachable so people can get advice from them. And also it puts them in a position to maybe say, ‘Listen, what you just did then was wrong by the horse.’ And educate in a diplomatic way. Because a lot of these youngsters and a lot of people actually don’t know. So it is about educating.”
Zero Tolerance For Wrongdoing
Immense damage can be done to the public’s perception of a sport when photos of bad falls or videos of riders acting inappropriately go viral.
“I think what is personally very upsetting to someone like myself is the rare wrongdoings by a very, very small amount of people involved with horses. What upsets me so much is it can tarnish the rest of us,” Funnell said.
“To me, in my head, particularly professional riders or people that know horses, if they are caught doing the wrong thing by the horse, they need the book thrown at them,” she continued. “Abuse of a horse is not acceptable, and I don’t have a problem with the book being thrown at them.”
For the public’s sake, it’s important for horse sports to make clear what is and isn’t acceptable, Campbell said.
“I think there’s also an important area around demonstrable and consistent decision making within the sport. So it’s important that we can explain to the public that we are incorporating consideration of welfare in our policy making and be able to demonstrate how we do that,” she said.
Campbell has developed an “ethical framework” for horse sports, which she described as “a tool or kind of stepwise method of making ethical decisions, which can be easily explained to the public.”
At the conclusion of the discussion, Owers issued three challenges in a closing statement.
“Firstly, we need to challenge ourselves constantly to consider whether we are still doing all we can to prioritize the welfare of our horses,” he said. “Secondly, I think we need to review sports’ current practices; we’ve heard a lot about that today. And work together across the sector to make improvements that will directly benefit horse welfare.
“And I think we need to work with the media to promote the benefits of the horse-human partnership with a particular focus on benefits to horses as individuals. I think if we can commit to this and work together in the months and years ahead to come, I have no doubt that we can really ensure a very positive future for a horse-human partnership.”
Watch the panel discussion in its entirety here.