“Can we train with current practices in the middle of Central Park in New York City and defend your actions?” new USEF Chief of Sport David O’Connor asked a room full of horsepeople attending the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Annual Meeting. “If not, those practices cannot happen.”
O’Connor used that idea to kick off a discussion of one of the biggest catch phrases in horse sport today, “social license to operate,” during the meeting held Jan. 12-14 in Lexington, Kentucky. Social license to operate, meaning larger society’s acceptance of the use of horses in sport, carried through two days of discussions. At the conference, attendees were assigned to tables that purposely grouped them with horsepeople from different breeds and disciplines so that they could participate in interactive workshops and discuss questions of how social license affected their sports, for example how those outside the sport put pressure on the sport to re-examine welfare questions such as equipment use, drugs and medication use and excessive competition.
The first day of the conference focused the horse side of social license. Dr. Camie Heleski, an equine behavior expert, who worked on the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission, a group commissioned last year by the Fédération Equestre Internationale to conduct a major international survey and address social license to operate, and Dr. Roly Owers, CEO of World Horse Welfare, both discussed social license in today’s environment.
Heleski pointed to football player Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest during a game and the public’s reaction as a “sincere example” of the public questioning a sport’s social license to operate, questioning whether its practices are socially acceptable.
Within the horse world she cited the modern pentathlon debacle at the Tokyo Olympic Games, wherein a German coach punched a horse. That highly publicized event ultimately resulted in show jumping being removed from the five-phase sport following the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
A member of the public, Heleski pointed out, generally doesn’t see a difference between one horse sport and another, meaning a problem in one colors perception of them all.
“We might think racing and dressage are light years apart, but to most of the general public it’s horse sport,” she said. “For them there’s no difference between an FEI-regulated sport and a non-FEI-regulated sport.
“The public prioritizes emotion over evidence,” she added, saying that it’s hard to explain away a disturbing event involving a horse once someone sees a video of it.
Social license is increasingly important thanks to growing knowledge and research about equine welfare and society’s increasing access to information through social media and the internet, she said.
Heleski analyzed key findings in the commission’s report, which included two surveys about attitudes toward the involvement of horses in sport: one conducted with horsemen from around the world and one that involved the general public in 10 different countries.
Among the general public:
- 65% of respondents were concerned about the use of horses in sport
- 35% of the respondents had no concerns.
- 52% surveyed believed that welfare standards need improving; 33% believe standards are high, and 15% believe it is impossible to provide adequate welfare protection for horses used in sport.
- 49% said media coverage has not changed their perception of horse welfare.
- 75% of the equestrians surveyed had concerns about sport horse welfare, with veterinarians and leisure riders/drivers the most concerned.
- The majority of respondents believe that horses enjoy being used in sport, with 46% saying they frequently do, and 45% said that they sometimes do.
- Respondents were nearly equally divided between being the media making them more concerned with sport horse welfare (32%), being unchanged in views about sport horse welfare thanks to media coverage (34%) and not being influenced by the media in their opinion (33%).
Heleski said that people who took the survey are far more concerned about the safety and welfare of horses over riders, as riders have a choice in the matter, and horses don’t.
“It’s very important for us to do better for the horse and have zero tolerance for things that are actively against welfare,” she said. “We have to be transparent and do what we can for the horse.”
Owers emphasized three issues: that the threat posed by changing attitudes to horse sports is real and imminent, that prioritizing equine welfare is key to preserving equestrian sport, and that riders can learn from those who have walked this path before.
He emphasized the importance of horsepeople regulating their sport from within, lest outside forces come in and do it for equestrians. He noted that 78% of people within horse sports think there are issues in equine welfare, so it’s important to not have discussions about welfare behind closed doors.
“Whether we like it or not, the world is talking about the welfare of horses in sport,” Owers said. “We will only improve the situation through openness, transparency, trust and positive action. The conversation needs to reach every corner of equestrianism.”
Social license to operate, and the general public’s intangible revocation of that license, played a part in the demise of marine mammal parks and widespread animal use in circuses, Owers noted. Others added to that list steeplechasing in Australia—it’s illegal there now—and greyhound racing in the U.S., which is now legal only in a handful of states.
Owers outlined a seven-part strategy for addressing concerns from the public: Find out what drives public trust, engage independent scientists to work on the problem, be transparent in order to drive consumer trust, identify disconnects in the stakeholders’ perception of industry goals, measure outcomes, involve stakeholders from the get-go, and make human behavioral change a central part of the strategy.
Learning From The Racing World
Alex Waldrop, former CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, spoke about his experience dealing with public crises in the race horse world. He told the story of Barbaro’s 2006 injury in the Preakness (Maryland), which put safety, integrity and social license front and center as the public closely followed the Kentucky Derby winner’s injury, surgery and eventual euthanasia. Two years later, again in front of huge televised Triple Crown crowds, filly Eight Bells came second to Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, only to break down on the track immediately following the race and be euthanized in front of thousands of racing fans.
“The New York Times described racing as a blood sport, likening it to bullfighting,” Waldrop recalled. “Then in the weeks following the Derby, the trainer of the Derby winner let it be known he was using anabolic steroids on Big Brown, which was legal at that point. Baseball’s steroid scandal was fresh in the minds of people. It was an existential crisis of the highest order. Social license was challenged by very powerful interests. We decided we had to make a statement.
“NBC wanted someone to speak before the Preakness about what we’re going to do,” he continued. “I said, ‘The public needs to know that we care about every horse, every race—not just Derby horses—every track, every day.’ At that time it wasn’t abundantly clear that happened, but we were damn sure we were going to make it happen. Then I said, ‘And we’re going to eliminate steroids in horse racing by the end of the year.’ And by God, we did. That seemed to quell things. We got through the Triple Crown series without another incident.”
NTRA conducted a poll afterward and learned that insiders think integrity is the No. 1 concern in horse racing, but casual fans overwhelmingly worried more about safety and welfare. In response, the group put together a successful effort to self-regulate, getting tracks and horsemen to say they would live by tough new standards and work to fund retirement and second careers for Thoroughbreds. By 2009, 25 tracks, including every track that hosted Triple Crown races, was part of the NTRA’s Safety And Integrity Alliance.
He also mentioned the publicity of the rash of horse fatalities at the Santa Anita Park in 2019, saying “it was a bigger story than circus elephants and killer whales combined.”
In March 2020 27 people were charged with secretly administering performance enhancing drugs to race horses, leading to the Washington Post running a scathing op-ed titled “Horse Racing Has Outlived Its Time.”
As racing teetered on the edge of losing its social license, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), concerned about his many racing and breeding constituents, helped push through the stymied Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020. That bill created meaningful reforms for the industry nationwide regarding drug testing, training and safety standards, helping to bring public trust back to the sport.
The lessons he lived in racing apply to USEF’s sports as well, Waldrop said: Horse sport enthusiasts need to get their own houses in order so that outside forces don’t come in and do it for them.
“We need meaningful, credible reform,” he said.
Part 2 of the conference focused on the human side of equestrian sport, including presentations on the state of safety equipment, social media and SafeSport in the equestrian world. We’ll have a full report tomorrow.