At this year’s U.S. Equestrian Federation’s annual meeting, a two-day workshop called “Working Together For Our Future” touched on many hot-button issues in equestrian sport, from crisis management to social media. One session focused on the concept of social license to operate: in short, whether the general public approves of a practice.
While the term is still unfamiliar to many, it has become a matter of intense discussion among stakeholders in equestrian sports. Dr. Camie Heleski, a senior lecturer in the department of food and animal sciences at the University of Kentucky and a member of the Fédération Équestre Internationale’s Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission, spoke about the subject at the annual meeting, and we asked her to delve into the topic a little more deeply with us. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
For starters, I wanted to ask you about the term “social license to operate.” The use of those particular words is relatively new, but it describes a phenomenon that has been happening for decades. I think back to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, for example, and the public outcry about horses that appeared to be exhausted at the end of the cross-country course. This concept kind of encapsulates that phenomenon. So, I was curious where this term came from and how it came to be what we’re talking about now?
I first heard this as an official term in the fall of 2017 when I heard Julie Fiedler [a graduate researcher at the University of Melbourne (Australia)] talking about it. It was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a term for what my concerns have been for a couple of decades,” kind of giving a better, more appropriate term to what we might otherwise call public perception.
At different times in the past when there have been concerns, it sort of got swept under the rug, like, “Well, if the public just better understood, they’d all be on board.” And when I was hearing Julie Fiedler talk about this, it’s like, no, the public does actually have a stake, and the equestrian stakeholders have a stake. And we need to be really concerned about this. She referenced things like mining and the forestry industries that had been using the term social license to operate for several decades at that point. You can go into the research literature and find it in other industries well before the horse world ever started talking about it.
The example [of social license to operate] that seems to make the most sense to my students is when I talk about circuses. So when I went to a circus as a child, we were really excited to see the elephants! But as time went on, more and more research came out about how important the social life of elephants is and how much of a challenge to their welfare a traveling circus is. At least here in this country, elephants and traveling circuses have almost totally gone away. So essentially, the elephant in the circus, that whole thing lost its social license to operate.
The FEI Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission has put a lot of effort into opinion surveys, both of people within the equestrian industry and of the general public, who may only have a marginal knowledge of horses. Why was that important to the commission, to find out what people who are not in the industry think?
This social license to operate concept does have a lot to do with the transparency and the legitimacy of the industry. What do public stakeholders think about our industry, and then also people with at least some knowledge, what they think about our industry? So that’s why we ended up deciding that we probably needed to hear from both the general public as well as equestrian stakeholders.
We often hear this idea that, well, the public just doesn’t know [much about equestrian sports]; if we spend more time educating them, they’ll totally be fine with everything we’re doing. In some regards, you can see greater concerns from our equestrian stakeholders [in the surveys] in some areas than even what we have amongst our public stakeholders. Generally speaking, we shouldn’t assume that just because somebody doesn’t know about a certain training practice or a specific piece of tack, they don’t have a valid opinion on it. (Full results from the surveys can be seen on the commission’s website.)
Was there anything in the survey responses that surprised you?
I would say no. Most of it, to me and the other external folks that are on the commission, we didn’t really find it surprising. As an example of one thing I think we have to be concerned about, from the public stakeholders: 15% said they think it might be impossible to provide adequate welfare for sport horses. So I think we have to be concerned. You know, 15% is smallish, but it’s enough to think we should probably be concerned, and it might be time to do something more proactively.
Can you talk about the different approaches that the various equestrian sports and industries, not just those within the FEI, are taking towards the idea of social license and the evolution of that? Are there still some parts of the horse world that don’t buy into the idea?
I think there are a few breeds, a few disciplines—and I’m actually not going to speak them out loud—that are not paying as much attention to this as probably what they should be. I applaud [USEF Chief of Sport] David O’Connor, on behalf of USEF, for actually being willing to kind of shake things up and really explore this. I was so impressed with how involved the audience there at the annual meeting was with regards to looking into this topic.
Some people get kind of down on the Thoroughbred racing world, but my involvement has shown that they’re really thinking hard about the social license topics. Not that they don’t have a long way to go, but they’re at least really, really digging in. We definitely have some breeds, some disciplines, that have heard the wake-up call. They’ve been paying attention, and they’re working hard to figure out a proactive way forward. And then we still have some breeds and some disciplines that are taking a more head-in-the-sand approach.
In your presentation, you talked about how the surveys showed that the public doesn’t really differentiate between, say, racing and dressage; they’re all sports that use horses. If some segments of the equestrian industry are fine with the status quo, or as you said, want to keep their heads in the sand, what kind of impact does that have on the industry as a whole?
I kind of go back and forth between [different segments of the industry]. For a while I was super involved with the racing industry and their welfare perspective and what they’re doing, hopefully, in a proactive versus reactive way. And then I’ll need to switch gears and go back to this FEI, showing world kind of situation.
I mean, this is a danger, that there are some sub-disciplines of our greater horse world that we can be lumped in with, even though we’re trying to do a lot of positive things, right? So let’s say we, [under the FEI], we’re probably going to have to work harder, because there are some other sub-disciplines that are not wanting to be aware.
Is there anything the FEI disciplines can do for those segments of the industry that are lagging a bit behind, to kind of bring them along?
I do try to think about this at least a few times each week. There are already so many sub-disciplines under the umbrella of USEF; I think if we focus a lot on those and try to think, “OK, this particular thing seems to cause concern. What are we going to try to do in that regard?”
I was just so positively impacted by the USEF group that was there at the annual meeting, trying to work on some of these topics. I recognize that you’re probably preaching to the choir when you do something like that, but, the people, they were paying attention. They wanted to be proactive; they wanted to move forward. Even though I do worry that the public lumps all horse things together, there’s only so much we can do about that. So if you’re part of the racing world, are a part of the USEF world, what we can do is acknowledge social license to operate, look to things we might be able to impact.
One of the big things that has come up in some of the surveys, not that people knew the terminology, but this whole idea of, what about the other 23 hours?
You spoke about this at the USEF meeting—the idea that we shouldn’t just focus on the hour a day that a horse is competing or training, but also consider the other 23 hours.
Yes, we have lots of concern about that roughly one hour per day that horses do training activities. We want to try to make sure we’re training in a fair manner, that we’re not using abusive tack or equipment. As horse welfare scientists, horse behaviorists, we’ve been after this for a long time; the fact that the public and the equestrians also recognized this [in the surveys] is, in my mind, pretty impressive. What happens the other 23 hours? Do they get turnout time? Do they get some interaction with other horses, even if it’s across a fence rail? Do they get foraging opportunities beyond just some high quality hay in their stall? And, you know, that’s something that almost anybody that truly knows horses, they’re not really arguing about it. It’s like, “OK, yeah, how can we do that better?”
Something that comes up in these discussions of the public’s perception of horse sports and the equine athletes’ welfare is how helpful it can be for these horses to be shown on social media just being horses—being turned out, rolling in the mud, running with other horses, and so on.
Winx is a very famous Australian racing mare, and her social media would frequently show her, like, out in the ocean doing a cool-out after a workout or a groom hand grazing her. And, to me, that was a way of using social media in a very positive way. There’s been a handful of fairly famous dressage trainers who have been saying [on social media] that, “Yeah, this horse is worth a million to me, but it goes outside each day, and, yes, there’s a small risk of getting injured, but we know mentally, that it’s so important for them.”
There seems to be a sort of dichotomy among equestrian sports, where some say to the public, “Come take a look around; let’s be transparent,” versus other sports that might try to hide the parts that the public might not understand or might object to. Is that sustainable?
Whatever I do with my horses—and I just have two; my daughter and I each have one horse, and we keep them at a boarding stable in Lexington, Kentucky—you know, I would always want to feel 100% comfortable bringing people, either knowledgeable horse people or general public, I would want to feel comfortable bringing them to the farm, looking at how the horses are housed, looking at how we train them, ride them, look at how we show them. I would want to feel comfortable with everything about that.
Let’s say there’s a certain piece of tack that somebody says, “Oooh, I don’t like the looks of that.” Is it something where you can explain: “Actually, that anatomical bridle presses less on certain nerves on their face, so even though it looks a bit different than what you’re used to, the horses actually find it really welfare-friendly.” So certain things we can feel good about and educated about.
Other things, and I always hesitate to mention this, but if we’re talking about the racing world, we’re talking about the use of the whip or the crop for encourage- ment. It is hard to convince an average member of the public, if we’ve spent a bunch of time telling them that horses love to run, why then do we need to use the whip or the crop coming towards the finish line? And, you know, that’s one where possibly education isn’t going to work, because maybe we don’t have that really strong position to start with.
What’s next for the FEI commission?
We’re having a lot of meetings these last couple of months, trying to come up with some recommendations, some education suggestions. And hopefully, at the FEI Sports Forum, which is late in April, we can present some more materials saying, all right, here’s some other ideas on how to get more of our FEI disciplines on board with welfare recommendations that a lot of people are going to feel comfortable with.
The other thing is trying to find refereed literature, rather than just opinions of somebody saying, “Well, I don’t believe that recommendation, because blah blah blah…” You can actually present them with [research, saying], “Well, we’ve actually had some people look into this with 48 horses comparing this type of equipment and this type of equipment. And these are the results they came up with.” So that is probably not something that the public is going to be super excited about, but within our own house, we need people to have more understanding and more refereed literature related to some of our recommendations.
Is there a lot of research going on in sport horse welfare, and are there areas where you think more research is needed?
Certainly, there’s never as much horse research as we would like, especially in terms of behavior and welfare. It’s just mostly hard to get funded. Orla Doherty out of Ireland has done some great work over the last five-ish years on noseband tightness and brought in some equine dentists to look at lesions inside the mouth. Hilary Clayton has studied the biomechanics of the mouth and different bits in the mouth, and which ones are most likely to leave oral lesions.
I think a big area we’re still struggling to figure out how to document is positive welfare in horses. We’re pretty good at knowing when they are suffering or distressed, and we continue to get a little bit better at that each year. But then between a horse at some sort of neutral level versus a horse that is “a happy athlete,” how do we have better documentation that, OK, this horse is experiencing some positive emotions while it’s out there competing. That’s been a challenge for a while now. I think they keep moving in the right direction.
This article appeared in the March 13 & 20, 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.