Horses Social Licence to Operate

Social License to Operate is a subject that I happened upon by accident whilst scrolling Facebook. A friend of mine had posted about this subject and how it was a threat to our ability to enjoy our horses and the sport we love so much. Honestly, initially, I did not understand how or why this could impact the average horse owner, but following a presentation by World Horse Welfare (WHW) Chairman Roly Owers, I now realise it is a subject we can ill afford to ignore.

This is relevant to all areas of equestrianism, and the public are now looking at what constitutes the responsible use of horses in sport, with WHW being the only charity that does this. “Equestrianism is on an ethical tightrope walk”, urged Roly Owers, Chairman of WHW, insisting that we “need to get ahead of the curve.”


So what exactly is Social License to Operate (SLO)? 


The WHW states, ‘An SLO is an intangible, implicit agreement between the public and those who pursue an activity. SLO was originally used to describe the social acceptability of mining operations, but the term has since been applied to a wide range of activities. If an SLO exists, this shows that the public accepts or approves of that activity and that they will allow it to continue with minimal restrictions. Public opinion can change, however, swinging against an activity it previously approved of. This move towards public disapproval can escalate into loss of that activity’s SLO. This can lead, in turn, to loss of political support, revised legislation and even a total ban on the activity in question.’ 

The SLO concept was introduced into equestrianism in 2017, and the Horse Welfare board was established in 2019. 2020 saw the SLO being discussed at the FEI Forum, and in 2021 the Ethical Framework for the use of Horses in Competitive sport was published. This led to the FEI’s Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission being established, along with the British Equestrian Federation Equine Welfare and Ethics Advisory Group in 2022.

The question often being asked is, ‘Can equestrianism lose its social licence?’ and the very simple answer is ‘yes, it can’. An example of this would be Greyhound racing being banned in Australia (with the possibility of an outward ban in the UK in the next five years), and after the Paris Olympics, horse riding will be dropped from the modern pentathlon. 

What drives changes like these are issues around animal welfare. The threat is real and it is key to realise that both organisations and individuals hold the balance to our social licence, and the collective actions will determine if it reaches a tipping point. There are also diversity and equality issues and sustainability and environmental issues around equestrian sport too, but there is no denying welfare is a primary driver.


Reality v’s Perception


In a poll taken last year, 20 percent of those polled would not support the continued involvement of horses in sport under any circumstances. A study conducted by the FEI also found that 52 percent of the public believed that welfare standards need improving, with another 15 percent saying that it is ‘impossible’ to provide adequate welfare standards for horses in sport. Both accurate and inaccurate media coverage fuel this, and it can lead to a loss of public trust. Pictures of tight nosebands, spur marks, blood from the mouth, etc., can all impact negatively. It has to be seen that we are doing right by our horses. 


So where does horsemanship fit in?


Understanding how our horses learn no doubt improves welfare if we then adopt a method that aligns to a horse’s natural learning ability, proving fundamental to safe and effective handling, riding and training. Basing this on up-to-date quality evidence communicates that we are striving to do the right thing for our animals.

“Good horsemanship is listening to our horses”, shares Owers. The key here is being proactive. See it as an opportunity to communicate positive relationships and welfare between horses and their humans. Challenge the status quo and ask yourself just because someone has always done something a certain way, is it, in fact, the right way for the horse?

Trust is key both inside and outside of the industry - and we all must ‘walk the talk’ to foster this. Investment in research is also important for the future of the sport and its commercial viability. In the end, we will only retain our seself-governancef we act proactively NOW. With education, ethics and clear communication at the forefront to move forward, this will not only promote the physical wellbeing of our horses but also support rules and sanctions in our sport. Thus, improving equine safety and taking a holistic and overall view of the whole animal, including their mental wellbeing. 

We should ask the question ‘should we?’ before ‘can we?’ when working with horses. “We need to see this as an opportunity”, urges Owers, “Our understanding of welfare is changing - we need to make changes in how we breed, manage, train, compete, retire, and end the lives of our horses”.

For one, I agree. With the success and expansion of all equestrian sports comes the flip side that the eyes of the world are upon us. Questions will be asked, and if we cannot be seen to do what is right for our horses, then we have to ask ourselves why we have them in the first place.

To find out more, visit: World Horse Welfare