Cameras in warm-up arenas and yard inspections – calls to be brave for the future of horse sport

  • Cameras in warm-up and stable areas and unannounced yard inspections were among ideas suggested to boost public confidence in equestrianism – as all in the sport are urged to be brave.

    Experts discussed public acceptance of involvement of horses in sport, at a conference hosted by World Horse welfare on 12 June. The aim was to share the results of the charity’s most recent survey of perception of the industry.

    H&H has reported on previous independent surveys commissioned by World Horse Welfare, in 2022 and 2023. This year’s results showed that public opinion has not changed significantly: 20% still do not support involvement of horses in sport under any circumstances, 41% only support it if horses’ welfare improves and 56% said there should be more safety and welfare measures. But there were positives.

    “Public confidence is slowly growing, based on what people see and hear in the media,” World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers said. “It’s a small change over three years – from 10% to 14% to 17% – but it appears to be growing steadily.”

    But, Mr Owers added, “as we know it can take a long time to build up a reputation, and a very short time to lose it”.

    The survey looked at where people get information on horse sport from, and who influences them. It found that television and newspapers are the most common sources, and that there is a clear appetite for more information about horse welfare in sport.

    Most of the public who answered the question on who influences them in this area said it is animal welfare organisations, then vets and animal health professionals, followed by people they know who are involved with horses.

    “And what influences trust in horse sport to protect welfare?” Mr Owers asked. “It’s not so much what regulators say and do, but what riders and those involved in the sport say and do.

    This is given most weight, followed by the media, other people who are involved with horses but not in sport, and lastly, sport regulators.”

    He added: “And horse people, as we’ve seen before, can be in a bit of a bubble. We can be more supportive of the status quo than the general public, and we do get a lot of our information from the potential echo chambers of equestrian and social media.

    “But we must remember that what we see is not necessarily what the general public sees. So it’s vitally important that we step outside of ourselves and our horse world and, when we think about welfare, seek and trust independent perspectives.”


    Mr Owers had looked at initiatives taken in the past year that may have increased public confidence in welfare, such as the British Equestrian charter for the horse, and British racing’s HorsePwr campaign.

    In the panel discussion that followed, leading racing journalist Nick Luck said he believed the HorsePwr campaign has been effective.

    “It’s much more positive to show every aspect of the horse, as it is,” he said. “To give as much access as possible behind the scenes. A lot of people don’t think it’s right to talk about welfare all the time, that it draws attention to the ills of the sport, but I reject that.”

    Equine vet and behaviour specialist Gemma Pearson said public opinion is changing, as people accept that horses are sentient beings who feel a range of emotions.

    “And ultimately, welfare is how an animal feels,” she said. But she added that the fact people in the survey cited vets as sources of information may be because they felt this was the “right answer”, and that anecdotal evidence shows how much people are influenced by social media and other people.

    “So it’s everyone’s responsibility to be influencing opinions,” she said.

    Swedish equestrian federation secretary general Johan Fyrberg explained the popularity of horse sport in Sweden – the federation has 155,000 members – and said that horse welfare has been the subject of education programmes there for decades.

    “We have a very intense debate about welfare and I agree we have to discuss it and address and be open about any bad cases we have,” he said. “On this survey [result] I think we have to bring young people in.”

    Mr Fyrberg said the Swedish federation involves young people in decision-making at all levels, which he thinks would be positive globally, adding that education is key.

    “We have had some bad cases and are looking into them; we need to learn how sport and business combine,” he said. “Welfare is reasonably good but when it comes to private business, we need to drive forward and look into how we can be more involved; visiting yards.”

    Mr Fyrberg said he believes it would be helpful to have the right for welfare organisations or federations to access yards. Mr Luck said this is a very interesting point, and that he believes there is most confidence in racehorses’ wellbeing when they are at licensed yards, as these are assessed and can be visited at any time.

    “Beyond the time they’re at those yards, yes, we’re getting better but that’s where you worry,” he said. “But possibly in other horse sports you worry less when they finish their sporting life as that period is probably shorter and there’s greater likelihood that the person enjoying that horse for sport has that horse till the end of its life. Where you’re licensed and regulated, you feel more confident those horses are safer.”

    Dr Pearson, who is also a racecourse vet, agreed that the authorities’ right to access yards at any time is key.

    “That’s transparency, which is a major aspect of social licence,” she said. “The public trust you, and you can say at any point, someone can come and see what we’re doing.

    “I think it would be nice to be proactive and say any national rider is open to someone from a national federation coming to see how the horses are, how they’re trained. And I think we could take this further.”

    Behind the scenes

    Dr Pearson said there is mistrust about what happens behind closed doors and suggested cameras in warm-ups so anyone can watch and any concerns could be seen in detail rather than pictures being shared of a brief moment that does not look good, but does not reflect the reality.

    “The more transparent we can be, the better,” she said. “Everyone has a high-quality camera on them these days so we should always be riding and interacting with horses in a way that we’d be happy to be filmed and go out in public.”

    Tina Cook, who was on the panel with her eventer daughter Isabelle, thought unannounced yard visits were a very good idea, and that if horses are mistreated, there should be stronger penalties.

    A key topic was “the other 23 hours” when horses are not in competition, and Mr Luck said this is where “social media can come to the fore”, citing trainers who share visuals of happy racehorses at home.

    “It’s so easy to communicate that,” he said. “You’d never see pictures of a horse the day after the Derby but Aidan O’Brien took some of City Of Troy having a roll this year, happy as Larry. That’s so powerful and I don’t think federations necessarily understand the power of access.”

    Mr Luck said there had been a “fight” for access to the stable areas of racecourses, in which the public would be interested, and which would help show transparency. He added that it is unlikely there will be more horse sport on mainstream television , but “we’ve got to keep pushing” for it.

    “The more access we can give people who might be suspicious of it, the greater success we’ll have,” he said. “We’ve got to keep trying.”

    Mr Fyrberg said another key is to involve riders more; some top athletes can be “scared” to share what they do daily, as a picture taken at the wrong angle might have a negative reaction, but “I really believe we need to involve our riders and make them brave”, he said. “And really use social media and show the 23 hours outside sport. They’re the ambassadors; we need to support them to use social media and be brave.”

    “It seems to be a top-to-bottom thing,” panel chair Lucy Higginson said. “Everyone has an impact.”

    Dr Pearson agreed, that everyone from hackers to Olympians has the responsibility to showcase the best of our sport at all times.”

    Dancing horses

    She mentioned her non-horsey father, saying in 2012 that the “dancing horses” at the Olympics were “just amazing”.

    “It was that harmony that shone,” she said. “People who knew nothing about horses were suddenly engaged because they saw that. The public and riders aren’t welfare scientists but intuitively, we’re pretty good at picking up on what a happy athlete is, and when we see that that’s more attractive to people. We won’t compete against football but there’s something there we can improve.”

    And Mr Fyrberg added: “Horse welfare isn’t a problem, it’s a solution.”

    In his summing up, Mr Owers said the horse world has to be “outside its bubble”, and that transparency is key.

    “We need to make sure we’re not totally directed by what other people think, but aware of it,” he said. “I love the word ‘harmony’; that’s the end product, and when we talk about the horse-human partnership it’s the harmony of that.”

    Mr Owers reaffirmed the importance of the “other 23 hours, and traceability of horses throughout their lives, as well as being open about telling the stories of our relationship with horses.

    “And it’s about being brave,” he said. “We don’t live in a perfect world, but we do have to sometimes be brave. It’s not about walking on eggshells; our job is to reduce the harms and maximise benefits and when we’re telling those stories we have to be brave and people should be supported in that. We can’t retreat and only give the positive side of our sports.

    “If we learn from the challenges and tell the story, we’ll build the trust and what we know is that the central tenet of social licence is trust. If we have that, we’ll have a very strong social licence going forward. We look forward to ongoing discussion and a very strong future for the horse sector and horse sport.”

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