‘Public perception of horses in sport is changing’: calls for equestrian sport to get on the front foot *H&H Plus*

  • The first session of the FEI eventing risk management forum saw leading figures warn that equestrian sport needs to gain wider public interest and address perception challenges if it is to thrive in the future...

    Explaining why we do our sport, and what its benefits are to horses, is vital for both racing and the other equestrian disciplines to engage the wider public and secure the sports’ future, the conference at Aintree racecourse (24-26 January) heard.

     “There’s no doubt we take part in a sport with inherent risk, but it is so important we take the time to consider how we can mitigate unnecessary risk while maintaining integrity of the sport we all love,” said British Eventing chief executive Jude Matthews.

    “Public perception of horses in sport is changing and we would be naive to think this would not present us with new challenges.”

    David O’Connor opened the debate on how to build public interest, and why it is important.

    “There’s no question everybody in this room would find eventing interesting; I’d love to go down to the shopping centre next door and ask, in a horsey area, do they find eventing interesting? That’s a true question as those are the people who are going to buy a ticket or watch it on television,” he said, explaining this is where money and sponsorship come from.

    “I know we are interesting to ourselves, but we have to make sure we are interesting to other people; not just the Olympic Games, which is the best product that we have. But on an everyday basis, do we have something that the public actually enjoys?”

    Journalist Steve Wilson, who has decades of experience covering sports for PA Media and the International Olympic Committee, gave an outsider’s perspective of the barriers to coverage of the sport within the wider media.

    “It still carries the stigma of being a bit niche and the stereotype that it is for the privileged, the elite and maybe the well-off — and that the rules may be hard to understand,” he said. “At the same time, myself and others respect and admire the sport, the courage and tradition it involves.”

    The costs involved with horses, dwindling numbers of British riding schools and other activities competing for young people’s attention and time were also raised as serious challenges.

    Badminton winner and Eventing Riders’ Association vice-president Paul Tapner urged the sport to “support every level” of its pyramid, from grassroots to middle levels right up to five-star.

    “You have to look after the top level, especially as they are the celebrities who will put themselves on social media, who young people are going to look at and aspire to and want to get into the sport because of,” he said.

    Improvements in safety

    Mr O’Connor spoke about the enormous amount of research and improvements in safety during the past 20 years, and of the next challenge.

    “One of the things we are still wrapping our heads around is the coaching and education side,” he said.

    “In track and field sports [because they are in schools], the coaching system is very sophisticated all the way up the line and those coaches have to be educated and licensed. We have none of that mandatory within equestrian sport.”

    He added that fences, frangible devices and course design are continually evolving — and have improved safety in the sport, vastly reducing horse falls, but that safety is a never-ending process.

    Mr O’Connor also raised attitudes towards horse falls, and how fast information and images can travel, influencing opinions across the world in the age of social media.

    “The public perception of horse falls has changed dramatically in the last 25 years — racing is having the same conversation,” he said.

    Racing is already experiencing many of the challenges voiced in regard to eventing and the other disciplines.

    Barry Johnson, the independent chairman of the British Horseracing Authority’s equine welfare board, explained why building trust both within and outside the industry is key for the future of horse sport.

    He said while a lot of positive changes are happening, around areas such as safety and traceability of horses, there are still many more that can be made.

    “There have been enormous achievements — £35m spent on research and veterinary care — that is a massive bonus for the whole of the equine industry,” he said.

    “The racehorse industry finances that. The rest of the horse industry right down to the Pony Club benefits from all the research; vaccine developments and treatments for lameness have largely come about because the racehorse industry has paid for it.

    “We are going to try to change public attitudes. There is no point at all saying, ‘We look after our horses brilliantly and they look fantastic’ if we haven’t explained to the public what we are doing and why it is good for the horse.

    “All to often the horse industry tends to react negatively to criticism, by saying, ‘We know what we are doing, you just don’t understand’ and that just won’t wash.”

    He added that he thinks racing is “on the back foot”in terms of public perception and hopes that can change in the next decade.

    “We have to build trust not only within the industry, but with the public as well,” he said. “We need the public to trust the industry that what it is doing is correct for the benefit of the horse.

    “Where do I think we should be in 10 years’ time? At the moment, I think we are on the back foot in terms of [explaining] welfare and the public [perception].

    “Welfare will change in the next 10 years. I would like to think that in 10 years’ time, the public will be led on welfare by the industry itself, that we will be on the front foot, explaining to the public why we are doing things, why we compete and the benefits for the horse.

    “That will lead to more participants and people supporting racing, rather than people trying to call it down.”

    He also stressed the importance of sports proving they can self-regulate, referring to the government enquiry (news, 26 October 2018) and the fact racing was highlighted in several election manifestos.

    You may also be interested in…