Putting horse welfare first in competition: why education and role models are key

  • Inspiring people to “never stop learning” is vital for the future of horse sport. That was a key take-home message from World Horse Welfare webinar: “Horse welfare and the pressures of competition”, with Rolex Grand Slam winner Pippa Funnell and advanced event rider Ailsa Wates.

    “To compete at the top level – in my view, at any level – you’ve got to have a happy horse onside that is very much your companion. It’s about partnership,” said Pippa, a patron of World Horse Welfare who has been competing at the top level for more than 30 years.

    “The key thing is we’ve absolutely got to keep promoting and promoting good horsemanship, good management, and that their welfare comes absolutely at the top of the list.”

    She added that “educating, and keeping on educating people” is vital, as is getting across to the general public just how well 99% of horses are trained and cared for – and “throwing the book” at anyone who deliberately mistreats horses.

    “It’s finding the right role models that really do have welfare absolutely at the forefront of everything they do with horses,” she said.

    The pair covered ground from specific details on the management side of competition horses – turnout, fitness, travel, settling in at events, treating horses as individuals – to looking at the bigger picture, and suggestions to push the sport forward. Across it all was the underpinning theme of education, and how powerful inspiration can be in that.

    “I think it’s important that we can all learn – all of us,” said Pippa, giving examples of other recent masterclasses and webinars she has been inspired by. “I’m inspired by hearing from other people.”

    She added that in terms of access to learning, social media presents a “wonderful opportunity”.

    “I think it’s important we do inspire people, even if you just have a horse to hack for pleasure, you can still improve and set yourself little goals,” she said, adding that by doing so, you are making a difference to your horse.

    Ailsa pointed to shining a light on the inspirational people within horse sport “and how they work with their horses” as a way to improve education on equestrian welfare in the UK.

    “I think [we need to be] highlighting those iconic and extremely successful people in the sport, who have only got the results they’ve got by putting welfare first and having happy horses really trying for them and wanting to do the job – highlighting the relationship they have with their horses and how they prioritise welfare,” she said.

    Referring directly to the title of the webinar, she added: “Relating welfare to competition, I think to get the best out of a horse in competition, you have to have the horse feeling at its best, having the best welfare and treatment that it possibly can. Then that shines through, because you have a happy horse working with you at competitions. The two just interlink and you can’t have one without the other.”

    How to make more use of the wisdom and expertise of our top horsemen at events was also discussed.

    One of Pippa’s suggestions was to have an “outside expert” alongside the ground jury at major events on cross-country day. A similar suggestion was also raised in the same week by Olympic gold medallist Nick Skelton for showjumping at the International Jumping Riders’ Forum AGM in Geneva (9 December).

    “The ground jury has an awful lot to cover, why don’t you just pull in an expert, or a couple of experts? Someone like Andrew Nicholson. He’s one of the best cross-country riders in the world,” said Pippa.

    “Pull someone like him in who can really monitor the cross-country at these big events closely. They can see [occasions] when, ‘actually, they need pulling up now’. It doesn’t happen very often, but we’ve seen people making the wrong call and not pulling up a tired horse and that’s where I think you need someone who can really see that.”

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