Owners must “be better at letting horses be horses” for the sake of their welfare, the chief executive of World Horse Welfare has warned.

Roly Owers addressed a packed hall in London yesterday (31 October) at the charity’s annual conference, the theme of which was “Changing Times”.

“The passage of time always brings change, but I think few would disagree that we’re in a period of unprecedented, relentless and accelerated change across the world,” Mr Owers said.

“Seismic shifts in geopolitics, the rise of digital technology, democratisation, inequality, climate change and the reshaping of values; we ride the waves of these tumultuous times and navigate an ocean where it may seem the very foundations of our traditional assumptions are melting away.”

Mr Owers mentioned Brexit and the essential working together between different organisations on major issues from equine identification law in England to the donkey skin trade in China, adding: “We can and do achieve so much working together.”

He also cited a “growing minority” of people who “see horses almost as people”, adding: “While others expect to see them left alone with nature. We take the view that both these approaches carry grave risks for equine welfare.

“The public rightly expects the welfare of all horses used in riding, sport and racing to be paramount. We couldn’t agree more.

“But some now believe that using horses in sport is inherently exploitative and cruel, not least because they put the horse at risk of injury and fatality.”

Mr Owers said all risks in horse sport do need to be minimised, and fatalities reduced, and cited World Horse Welfare and the RSPCA’s work with the British Horseracing Authority. But he said the key message is that no equestrian sport or activity is without risks, so all horse sports need a “social licence” to operate, with transparency, accountability and “adherence to the ethics of wider society at its heart”.

Mr Owers mentioned a recent parliamentary petition and debate calling for an independent body to regulate horse welfare in racing, which attracted more than 100,000 signatures, as “a clear sign that the public expects much more than business as usual”.

“Then there are those who pamper their animals, over-feed them treats, keep them in stables all day and pile rugs on them all year,” he said.

“The rise of conditions like EMS, laminitis, obesity, gastric ulcers and behavioural stereotypies are the tragic health and welfare consequences. We’ve talked about it so much before but we have to be better at letting horses be horses.

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“That’s not to say we can’t have fun with or fuss over our horses, as long as we keep their health and welfare at the centre of our thinking; and that thinking has to be grounded as far as possible in the facts.

“For example, recently more than 200,000 people signed a petition to ban pony-painting parties. Really?

“While I appreciate this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, we have to keep a focus on the genuine welfare problems.”

For a full report from the conference, don’t miss next week’s edition of horse & Hound magazine, out 8 November.