The role of elite riders, social media, vaccinating against equine flu and the media were among the topics covered by a varied panel at the World Horse Welfare conference on 13 November.
Showjumper Joe Stockdale, Royal Veterinary College lecturer Madeleine Campbell, BBC racing journalist Joe Wilson, New Forest commoner Lyndsey Stride and vet Julie Ross, a World Horse Welfare trustee, joined broadcaster Mike Cattermole to discuss “a responsible approach”, fitting the event’s theme: “Who is responsible?”
The first topic was on the role elite riders have in promoting appropriate training methods.
Joe Stockdale said top riders can have a huge impact as their opinion is highly valued.
“Especially now with social media, there’s a lot more opportunity to get information across, but that comes with dangers,” he said. “The main point is the clarity they need in the techniques they promote.”
Joe explained that while fellow top riders may understand points made, others may not.
“It’s easy for people to think they’re doing something right because they’ve seen a top rider doing it and they’re trying to replicate it, but they’re not seeing what happens behind the scenes.”
Dr Campbell said this ties into the idea of equestrianism’s social licence to operate, and persuading society that horses should still be used in competition, so having young riders promoting the sport and advocating good training methods is important. But these methods must be evidence-based, emphasising the importance of collaboration across the industry.
Mr Wilson said in recent years, welfare has become “part of the mainstream discussion”, which is positive, and means more scrutiny.
“I’ve always felt the journalist’s responsibility is to provide the bridge between expertise and general opinion,” he said, adding that while it would have been easy to take extreme “soundbites” from animal activists in the past, he instead has spoken to World Horse Welfare as he felt if he wanted to affect change, he needed a credible source.
“With [recent welfare conerns] in Australian racing, it seems to me that social licence is in jeopardy. So with social media, a group seeing horse sport as wrong can take control of the agenda.”
He added that when people are bombarded with information, a group with credibility has an even greater responsibility to get the right message across.
Ms Ross said “the whole ecosystem” has to be involved in spreading the word on appropriate methods; trainers, vets and owners as well as riders.
Vets also have a responsibility for engaging with owners on flu vaccination, Dr Campbell said, as the panel was asked how we can improve uptake, with some 30% of UK horses currently vaccinated.
“There’s a role for vets on providing information on transmission, health and welfare impacts and what we can do in biosecurity and vaccination,” she said, adding that vets should help owners understand why part of responsible ownership included vaccination. She asked whether rates would increase if prices dropped, and if so, whose responsibility would it be, adding that prices reflect not only drugs’ cost, but that of other medicines that do not get to market.
Ms Ross said people turn to “Dr Google”, which is “unfortunate” but that trying to convince owners with science may not work, so vets should consider how they talk to people rather than what they say.
A guest also asked whether all governing bodies could set the same rules on vaccination frequency as a consistent message.
The final point was whether, in a polarised world, the media tends to highlight extreme rather than mainstream views on welfare.
Mr Wilson said there can be a danger of this, but for journalists, balance is “at the heart”, adding: “If you’re criticised by both sides, you’re probably doing it right.”
He said balance is not present in the social media “jungle”, and that he recommends people in the industry maintain good relationships with independent, trustworthy journalists.
“There are a few of us!” he said, going on to say the positivity of our sport should be emphasised, and that the most inspiring event he had been to was equestrianism at the 2012 Paralympics.
“There’s a uniqueness with horses in sport and anything you can do to emphasise that will help the bond of trust with the public.”
Ms Ross said the media is an important channel to get messages across, and extreme viewpoints can sway public opinion, so there is a responsibility to quote credible organisations.
Ms Stride added: “Silence isn’t possible any more, with it comes a sense of, ‘Is someone doing something wrong?’”
More from the World Horse Welfare conference:
The British Horseracing Authority has commissioned a project to develop a welfare and wellbeing assessment to identify factors that contribute
The study looked into the forces applied on different horses’ heads, and its effect of their gait