Industry must stay one jump ahead in a changing world *H&H Plus*

  • THE equestrian industry must stay ahead of the game to keep its social licence to operate, to convince the public that the relationship between horses and humans is mutually beneficial.

    This was the view expressed during an expert panel discussion at the 2020 virtual World Horse Welfare conference on 12 November.

    Panellists Christa Lesté-Lasserre, Sheila Voas, Andrew McLean and Caroline Nokes debated on the topic of the conference: the horse-human partnership – what’s in it for the horse?

    Asked by discussion chairman Mike Cattermole, a racing journalist, what aspect of the partnership they thought would be confined to history in 20 years, Mr McLean said he foresees a number of changes.

    The former top eventer and showjumper, now a member of the Racing Victoria welfare advisory board and director of Pony Club Australia, said things have changed hugely in his lifetime.

    “We’ve moved in such a short time from a place where the horse was an animal we could use, and all our attention was on keeping it alive and well, to looking at what is in it for the horse,” he said.

    “I think this is where we’re going, and that’s a very good thing. The more we know about horses as sentient beings, the more we recognise there’s so much more to them.”

    Mr McLean said if the industry is ahead of the game, racing will still go ahead in 2040, but without whips. He added that he is not against whip use, but he is against the use of a tool to which the animal cannot respond, such as when a racehorse is already going as fast as possible.

    He believes we will not see curb bits or spurs being used, that “the tight noseband will be a dead duck”, and that understanding of horses’ learning theory will improve, adding: “I look forward to that day.”

    Christa Lesté-Lasserre, a journalist specialising in equestrianism and research, believes management will change, as people think more empathetically about what horses want and need, and move away from keeping them stabled.

    Scotland’s chief vet Sheila Voas added: “I’d like to see us treating them as horses, and not anthropomorphising quite as much.
    “I want to see horses living some of their lives outside, eating natural forage and without rugs in all weathers, with companionship. Let’s treat horses as horse, rather than how we’d like to be treated.”

    Conference guest Jason Brautigam, British Dressage CEO, asked whether the panel thought horse sport will still have public approval by the 2040 Olympics.

    “I think this issue is definitely on the cards, and that’s why we need to be ahead of the game,” Mr McLean said. “Change is exponential now; everyone has televisions and can see everything that happens, and what drives change is often social media and expectations.”

    Ms Lesté-Lasserre agreed on the role of social media in public perception, adding: “It needs to be convincing, to prove that the horse is a happy member of the partnership so the sport can go on.”

    The panel discussed the role legislation has in improving horse welfare and the partnership with humans.

    Most agreed that often, legislation comes too late, and the focus has to be on education, especially of young people through avenues such as the Pony Club.

    “If we have to legislate, we’ve probably failed to an extent,” Ms Voas said.

    “And we can’t legislate for all the things we’d like to change. I’m the district commissioner of a Pony Club branch and a key thing we can do is to educate children, to get them to question why an animal that grazes over large areas is stabled 23 hours a day, and eating hard feed, and so on. I think legislation has to be a last resort.”

    Ms Voas said equestrians need to look at the subtleties of good management, so not just ensuring a horse is well physically but also, for example, knowing when he might be depressed owing to lack of equine companionship.

    In closing the conference, World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers said: “If we were in a vehicle today [in today’s conference] and needed to park it, I think that would be at the importance of education.”

    He cited the impacts of social media and the challenges it poses, but added that the digital and social media worlds can be a force for good, and disseminating educational messages.

    “Anthropomorphism has also permeated so many of our discussions today,” he said. “It’s all about understanding better how we can better understand mental health in our horses. We have a good basis but we need to do more, and work in understanding that is so important.

    “It’s also about practical implementation; getting education to those who need it, or don’t think they need it, is so much the challenge.

    “In terms of the horse-human partnership, and what’s in it for the horses. If we can make the advances we have done going forward, we can make sure it’s as equitable as possible, and that there is plenty in it for the horses.”