Spotlight on the ethics of using horses in our sport

  • H&H has covered the need for horse sport to maintain its social licence to operate; essentially the public acceptance of horses’ use in sport. This World Horse Welfare webinar went into the subject in detail, discussing the ethics of equestrianism

    THE ethics of veterinary intervention to keep horses sound to compete, whips, spurs and competing horses in general were under the spotlight in a recent webinar.

    Olympic eventer Alex Hua Tian was among the panellists at a World Horse Welfare session titled “How to keep horse sport ethical”, run with the University of Nottingham on 23 June.

    Professor Madeleine Campbell, who holds senior positions in universities and veterinary organisations relating to animal welfare and ethics, gave her views on the ethics of riding, enhancement of performance, and “when to call it a day”.

    “Is it ethical to ride horses and use them in sport,” she asked? “Yes.”

    Professor Campbell said this is an answer she has come to through “a great deal of thought”, as an owner, breeder and rider, and also using various ethical theories and frameworks.

    She said she sees using animals in sport as no different to the huge variety of ways in which animals and humans interact; keeping animals in zoos for conservation, or as pets, for example.

    “I don’t see their use in sport as any ethically different, provided we always safeguard their welfare,” she said.

    Professor Campbell added that World Horse Welfare is funding research for an ethical framework for use with horses in sport. This will have three core principles that must be fulfilled to ensure horse sport is ethically justifiable.

    These are always minimising negative and maximising positive welfare impacts, looking at psychological as well as physical effects. We must also identify risk and minimise it as much as possible, and always adhere to sport rules and regulations.

    The subject of enhancing equine performance in an ethical way fits, Professor Campbell said, with current discussions on animal sentience.

    “Should we adapt things to improve the experience of the horse, or do what we’ve always done?” she asked. “One question is that of double bridles; in the UK, you’re allowed to ride a grand prix test in a snaffle, but in some high-level international competitions, it’s still a requirement to have a double bridle. That’s an anomaly that’s puzzled me, on whether it’s justified. I’m not aware of significant studies on the difference from a horse’s point of view but it’s worth considering.

    “What I don’t think we should do is brush the question aside; we need to consider why we’re doing what we’ve always done, and whether it’s still sensible in light of current evidence.”

    But she added that taking action to enhance performance is often by definition something that will improve welfare as well, such as working a horse on different surfaces, or travelling it in a manner it prefers.

    On the topic of rules, and “when is enough enough”, Professor Campbell referred to issues that are allowed but possibly should not be.

    “One question is rider weight; certainly in showing there’s been talk about adults riding ponies in. We can all think of things that are allowed but if we stop to think about, we might question,” she said. “I think that’s the challenge for all of us; trying to see things from the horse’s perspective, and whether what we do is ethically justifiable, or if we need to change something.”

    In the panel discussion, World Horse Welfare field officer John Burns also cited inappropriately sized riders as a concern, especially if the horses concerned are also overweight, and said riders should be aware of their horses’ capabilities.

    Questions were asked about veterinary intervention such as joint medication or others aimed at keeping horses sound.

    “This is a complicated one,” Professor Campbell said, adding that in human sport, athletes often have treatment to keep competing, but the key difference is that humans consent.

    “That puts responsibility on all of us – vets, owners and riders – to make sure we’re making decisions in the horse’s best interests,” she said.

    Alex added: “There’s a very important line when you’re looking after a sport horse and managing its soundness and mental wellbeing, and long-term welfare.

    “Whether managing intermittent discomfort means joint medication or any of the hundreds of other treatments, if that allows the horse to continue to compete and be fulfilled and enjoy its career, and the treatment doesn’t mean the horse is at risk of more injury, I think that’s fine.”

    Alex also answered a question about ensuring horses have positive experiences while competing.

    “I’m a big believer that horses enjoy the sport, hopefully as much as we do,” he said.

    “If you’re at the top level, you have to have a horse that enjoys it, as I don’t think there’s a chance they could get to that level otherwise.”

    Whips and spurs were discussed – Professor Campbell said we “need to be thinking about their use more carefully” – and a key was public perception of our sport and its ethics.

    “We’ve got an opportunity to bolster equestrian sport,” Mr Burns said. “Its effects on wellbeing for horse and rider; we’ve got a great chance to put horse sport back on the map.”

    Alex added that, as an industry, we should have confidence that “a vast majority of horses in our care enjoy the highest levels of welfare”.

    He said: “But in an ever-changing social-media world, we need to continue to challenge how horse sport is perceived in the broader world, and continually think about its social licence to operate. Every rider, groom and owner is an ambassador for the sport, and we should continue to promote its values.”

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