Anna Ross discusses our sport’s social licence and how we can protect it
It is easy to forget for those of us who live on a metaphorical island in the middle of “Lake Horse” that there is an outside world looking in. In an Olympic year especially, there is inevitably a wider examination of horse sport as it attracts attention from a bigger audience. This gives us a great opportunity to draw more spectators and sponsors, but also opens us up to animal welfare concerns from those questioning the use of horses in sport.
Justification for our use of horses for sport is known as our social licence. To the average person on the street, it may not be obvious why keeping horses for sport is any different to keeping animals purely for entertainment – in aquariums, for instance.
The solution lies in education, though not lengthy explanations about the minute details of the sport. After all, many people enjoy football without fully understanding the offside rule. We just need to provide clear explanations supported by scientific evidence demonstrating our excellent due diligence regarding animal welfare, and clarity about the benefits of our sport to put people’s minds at rest. Tradition should be put aside as we should examine our practices in the context of 2021.
One obvious question that might be asked by members of the public is why riders use whips. In more high-profile competitions, dressage competitors don’t carry whips but we do train with them both on board and on the ground.
Another would be around the need for double bridles. Most horses start their training in a snaffle bit, so it is understandable that people might query why riders appear to need stronger (double) bridles on their horses as they become better trained.
Then there are queries around the use of spurs. My answer to this point would be that it’s akin to the difference between using a plectrum or your fingers to play the guitar.
Questions may be asked about judging – about using video playback to help with contentious decisions, and why dressage is not judged by computers. Should we implement the long-awaited code of points, and should dressage judges undergo training in eliminating unconscious bias in line with other subjective Olympic sports, such as gymnastics and figure skating?
My answer to this is yes; the best judges have been following these practices unconsciously for years anyway and it provides greater transparency.
There are considerations around horse management. Is it OK to fly horses? Should all horses live in fields? Should horses have social interaction with others as they are naturally herd animals? Again, my answer to this last question is yes, they should, whether that be via stables that allow horses more contact with each other, or allowing more natural field behaviours whereby horses can interact with others.
“We should play devil’s advocate”
In sport horse breeding, artificial insemination, embryo transfer and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) are now widely used. Any fan of David Attenborough knows that if we left it to natural selection, nature would take its course and only the fittest would survive.
In riding horses for sport, one of our responsibilities is to breed horses that can stand up to its rigours. For example, by using a selective breeding process, the KWPN has reduced instances of navicular bone disease over the years. By aiming to breed the best and, crucially, the healthiest horses, and eliminate genetic lamenesses and prolong healthy lives, I consider this justified.
By protecting equestrian sport from damaging misconceptions and by being ready to explain our practices, we can all help “future proof” the sport that we love. We should play devil’s advocate; challenge the status quo and see if it stands up to scrutiny.
It is this that will help our sport survive and thrive.
● For more on the sport’s social licence, don’t miss the dressage special issue, out 1 April
Also published in H&H 4 March 2021
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