What influences public opinion on sport horse welfare?

World Horse Welfare recently brought together horse sport leaders and influential voices to explore what influences public opinion on horse welfare across all equestrian disciplines 

Stepping outside our own ‘horse bubble’, becoming more transparent and, recognising that what riders and others involved with horse sport say and do has a real influence on public trust in horse sport, were just some of the messages from an event for equestrian leaders and the media hosted by World Horse Welfare in London and online on June 12th 2024.

Another key message was celebrating the harmony between horse and human, which echos World Horse Welfare’s vision to support and improve the horse-human relationship in every way.

In front of an audience of around 100 invited guests, the panel of horse sport leaders discussed the results of the charity’s third annual YouGov* opinion poll. They explored the question of who – and what – influences the public’s opinion on the involvement of horses in sport.

Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, set the keynote by welcoming significant initiatives to improve safety and welfare by some horse sports. He highlighted opinion poll results showing a small but steady rise in the proportion of the general public, whose confidence was growing that horse welfare is protected in sport, based on what they see and hear in the media (from 10% in 2022 to 17% in 2024).

Urging sport to keep up the momentum, he said, “There is clearly an appetite for more information about welfare in sport, with more than half of the general public wanting this, and almost two-thirds of horse people [the 2% who interact regularly with horses].

Reflecting on the key question of ‘What influences trust in horse sport to protect welfare?’, Roly said, “It’s not so much what regulators say and do but, what riders and those involved in the sport say and do.This is given most weight (28%), followed by the media (25%), other people who are involved with horses but not in sport (20%), and lastly, sport regulators (18%).”

The panel discussed the survey results, chaired by writer and editor Lucy Higginson and featuring equestrian leaders including: Johan Fyrberg, Secretary General, Swedish Equestrian Federation; Gemma Pearson MRCVS, Director of Behaviour, The Horse Trust and lecturer in equine behaviour at The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh; Nick Luck, broadcaster and writer, and mother and daughter eventers Tina and Isabelle Cook – who were asked about the role of transparency in building trust on equine welfare with the public.

Nick Luck said that, “There’s no doubt that the latest iteration of racing’s initiative to get a positive welfare message out there has been its most effective one.” He continued, “It’s tried to show every aspect of the sport as it is, it’s tried to give as much access as possible behind the scenes, whether it be the way that horses are fed, shod, how much time they spend at grass, showing (the public) all the time what our bond is with the equine athlete.”

Gemma Pearson highlighted:

“Everyone has a responsibility to showcase our sport. Regardless of whether you’re a grassroots rider or someone just happy hacking, or whether it’s the elite riders or the vet. Every time you are interacting with your horse you need to be setting a good example. And what is a good example, is changing over time.”

Johan Fyrberg acknowledged the need for openness and tacking welfare issues head-on and concluded. “Horse welfare is not a problem, it is a solution.”

Tina Cook added that there should be stronger fines and disciplinary action for bad behaviour and supported the principle of the inspection of training yards. “I think it’s a good idea if you are part of a federation, that somebody can just pop in to your yard at any point. I think it would make people, if they weren’t managing their horses as well as they could do…it would keep them on the ball, and I think that’s a great idea.”

Isabelle Cook spoke of the increasing expectation for riders to post on social media and said, “You have to be very aware of what you put up. You don’t want to put up anything controversial … I’m quite careful.” She continued, “We don’t get a massive amount of educational guidance from the sport on what to do, other than not posting about other people.”

With the results of the poll showing that a significant proportion of the public do not encounter horse sport content through media at all, the panel discussed whether the Olympic Games could help to increase its visibility. Gemma Pearson described a conversation with a non-horsey relative who was excited by the ‘dancing horses’ of Olympic dressage, “It was that harmony, that’s what shone…they were suddenly engaged because they saw that harmony.”She also emphasised that the general public will be able to pick up on a happy horse and it was positive images such as these that will resonate with audiences.

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience and the panel tackled some thought-provoking topics such as how educational support could be provided to equestrians at all levels and ages, and the need to be transparent during the whole life of the horse, not just while competing but from birth to death.

Wrapping up the event, Roly said “It’s vitally important that we step outside of ourselves and our horse world and when we think about welfare, seek and trust independent perspectives. We should not be totally directed by what others think, but we need to be aware of what others think. The horse world has some control over its own future, but not complete control, and it’s up to us to reach out and influence beyond our ‘bubble’.”

World Horse Welfare believes welfare is best improved through the strengthening of the horse-human relationship and supports the responsible involvement of horses in sport. World Horse Welfare is an independent welfare advisor to horse sport regulators, including the FEI and the British Horseracing Authority.


The full 1hr and 10-minute event can be WATCHED HERE

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