By George Williams
Rumors of photographers lurking in the trees taking pictures of the warm-up spread quickly at a major competition in France last month. Our riders are not used to that kind of unfriendly scrutiny and it was easy for them to be distracted, causing them to become immediately suspicious of individuals occasionally snapping a photo. In some ways, it was a rude awakening; or perhaps, a reality check to the challenges dressage and all equestrian sports face and will continue to face in the future.
It’s up to those of us actively involved in equestrian sports to be proactive. We will not be successful by directly confronting those who are opposed to what we do. Rather, we must do some soul searching, self-evaluate and be willing to step forward when we see things that are wrong.
I was delighted to see that two different important initiatives were recently announced in the international equestrian press. While they seem to be approaching it from different angles, they both are looking at the welfare of the horse and the sustainability of equestrian sports in a changing world. In this country, we might not be as confronted by organized groups opposed to the use of horses in sport as in Europe, but our day may come. Now is the time we need to dot our i’s and cross our t’s.
A press release from the European Equestrian Federation (EEF) dated May 25, 2022, puts it this way: “The EEF is excited to announce a new partnership with the Sporthorse Welfare Foundation. The foundation is an international research group committed to enhancing horse health, performance and welfare, and improving horse-rider relationships through high-quality and inclusive research, education and increasing understanding.
“The EEF will be working on a specific research project to find consensus about what the essential aspects of sport horse management and training are to safeguard the welfare of the sport horses involved. Ultimately, working towards creating clear guidelines and advice to bring a global standard for sport horse welfare.”
Two different initiatives were recently announced and are looking at the welfare of the horse and the sustainability of equestrian sports in a changing world.
Photo by Melissa Fuller
On June 2nd, the FEI announced it is launching a similar project. In their press release, FEI President Ingmar De Vos explained, “The FEI has formed an independent Commission to develop a practical framework that will allow the International Federation to address current and future concerns related to the use of horses in sport.
“In our industry, Social License to Operate (SLO) is the term given to society’s acceptance of the practice of equestrian sport and all its related activities. Equestrian sport and the FEI’s activities are more than ever under public scrutiny and through the Commission we want to embrace that scrutiny to drive change and shine the spotlight on our number one stakeholder—the horse.”
Both initiatives have called upon an impressive group of experts to help in their studies. The U.S. has a representative on each. On the FEI initiative is Dr. Camie Heleski as an external expert. She is a senior lecturer at the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment with the University of Kentucky. According to The Horse magazine, “Her applied research interests include equine behavior and welfare, horse-human interactions, and working equids in the world’s developing regions. Her equine research and outreach efforts have taken her to Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Egypt and Mali.”
On the EEF and Sporthorse Welfare Foundation project is Prof. Hilary Clayton, Ph.D. She is currently with Sport Horse Ltd as a researcher and equine consultant. Dr. Clayton is well known for what The Horse describes as her “innovative research in the areas of equine biomechanics, conditioning programs for equine athletes and the interaction between rider, tack and horse. She has written seven books and over 250 scientific articles on these topics.” Many United States Dressage Federation members are familiar with her work, as she has been a popular presenter at the USDF Annual Meetings over the years.
I was glad to see that there is U.S. representation, for it’s important that there is on projects such as these; not that they are there to represent U.S. interest, but simply by living and working here they at least innately bring a U.S. perspective.
Although the future is always a little uncertain, long-term strategic planning is still crucial. We have to be looking ahead; someone will always find something wrong with what we do. However, our goal should be to work in a manner that removes as many legitimate complaints as possible and be able to point to the benefits to both humans and horses.
FEI President Ingmar De Vos summed it up nicely in the FEI release. “This is our duty as the governing body responsible for equestrian sport, and this is why we have set up this important and independent Commission to allow us to move forward with a course of action that will strengthen equestrian’s place in society.”
While it challenges us, I like his forward thinking.