Can sport horses be happy?

The first ever Equitation Welfare Workshop took place on 1st & 2nd August and was attended by delegates from Australia, Ireland, Sweden, Canada, The Netherlands and Italy.

Owing to COVID-19, this technology-driven, collaborative workshop was a ‘pivot’ from the originally planned ‘Happy Athlete’ conference proposed to run at Reaseheath College, Cheshire, UK, and was the brainchild of Lisa Ashton, UK’s leading Equitation Science Consultant.

International behaviour and welfare consultant Dr Andrew McLean, Australia, delivered a presentation on Agency and the Sport Horse. Agency is the degree to which an individual is able to make free choices about its life and it is the most recent extension to our understanding of animal welfare.

Dr McLean delved into the question from all viewpoints affecting sport horses; how we might give horses a sense of agency through access to their natural drives (friends, forage and freedom) and how, together with optimal training, these enhance positive welfare.

Delegates were encouraged to gain insight into the complexity of the question of agency in terms of what we currently know about horses and its relativity to the FEI’s concept of the ‘Happy Athlete’.

Dr David Marlin placed the horse sport welfare spotlight on the barriers to retraining equestrians when new knowledge is available. From our tendency to seek out those who confirm our existing beliefs to the rise of the YouTube expert, Dr Marlin challenged delegates to foster collaboration, seek consensus, and communicate widely all evidence-based information that optimises horse welfare.

The educational presentations where immediately followed by virtual breakout rooms where participants engaged in lively collaborative discussions facilitated by Dr Portland Jones, Australia, author of Equitation Science book for children Horses Hate Surprise Parties, Lorna Cameron, Teaching Fellow at the University Centre Sparsholt, UK and Cristina Wilkins, Australia, Editor of the evidence-based resource, Horses and People.

Delegates shared on social media how the four hours flew by gaining knowledge, listening to varied experiences and creating solutions within the various virtual breakout rooms.

“I thoroughly enjoyed hearing from all the different delegates and feel refreshed and re-motivated to keep quietly pushing the change for horses forward. It was lovely to connect with others, who share the same frustrations and barriers as I do – it’s always good to know that you are not alone!” Said Dawn Joyce of the safe space Lisa had cultivated.

Welfare discussions and collaborations were captured for further explorative research that will be led by Lorna Cameron, University Centre Sparsholt. The Equitation Welfare Workshop team will now review the findings and feedback and start the  planning process again to deliver more workshops for as long as COVID19 lives amongst us.

“What a great format. Fantastic group of likeminded people…” Donna Baker, Australia.

“A very thought-provoking weekend and as good as any conference I’ve attended save for physically seeing old friends and meeting new ones in person.” Moi Watson, UK
“Feel so privilege to be part of this workshop with the most amazing group of people” Chris Brook, UK

“I feel so privileged to be part of this workshop with the most amazing group of people.”