World Horse Welfare. In an open letter, the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) asked World Horse Welfare (WHW) to publicly rectify “a number of incorrect claims and insinuations” made by Olympian and WHW trustee Richard Davison regarding noseband research at their recent conference.

Roly Owers, MRCVS, WHW chief executive responded and praised Richard Davison for sharing his personal opinions and encouraging debate on issues affecting sport horse welfare. Hon. President of ISES was asked by WHW to publish the response and it can be downloaded here.

The ISES, whose aim is to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse–rider relationship, says it is important to prevent misinterpretation [of the scientific research] as it may damage the welfare of sport-horses.

The ISES open letter can be downloaded here.

WHW is an international horse charity that claims to be driven by a desire to stop unnecessary suffering, using a practical approach and scientific evidence to deliver lasting change across the full spectrum of the horse world. The theme of this year’s conference, which took place in Central London on 31st October, was “Enhancing value, being evidence-led and campaigning, highlighted as key factors in improving welfare through Changing Times”.

The day began with a well-intentioned talk by Chief Executive Roly Owers who spoke of the challenges faced today and the need for horse sports to maintain a social licence to operate. Mr Owers suggested there is an opportunity for using the fast-paced change and emerging technologies for good – provided everyone takes responsibility and time to improve equine welfare.

The presentation by Mr Davison that the ISES is challenging started at 10.25am. Mr Davison was introduced as a trustee of World Horse Welfare and four time Olympian, and had been invited to speak about “Equestrian sport: the good, the bad and the ugly – and, where to next?”

During his talk, Mr Davison rejected the need for further regulation as a means to protect welfare and, instead, called out social media activists and ‘the media’ in general for failing to support the sport’s regulators – the FEI – in their ongoing quest to maintain their values which state on numerous occasions that the welfare of the horse is paramount.

“There is endless protection from regulations” said Mr Davison. “We don’t need more regulations; we just need them to be clear, unambiguous and relevant to modern times and current knowledge. And if you do seek rule amendments, then do it through the correct process by lobbying your national federation.”

While Mr Davison ended his talk by recommending sport horse welfare could be improved by, for example, giving horses more opportunities to graze and leave their stables as well as improving education in learning theory, the highlight of the talk was nosebands. He questioned where and how tightness should be measured and the potential dangers faced when performing tightness checks at competitions.

The ISES open letter details and counters the instances when Mr Davison maked insinuations they consider misleading and/or inaccurate, and points out the failure to consider some of the most compelling evidence that tight nosebands are both, very common and a serious welfare concern.

In particular, it is worrying to hear Mr Davison claim that the nasal bones may not be the most relevant place to check noseband tightness, something which defies the laws of physics when you take into account the anatomy of the horse’s head (read more about that here).

This lack of understanding and failure to stay up-to-date with the latest research, not just by Mr Davison but by most national governing bodies and the FEI, may explain why their steward guidelines are still recommending noseband checks be performed on the side of the horse’s face. It has been shown time and time again that a noseband can be very tight and still allow a whole hand to fit between the strap and the side of the face.

So far and despite the compelling evidence of the threat of tight nosebands to both, horse welfare and horse sports’ social licence to operate, only two national federations – New Zealand and Denmark – have recognised the need to test noseband tightness at the nasal bones and have stipulated a minimum spacing must be achieved.

As insinuated in this unfortunate presentation, it seems that in others, the sporting interests and potential liability issues resulting from the use of a standardised gauge are overriding the welfare concerns raised by peer reviewed scientific research.

The FEI and the national federations write the rules that stewards enforce. As long as they continue to measure tightness on the side of the face, riders will continue to compete with very tight nosebands. If the FEI were to accept the nasal bone as the place to measure and demand a minimum spacing can be achieved, many riders would have to loosen nosebands.

By denying or ignoring the scientific evidence the FEI is, ultimately, protecting riders from having to loosen nosebands and is failing to meet its aim to protect horse welfare. This is their perogative but, perhaps, they should state the fact and their reasons behind their decision to keep nosebands tight in competition – without shooting the (scientific) messenger.

The WHW 2018 conference presentations are free to view on YouTube. Mr Davison’s presentation starts approx 45 mins in.

Download the ISES open letter to WHW here.  The response by WHW can be downloaded here.