There are growing concerns about the welfare of horses from within and outside sport and these concerns are threatening horse sports’ social license to operate.

In early 2021, the Animal Welfare Research Network (AWRN) and National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC) ran an online equine welfare workshop titled: “How Happy are Equine Athletes? Assessing Equine Quality of Life in Equestrian Sporting Disciplines”.

The workshop, which involved 38 participants from equestrian sports and 10 animal welfare research, aimed to:

  • Gain a better understanding of the current practices and guidance within equestrian sporting disciplines that protect or improve equine welfare;
  • Evaluate the potential usefulness of current approaches to assess animal welfare, and inform the development of measures relevant to the equestrian sports sector;
  • Plan future collaborative initiatives to promote the consideration of equine welfare in the sporting context and provide evidence of how to recognise a “happy equine athlete”.

Presentations were made by representatives from dressage, eventing, show jumping and endurance including riders, trainers, owners, vets, spectators and coaches.

All participants were invited to watch a series of presentations about different aspects of sport horse welfare, ranging from social licence to operate and the ethics of equine sport, through to considerations of behavioural signs of affective state, patterns of equine sleep and measures/tools used to assess welfare.

There were also presentations from representatives of each of the four main equestrian sports considered at the workshops (dressage, eventing, showjumping and endurance), all of whom used video footage to describe their horses’ competitive lives and to talk about their experiences and perceptions of equine welfare within their discipline.

Workshop participants were then selected into focus groups on a “first-come, first-served” basis and according to their involvement in equestrian sports or animal welfare research.

The total of six focus groups included four equestrian discipline-specific groups (endurance, showjumping, dressage and eventing), one mixed equestrian sports group (for other equestrian disciplines including racing, western riding and polo), and one group consisting of welfare/research staff.

Discussion topics included ethical dilemmas, what constitutes good welfare versus poor welfare, the equine athlete versus ‘life as a horse’, demands of the sport, horses’ level of enjoyment and animal welfare indicators.

The focus group sessions were recorded for later analysis, and immediately following each session, all facilitators shared notes about the main themes and ideas that had arisen in each group.

The data collected was analysed and the findings were published in November 2021, in the open access Animals under the title: ‘How Happy Are Equine Athletes? Stakeholder Perceptions of Equine Welfare Issues Associated with Equestrian Sport’.

While each group discussed some discipline-specific issues, the study showed that participants considered the underlying issues affecting sport horse welfare to be broadly similar across equestrian sports.

Stakeholders within equestrian sports described the need for improved welfare in all disciplines.

They felt the majority were doing their best to prioritise the welfare of their horses, but that compromises were often made because of various constraints. The conflict was often exacerbated by the varied opinions of what is required to produce an equine athletes. For example, when horses are considered a ‘financial investment’, they may be viewed as only athletes or commodities, and return on investment may be prioritised over welfare.

The greater the demands placed on elite equine athletes in racing, show jumping and dressage, could also lead to further welfare compromises.

They acknowledged the threat of adverse public opinion on the sustainability of sports, they spoke of their need to be the ‘voice for the horse’ and of taking responsibility for protecting the welfare of equine athletes.

Young horse classes were generally considered problematic because they could result in an overproduction of horses, cause horses to be pushed harder than they would otherwise be, and reduce the longevity of their careers.

Although participants agreed that safeguarding the welfare of equine athletes throughout their lives is an important consideration, it is unclear whose responsibility this is or how they should be protected. This suggests that sports’ governing bodies

The focus groups revealed conflicts between stakeholders responsible for equine welfare. At an elite level, horse welfare may be compromised if they are seen as only athletes or commodities. While there appeared to be a focus on the physical health of horses, their psychological needs were not always met.

Many participants recognised that while improving competition practices could improve welfare during competitive events and could potentially improve the public perception of equestrian sport, competition represents only a very small part of a horse’s life. Although this is undoubtedly important in terms of equine welfare, the impact on the horse may be minimal in comparison with its general management and training.

Overall, the study shows that how the horse feels (their affective state) is not typically at the forefront of most participant’s thoughts in relation to competitive performance, although it is considered in other contexts.

For example, they suggested initiatives to reduce or avoid negative affective states at events but spoke less frequently about providing horses with opportunities to experience positive affecting states as a way to enhance welfare during competitions. In the current understanding of welfare, avoiding negative experiences without providing opportunities to experience positive experiences can, at best achieve a state of neutral welfare.

In relation to welfare assessment tools, very few participants had used a training log or existing tool to monitor their horse’s welfare, and they showed little confidence in the ability of current welfare assessment tools to evaluate affective states in training and competition. Some said that signs of ‘happiness’ are currently unidentifiable.

The authors suggest that if it is true that sports stakeholders do not consider the existing welfare assessment tools feasible, researchers must involve the end users in the development from an early stage.

Other areas for improvement were identified such as training for judges and stewards to identify the behavioural signs of stress or pain, closer scrutiny during pre- endurance event physical examinations and greater emphasis on positive affective states (feelings).

The study is open access and can be found here. Furtado T, Preshaw L, Hockenhull J et al (2021) How happy are equine athletes? Stakeholder perceptions of equine welfare issues associated with equestrian sport. Animals 11, 3228.