A British researcher has mapped out an ethical framework to help horse sports assess issues affecting their social licence to operate.

It is hoped that different organisations will use it as a starting point, to critically assess existing and proposed practices, as well as develop their own sport-specific and sustainable codes of ethics.

The Ethical Framework for the Use of Horses in Competitive Sport: Theory and Function is the first to prioritise the ethical issues surrounding the participation of non-human, non-consenting athletes in sport.

As such, it covers a significant gap, bridging existing animal welfare regulations and sports ethics frameworks to help stakeholders consider the ethical implications of interventions and/or actions. Its use would allow transparent and defensible decision and policy making.

Dr Madeleine Campbell is the Royal Veterinary College of London’s Senior Lecturer in Human:Animal Interactions and Ethics. She was previously the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow in Veterinary Ethics. Madeleine is a European Diplomate in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law (Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL)), and a European and a RCVS Recognised Specialist in Equine Reproduction (DipECAR). She is also the sole Partner at Hobgoblins Equine Reproduction Centre. The research, which is open access and published in Animals, was funded by World Horse Welfare.

Diagrammatic step by step explanation of how to use the ethical framework for the use of horses in competitive sport. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11061725

Once an ethical issue is recognised and stakeholders have been identified, Dr Campbell’s framework applies a harm-benefit (utilitarian) analysis, which should be based on the best and relevant available evidence.

Such evidence could be from peer reviewed journal papers, non-peer-reviewed books and reports (both from the issue under consideration and other related issues, such as other species, sports etc), expert opinion and stakeholder opinions. In addition, it should consider what evidence is lacking and could be obtained.

The preliminary conclusions from the harm-benefit analysis is then tested against the ‘central tenets’ which are:

  • Minimisation of negative welfare effects and maximisation of positive welfare effects for horses.
  • Identification of and mitigation agains avoidable, unnecessary risk to horses
  • Compliance with governing body regulations and the law.

By doing this, the mainly utilitarian approach of this framework is broadened to integrate alternative ethical theories such as virtue ethics and deontology.

Deontology is an ethical theory that uses rules (e.g. universal moral laws such as ‘don’t lie’) to distinguish right from wrong. Virtue ethics emphasise traits of character such as empathy, compassion, kindness, loyalty, etc… Whereas utilitarianism advocates actions that promote the greatest good to the greatest number.

The reliance on testing against the ‘central tenets’ assists in resolving conflicts and competing interests, such as when the harm-benefit analysis provides overall benefit to one stakeholder and harms another.

For example, a particular conclusion from the harm-benefit analysis might provide a substantial economic benefit to many humans but involve the acceptance of an identifiable risk to equine welfare which could be mitigated against.

In this case, implementing the preliminary conclusion would contravene one of the central tenets which highlight that priority should be given to the equine (not human) interests.

In contrast, the framework does not say anything about the relative weighing of different and sometimes conflicting interests among humans, allowing the users of the framework to resolve these.

“The aim of developing a novel ethical framework for the use of horses in competitive sport is to provide stakeholders—whether they be regulators, owners, trainers, riders/drivers, vets, legislators, members of the public or others—with a tool which they might apply to the consideration of the ethical questions which inevitably arise in relation to equestrian sport” writes Dr Campbell.

“The purpose of the framework proposed is absolutely not to tell any stakeholder what conclusion they ought to be reaching on any particular issue. Rather, the framework is a tool: a logical method which may be used by stakeholders to reach a defensible consensus decision when faced with an ethically challenging scenario.

“Such use, it is hoped, will serve both to underwrite the continuation of the social license to use horses in sport and also to enable those within equestrian sport to critically assess existing and proposed practices and to make welfare-improving adjustments to practice if/where necessary”

Follow this link to download and read the full paper, which includes an excellent and very accessible review of ethical frameworks, their purpose, structure and limitations.

The article includes a worked example of using the ethical framework to analyse the question of whether all horses being kept in a stable require daily turnout.

Dr Campbell’s framework is currently being tested and refined in consultation with industry stakeholders, and the results of this work will be published in future.