The winner of the 2019 Melbourne Cup, Vow and Declare ridden by Craig Williams surrounded by an admiring public

Social Licence to Operate: The Life or Death of the Sport

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There’s a new term out there in the horse world. And like rollkur, it promises to be a trendy one.

It also promises to be a scary one.

Social Licence to Operate—SLO for short—is the acceptance of our sport by the public. It’s a virtual licence given by a virtual authority: the public. But there’s nothing virtual about its power.

“The public has a new skill set which challenges our traditional way of doing things, including the way we consider what’s acceptable,” said Julie Fiedler, Master’s in Communication (Research) candidate at the Appleton Institute of Central Queensland University in Adelaide, Australia.

“The public has reinvented the values of legitimacy, credibility, and trust, and mediated by technology, ideas (about animal welfare) are spread throughout the public community,” she said. Fielder presented on the topic of social licence to operate during the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

The public’s ideas aren’t always grounded in scientific fact, however, she said. But whether the public is right or wrong, their perceptions of animal welfare in horse sport are what matters.

“Organisations have to take this seriously—especially when there’s a media storm like when Charlotte Dujardin’s horse had blood on his flank or any time a sport horse dies in competition—because it can literally mean the life or death of the sport,” Fiedler told Horses and People.

“Sport organisations and federations needs to address the issue of social license head on, and not cover their eyes and cross their fingers and hope it goes away, because it won’t,” she continued.

“A good way to start is by constructing formal and informal opportunities for new horse welfare knowledge, through evidence-based research, in a way that lends not only to scientific merit but also to social legitimacy.”

More than just a set of welfare rules, organisations need well-constructed welfare “frameworks” that establish clear concepts and principles about how their members safeguard equine welfare, according to Fiedler. By showing that they’re knowledgeable and actively sharing that knowledge, they can be proactive in protecting the sport against the dangers of losing their social licence.

In a preliminary study, Fiedler and her fellow researchers investigated the positions of members of an Australian horse sport organisation with regards to welfare. They found that, generally, women were more inclined than men to listen to and apply welfare recommendations from an organisation, and amateurs were more likely than professionals to look to science for welfare guidance and knowledge, she said.

They also noted that the majority of the survey respondents weren’t familiar with the welfare concept of the Five Domains, she added. Further research following up on this initial study will help such sport organisations construct their welfare frameworks—essentially by giving them a place from which to start building.

“The social licence to operate is not an afterthought,” Fiedler said during her ISES presentation. “Every sport and every organisation will need to work out what it means to keep and maintain a social licence. And what it might look like if it’s lost.

“All who are involved within a sport will need to work every day to maintain public trust,” she added, “so that what is said could be done is, in fact, done.”

Social Licence to Operate was presented by Julie Fiedler at the 2019 International Equitation Science Conference in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in August 2019. To download a copy of the proceedings, click here.

Julie Fiedler is the Executive Officer of Horse South Australia (Horse SA) and is studying a Masters in Research (Communication) at Central Queensland University.

Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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