world cup dressage rider

Develop and share a future-focused vision of a “good life” for horses—and publicly commit to that goal, enforce a “zero-tolerance” policy that prohibits and punishes any wrongdoing to horses in or out of the show ring, and proactively engage with the public, educate them about equine welfare, hear their concerns, and be completely transparent about the way competition horses are treated. These are just some of the evidence-based recommendations proposed by the newly formed Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission (EEWC) of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).

The FEI, founded in 1921, serves as the international governing body of the Olympic sports of Jumping, Dressage, Paradressage, and Eventing, as well as Driving, Endurance, Vaulting, and Reining.

Comprising five leading horse welfare experts—all external to the FEI—plus five FEI-affiliated members, the EEWC aims to strengthen the place and image of equestrianism in society, said Ingmar De Vos, FEI president, in his opening speech at the federation’s 2023 Sports Forum, held April 24-25 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“If our relationship with horses—and consequently, our sport—wants to remain acceptable in a broader society, and if we want to ensure a sustainable future, we need to re-explain and reestablish the essence of our relationship with horses,” he told attendees. “This relationship, which has developed and grown over thousands of years, is unique. It’s a bond where the one cannot exist without the other. We need to re-explain this to an urbanized society that may have lost connection with nature and is more easily swayed by misinformation generated by activists through fake news or social media.”

To attain that goal the FEI reached out to Natalie Waran, PhD, professor of One Welfare and executive dean at the Eastern Institute of Technology (Te Pūkenga) in New Zealand, and other equine welfare experts in June 2022 to create a commission that would steer the FEI’s decision-making.

“The objectives really are about looking at the welfare of the horse as it’s involved in sports and then providing guidance to the FEI through the board in relation to regulations and policies and practices—as well as being able to inform wider-reaching advocacy and providing information generally,” Waran said during her presentation representing the committee.

“We have been charged, or tasked, with being your critical friends, being your external, objective scrutiny,” Waran continued, addressing FEI board members and attending delegates. “And that’s what we hope we’ve been able to do in bringing together this report.”

A New Welfare-Focused, Science-Strong FEI Committee

The FEI created the EEWC when federation board members approached the equine science community after the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (held in 2021), looking for help in strengthening sport horse welfare and safeguarding equine sport’s public image.

Along with Waran, the committee’s external experts include Camie Heleski, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington; Kathalijne Visser, PhD, owner of Horsonality Consulting, in De Knipe, The Netherlands; Jessica Stark, director of communications and public affairs for World Horse Welfare; and Madeleine Campbell, BVetMed (Hons), PhD, professor of veterinary ethics at Nottingham University School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, in the U.K.

Working since summer 2022 to address the ethical concerns of the competitive horse industry, the EEWC has already made an initial list of six proposals, Waran said. Those proposals included eliminating the requirement for spurs or double bridles in any discipline, as well as establishing science-based noseband tightness checks at FEI events.

What Do Equestrians and the General Public Think About Sport Horse Welfare?

To better understand the atmosphere that might challenge the future of the equestrian sports it governs, the committee’s scientific team sought ethical opinions about competition horses from 42,000 people representing 14 countries. That included 28,000 equestrians of all levels, as well as 14,000 people who have no connections with the horse world.

Overall, the researchers found that 67% of the general public and 50% of the equestrian public thought horses probably don’t enjoy participating in sports, Waran said. “So there’s a general agreement that there is an issue in relation to whether or not horses are having a positive experience when they’re involved with sport,” she explained.

In addition, 67% of the nonequestrian public felt that horse welfare standards “were either not adequate or could not be provided for within sport,” Waran said. The public was much more concerned about horse safety and welfare than human safety and welfare or the impact of equine sports on the environment, she added.

Among equestrian stakeholders—from the grassroots to the highest level of competition—the researchers found that 75% of respondents had concerns about the public’s opinion of current use of horses in sports. And that varied considerably from one category of stakeholder to another, she said. The highest levels came from equine veterinarians, with 87% of them expressing concern; the lowest came from FEI board members, at 53%.

From that survey, the scientists identified six priority focus areas representing equestrian stakeholder and public concerns, said Waran, to consider when making welfare-based recommendations. These included:

  • Training, riding, tack, and equipment.
  • Signs of physical and emotional stress.
  • Accountability, enforcement, and knowledge about equine welfare.
  • The horse’s life beyond the competition ring.
  • People’s competitive drive and treating the horse as a number.
  • Health problems that could render the horse unfit to compete—and which might get masked.

New Evidence-Based Welfare Recommendations for the FEI

Based on their survey results, the committee proposed 24 theme-based specific recommendations for improving the health and welfare of FEI sport horses. The themes focused on making FEI a trusted, transparent, proactive leader that is open to independent investigation, Waran said. Pertinent examples include updating the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse to reflect the FEI’s commitment to ensuring all horses have “A Good Life,” and empowering officials to “ensure [that] welfare is paramount,” and holding them accountable.

Such changes would not only lead to better lives for these equine athletes but also help protect FEI sport’s social license to operate (SLO)—the “ethical right” to ride and compete horses in the eyes of the public, said Waran. In particular, she added, equine industry stakeholders, and especially the FEI, must take care not to reach the tipping point—when the general public worldwide no longer accepts equestrian sport and calls out for legislation banning it.

For that, Waran said, it’s critical for stakeholders and officials to be trustworthy in their stewardship and care of horses. “The way that we ensure that we’re trusted is by listening and engaging and making sure that we remain legitimate, credible, and accountable, and that we positively engage and that we show real commitment, not by what we say but by what we do,” she said. “And we must recognize that we cannot self-award our social license as a community or an organization. We have to be able to ask for that social license and maintain that social license with people who are outside of our particular bubbles.

“If we get this right, and if we actually maintain the trust, and develop that trust by providing more information and then show willingness to change and engage, then we can start to see that tipping point shifting to a more positive end,” Waran added.

The FEI’s president seconded that concept.

“The future of our sport and the success of the industry depends on all of us, individually and collectively, by taking our responsibilities and demonstrating in everything that we do, that we value this relationship (with the horse) above all and will always prioritize the health and happiness of our horses,” De Vos told FEI delegates.

“We will need to have the courage to review our rules and relate sanctions to enforce the credibility of our events, but also to look at how we raise the bar and the expectation of what happens during the other 23 hours, or at home.”

FEI delegates will vote on the recommendations during the FEI’s General Assembly, to be held Nov. 18-21, 2023, in Mexico City.