Researcher: Horse Sports Risk Losing 'Social License'

British dressage star Charlotte Dujardin gets eliminated for having blood on her horse’s flank. Leading Dutch dressage rider Anky van Grunsven is photographed with her horse in rollkur (hyperflexion). Someone shoots a photo of an Arabian born with a nose so dished it can hardly breathe. Reports of 22, then 30, then 37 racehorses euthanized after sustaining catastrophic injuries on a California racetrack. And, most recently, a video shows the U.K.’s Jack Pinkney seemingly guiding his eventing horse into a wall.

Anything that can be criticized in the world of horse sport is subject to criticism by the public, an expert in equine-sector social issues warns. Someone, somewhere, always has a camera and a social media account. The images will be distributed and analyzed, criticized, and harshly judged by not only the equestrian public but also the general public. The result? A risk that equine sport itself might no longer “be allowed” to exist, said Julie Fiedler, who’s working toward a master’s in communication (research) at the Appleton Institute of Central Queensland University, in Adelaide, Australia.

Welcome to the world of “social license to operate (SLO).” Long-known in other fields such as mining and banking, social license to operate is now a part of the equestrian world—and Fielder believes it’s powerful enough to change the horse industry.

“The future of horse sports increasingly rests with the public,” she said during her presentation at the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Why does the public have the power to “allow” or “not allow” equestrian sport to exist, you ask? The answer is simple, said Fiedler. When too many people raise their voices and speak out in the name of animal welfare—whether they’re right or wrong—the force of the group becomes stronger than the sport itself, she said.

“We’ve entered a social phase of the ‘sharing economy,’ where everyday people rely on each other and each other’s opinions, more than on professionals,” said Fiedler, citing Airbnb and Uber and their review systems and social sharing as classic examples of the phenomenon.

What’s happening is that on a strictly social level, equestrian sport runs with a sort of automatic “license.” The public generally assumes that horseback riding, driving, racing, competing, and breeding are acceptable—they give it a “license to operate,” or exist, essentially. Until they take it away.

“A social license to operate is basically public acceptance of your activity,” she said. When people start to question whether people should be riding with whips or spurs, or even riding horses at all, then they’re not accepting the activity any longer, she explained. While that doesn’t stop the sport directly, it can hamper the image to the point of making it difficult to continue.

To address the social license issue, sports organizations and federations should be proactive and create a “welfare framework” that’s transparent and visible for everyone, said Fiedler. They should embrace modern technology as a way to communicate strong and positive messages about horse welfare, and they should consider having top riders as spokespersons for that framework.

“This can’t just be about a list of rules to follow and not break, at the risk of fines or disqualifications,” Fielder told “We need a more holistic perspective, seeing good welfare principles coming from the competitive rider up, rather than from the authority down.”

To better understand competitive riders’ views on equine welfare, Fiedler and her fellow researchers surveyed 107 members of an Australian horse sport organization.

They found that women were more likely than men to listen to and act on welfare messages from an organization, she said. The researchers also noted that unpaid riders were more likely than paid professional riders to agree that scientific research is the leading source of new knowledge about equine welfare. Furthermore, they observed that very few of these riders were familiar with the concept of the Five Domains, a model developed by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) to assess equine welfare.

“The social license to operate is not an afterthought,” she said. “Every sport and every organization will need to work out what it means to keep and maintain a social license. And what it might look like if it’s lost.”