The Social License to Operate: Is the future of equestrian sports at stake?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


Bad press for our sport is back, and it’s going to linger around for a while.

Recently, a prominent US show jumper was suspended from participating in equestrian sport for his prolonged use of an illegal and welfare-compromising training gadget—electric spurs. Like me, you may have probably never heard of, nor imagined that electric spurs even existed. It’s just another unethical ‘training method’ employed by a ‘top’ rider to gain competitive and, perhaps, financial advantages. But at what cost for the horses involved and the entire sport?

Then within days, there is the recent video of a Brazilian Olympic dressage rider abusing his daughter’s pony, or, as he puts it, correcting him after he misbehaved. Like the US jumper, the rider is a public figure and represents his country, and foremost, the horse sport in its entity. If this rider believes that his way of ‘correcting’ the pony is morally and ethically justifiable, what other horses under his care also went through this treatment that we don’t know of? 

How many other ‘top’ riders or amateurs treat their horses in a similar way, perhaps without being aware of their misconduct? Based on the spectators’ reactions in the video, i.e., laughs, nobody seems to realize (or worse, mind) that the pony is being abused. But in the eyes of many other, perhaps better informed, horse(wo)men, and the non-equestrian public, the video tells another story, and yet again sheds a bad light on our beautiful equestrian sport.

The good thing is that the FEI condemned both incidents. There is full consensus that both horses’ welfare was compromised. However, during the Rollkur (or hyperflexion) debate less than 15 years ago, things looked differently for our horses’ well-being. It took the FEI many years to ban Rollkur training practices. This probably only happened due to the increasing pressure from some equestrians, the public, and emerging scientific evidence about the abusive nature of hyperflexion. 

What has changed? 

A small but growing proportion of the equestrian community, as well as the public, are now better informed. Better informed about the ‘bad’ practices within the horse industry (thanks to social media), and better informed about what horses need to experience ‘good’ welfare (thanks to scientific evidence). But change can be a slow process. 

Let’s just look at the example of whisker (sensory hair) trimming or clipping. This practice is considered illegal in countries like Germany, Switzerland, and France due to its welfare-compromising consequences, and it will be banned in the US (and other countries) starting this July. Why did it take so long for the FEI to impose a ban on whisker trimming? Was the US equestrian scene unaware of the important function of horse vibrissae compared to other countries? Were the traditionalists convinced that whisker clipping can’t be that bad since no horse ever ‘suffered’ from it in the past? Did the hunters and some other equestrians not know or perhaps, not care? After all, whisker clipping is a ‘normal’ thing among hunters. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The problem of blind followership

Equestrians that stand in the limelight are often seen as role models: For our sport itself, for younger generations, for our horses’ welfare. They have the power to initiate positive change, but they can also make things worse. Like in any other sport or industry, there are always bad examples that don’t stick to the rules – but only some get caught. 

Some equestrians are unaware of their wrongdoing or turn a blind eye on it. They follow their trainers’ advice. They never question the purpose of any training methods or gadgets. They follow fashions or trends without ever questioning their practices. They blend in with all the other riders, making the same mistakes. Why should they believe that their actions are ‘wrong?’ Aren’t they just copying what some other ‘top’ riders are doing, and what results in competitive success?

Rules exist to safeguard, first and foremost, horse welfare. Without horses, our sport would be non-existent. Horses make the sport, athletes, and the whole industry who they are. We owe a great deal to them. However, in the last decades or so, our beloved equestrian sport (leisure or competitive) didn’t always leave a good impression on social media. Its formerly clean shirt is now stained with numerous incidents. Those stains are going to stay on the shirt, at least for a while. 

How does this impact us average equestrians? 

Well, the few bad examples that became publicly known in a very large worldwide industry have the potential to put an end to our sport. Not because we equestrians decide so, but because pressure increases from the public, other equestrians, and animal rights activists. It’s the public image that matters. Public opinion can be a strong force and initiate change. 

Without a Social License to Operate (SLO), an unwritten agreement between the public, approving certain practices, and stakeholders within the respective industry, the pure existence of equestrianism is threatened. The SLO doesn’t only concern those that are at the top of our sport and in the limelight. It concerns every single rider, breeder, trainer, veterinarian, bodyworker, etc. One huge mistake done by somebody in ‘Nonametown’ can have a tremendous impact on the entire industry if it goes public and is against current welfare regulations. Mistakes are inevitable; but mistakes can be avoided if they are being made due to ignorance, resistance to change, or the absence of a growth mindset.  

I understand that it’s much easier to stick to what we are familiar with. It’s much easier to go with the flow than against it. To go against the flow requires more energy, strength, and perseverance. But it’s worthwhile. It’s about time to embrace change and to speak up if you notice ‘bad’ horse welfare, starting at your local riding school, boarding barn, or show level. It’s vital for the future of our sport, and, most importantly, for the welfare of our horses. 

Tanja Bornmann is an equine scientist (MSc; University of Edinburgh, UK), equine consultant, and qualified riding coach. Through her business Academic Equitation (; Twitter: @academicequitat), she educates equestrians about evidence-based horse training and management practices, equine learning, and behavior. Her research interests involve equine welfare and behavior, equitation science, and human-horse/horse-human interactions.