Legally Equine

Lessons learned from the National Conference on Equine Law

BY Jackie McFarland

From the magazine

Ever pondered the law and how it applies to horses? Whether you take lessons, compete, parent an equestrian, train horses and riders, buy and sell, rescue, or own land with horses on it, there are laws and lawyers dealing with every aspect of life with horses.

We attended the 37th annual National Conference on Equine Law, presented by the Office of Continuing Legal Education, University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law, in May. The conference provided insight to the current ups and downs of our industry, from abandonment to ethics, social license to saving land, risk management to trademarks, plus AHC, HISA and loads of nooks and crannies in between.

The two-day continuing education format included 15 presentations and almost 1,000 pages of associated course materials. But we’ve narrowed down that plethora of content! Below is an overview of hot topics and some topics to consider when things may need to get legally equine.

The Latest on Social License to Operate (SLO)
So, what is social license to operate and why should we be concerned? Simply put, SLO is public acceptance and approval of an activity to operate—an unwritten contract between the public and our industry.

Horse sport is under scrutiny, and that includes every aspect, from Olympic disciplines to Thoroughbred racing, horse shows, breed shows, lesson barns, and sale barns. In the public eye, a horse is a horse—they don’t necessarily understand the difference between disciplines or breeds.

With the prevalence of social media, news travels at the speed of a click or tap, and continues to spread exponentially. This is particularly apparent with tragic stories—ones where the public may not be aware of the underlying details, but form an opinion nonetheless. And because there is an animal in the equation, emotion will often influence perspective.

The pentathlon incident at the Tokyo Olympic Games with Saint Boy is a prime example. The horse was clearly saying, “No, not today,” yet there was an Olympic gold medal on the line.

Emotions hit the roof in the interim, and both the horse and rider suffered. This incident spread throughout the press and social media, and although there were several factors at play, it was not an example of good horsemanship, and understandably the public saw it as cruelty to the animal.

One incident incited thousands of negative opinions that put horse welfare into question.

Equine Law Conference Speaker Dr. Camie Heleski, PhD., Senior Lecturer at University of Kentucky’s Equine Programs, spoke about how public perception leads to action. She used the example of circus elephants being kept in isolation, traveling from show to show and asked to pose in unnatural positions. For these reasons and more, these animals were suffering mentally and physically in the circus world.

The public concern began as perception, then it became years of protest and fines from animal rights groups and regulators, which ultimately led to Barnum & Bailey as well as Ringling Bros. retiring the elephants from their circuses back in 2018. [Editor’s note: A CNN story dated May 6, 2021 indicated that these elephants are doing well in retirement at a 17,000-acre refuge in Florida.]

Our industry is obviously different from that of the circus, however, similar concerns have been raised in regards to horses in sport.

Realizing this, along with other growing global concerns, led the FEI to form a commission to address Social License, now known as the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission (EEWC), in 2022.

With a vast array of equine expertise among them, the EEWC has researched, surveyed, developed focus groups, and discussed solutions to address the issues of both public and equestrian concern for our number one, voiceless stakeholder—the horse.

In April at the 2023 FEI Sports Forum, the EEWC presented a potential course of action including 24 recommendations, a vision for ensuring future involvement of horses in sport, and a strategic approach to ensure ‘A Good Life for Horses.’ Notably, Dr. Heleski also spoke about SLO at the US Equestrian Annual Meeting in January of this year, as our national governing body is also looking deeper into the importance of a good life for horses.

Why We Should Pay Attention to Thoroughbred Racing

Considering SLO and public perception, the racing industry is galloping on thin footing. As the negative side of the sport flashes before our eyes on multiple media platforms, welfare concerns continue to escalate. The ‘Sport of Kings’ is now struggling with the internal pushback from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020 (HISA) while also attempting to be ethically viable to the public.

Consisting of two programs with oversight by the Federal Trade Commission, the Racetrack Safety Program and the Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program, HISA is a historic bill that addresses the welfare of both racehorses and jockeys by implementing uniform standards for track safety and medication control at a national level. It sounds like a victory, but the racing industry is not used to regulation.

Creating standards of ethics and safety to be followed by 40 states with defined horse racing jurisdictions is no doubt challenging. The states have not previously been nationally governed, and there’s a myriad of industry players, hundreds of thousands of Thoroughbreds, trainers, jockeys, tracks, and farms who don’t all play by the same rules. Resistance is unrelenting and lawsuits have ensued.

Widespread changes to an industry can also have economic impacts. According to The American Horse Council Foundation’s 2017 Economic Impact of the U.S. Horse Industry report, there are over 1.2 million horses involved in the racing industry, with over 500,000
Thoroughbreds. The total overall contribution to Gross Domestic Product generated by the racing sector totals nearly $36.6 billion, including over 470,000 jobs.

Big business, yes. However, at the root of the matter is the welfare of both the horse and the jockey, which ultimately should come first. But how does an industry, a racetrack, a breeding farm, and a trainer embrace standards that may mean significant changes to the way they have been operating for decades? That question is yet to be answered.

The governing bodies in the performance horse discipline seek to address welfare and are asking similar questions. Training practices in horse sport—as well as the perception of how these methods affect the horse physically and emotionally—are overdue for review and change.

Like HISA, could these issues lead to changes at the Federal level? Do they need to? Can we address necessary adaptations and prove to the public that we understand how to achieve “a good life for horses” in sport? If those in horse sport can work together to collectively and consistently prove the positive outweighs the negative and that the negative has consequences, it’s possible.

Protecting the Horse and the Horse Industry

The American Horse Council (AHC) is the industry’s voice and representation in Washington, D.C. Their mission is to advocate for the social, economic, and legislative interests of the United States equine industry. In doing so, they track, monitor, and advocate on legislation important to the equine community.

Whether the issues are industry taxes, visas for workers, which chemicals are legal in fly spray, or collecting industry data, AHC covers all the areas in which legislation and regulation play a role. AHC also develops and manages industry initiatives from horse rescue to economic impact. Small business advocacy, federal tax policy, estate tax, and the equine tax fairness act are some of the areas of significance to AHC during this 118th Session of Congress.

The “Great American Outdoors Act” which fully and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), addresses a maintenance backlog at American national parks. The American Horse Council continues to advocate for passage of legislation that will increase access to public trails for recreational riders.

AHC is a member of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, which represents small and seasonal businesses that rely on the visa program to supplement their seasonal employment needs. They continue to work on various aspects of labor policy and work visas that apply to our industry. AHC is also following HISA, and as indicated above, the implementation is expected to continue to be wrought with legal challenges.

Horse Slaughter & Abandonment

This is, of course, a challenging topic on many levels. Since 2001, lawmakers have introduced bills in Congress to outlaw slaughtering horses but none have passed. Slaughter of horses for human consumption is currently illegal in the United States but there is no federal law to prohibit the transport of horses across borders for slaughter in Canada or Mexico. The “Save America’s Forgotten Equines” (SAFE) Act of 2021 legislation would permanently ban the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States. It would also prohibit the export of live horses to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada to be processed and then sold as meat products overseas.

AHC is monitoring this legislation and seeking to be prepared if it is implemented. Why? If SAFE is enacted, thousands of additional horses each year would need to be cared for at rescues and sanctuaries. Since 2018, AHC has been collecting data to determine the capacity of current rescues and sanctuaries to take on more horses, as well as the approaches to aftercare.

Along with the horses to be saved from slaughter are those that are abandoned. Back in 2005, a number of stakeholders in the industry gathered to discuss the topic of unwanted horses. This led to a broad alliance of equine organizations coming together to form the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC). The UHC operates under the AHC to help at-risk and transitioning horses by promoting education, reducing the numbers, seeking to ensure dignity, raising awareness, maintaining the Equine Resource Database and more.

Why Data Matters

Data creates opportunity to speak from numbers—data has the power to drive change. With partners in the industry including The Right Horse Initiative (TRH), The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and The Foundation for the Horse, the UHC created the Equine Welfare Data Collective (EWDC). For the benefit of the horse and those organizations who seek to help, this group collects national data on equine welfare from transition centers, adoption centers, rescues, sanctuaries, shelters, and other organizations involved in equine welfare.

The UHC developed the Equine Resource Database which includes assistance, support, a plethora of safety net programs, and other vital programs available to assist at-risk horses and their owners. This database also includes a list of over 900 Rescues and Sanctuaries operating nationwide.

Equine Economics

The U.S. horse industry contributes significantly to the economy. For over four decades, the AHC has conducted national economic impact studies for the industry, including the most recent study in 2017.

We’ve experienced some major economic changes in the past several years. The pandemic caused a major rift, leading to business closures, federal stimulus programs, and a shift in the way we work. By analyzing the economic impacts of horse ownership, activities, and services, this census will illustrate the value our industry within state and national economies. For those reasons, AHC’s 2023 National Economic Impact Study could be one of the biggest studies to date.

Horse owners and horse industry suppliers are encouraged to participate. The survey began last month and goes through September 29.

As AHC President Julie Broadway, who spoke at the Equine Law Conference, says, “The Economic Impact Study is the most effective tool in our advocacy quiver. When the industry needs to take aim at an issue, this data is invaluable in helping us paint the picture of the contributions the industry makes and the breadth and depth of its composition.”

Data collected will inform public and private investments in equine-related businesses, equine health care, education, land use decisions, tax policy, tourism, employment incentives, and a whole host of other important industry initiatives.

To participate in the Economic Impact survey, visit and for more on the United Horse Coalition, visit