At the 2015 Sports Forum, I presented the view that we needed an Equestrian Ethics Committee. It had simple aims:
- to provide a practical way to uphold the welfare of the horse;
- to put equestrian sport on an ethical high ground; and
- to be able to demonstrate this to the world.
Any sport involving animals needs to be above reproach; the animal does not decide to compete, it cannot express how it feels about being the partner of a human nor whether it is a willing or capable accomplice, it cannot decide to go through the pain barrier to achieve a medal. Clearly, the welfare of the horse is totally at our discretion. We need to set a high bar for what we deem to be acceptable standards for the welfare of the horse.
Dressage, jumping and eventing are Olympic sports and so equestrianism is highly visible globally. People who know nothing about our sports will have strong opinions and their view matters. Experts in the sport will have a better educated understanding of what is acceptable but at the end of the day, it is what the man in the street believes that will decide the future of equestrian sports.
The Internet – friend and enemy
In this sense, the Internet is our friend and our enemy. It allows anyone in the world to see the beauty of our sport, to see top competitions, to become involved, it is now truly globally accessible.
With this, comes worldwide visibility of all problems, real and perceived. It is no longer possible to stage manage what the public sees. Some websites are dedicated to looking for the smallest problem and using photographs of a moment in time to create the illusion that everything in the sport is wrong. Once the suggestion is made that that there is a problem, it is almost impossible to correct that impression – “no smoke without fire”.
Can we get control over the public perception back?
The FEI is a small organisation with a large responsibility. Its key activities should be to organise and develop equestrian sports and represent our brand to the outside world. it does indeed do this. However, it is continually reacting to the latest media frenzy which consumes a disproportionate amount of resource.
The FEI needs to be able to take the initiative back. It needs to be setting the agenda not reacting to the latest problem. If they don’t take the lead in marketing equestrian sports, where is the future for any of us? All sports are now accessible to everyone – we are just one of thousands that are available.
I believe it is possible for the FEI to take the lead. It can be proactive. To do this, it needs to addressing ethical issues before they result in unnecessary and frequently undeserved media scandal.
If the world believed that the FEI had set an ethical high bar for equine welfare and enforced this robustly, they could delegate the implementation of this to a committee of experts.
Interestingly, the FEI did have a Welfare Subcommittee of the Veterinary Committee but this was wound-up in 2008 on the basis that it was a matter for the discipline Technical Committees. I believe this was a mistake.
I would see the FEI Equestrian Ethics Committee as a proactive committee, with responsibilities to include:
- to develop a Code of Equestrian Ethics as a basis for all FEI disciplines
- to advise on ethical issues as they arise in all FEI disciplines
- to support the FEI publically on ethical issues
- to set standards for all disciplines
Science led Code of Equestrian Ethics
To take the ethical high ground, it requires an evidence led Code of Equestrian Ethics. The Code must be based on solid, researched facts and defendable principles, supported by science as far as is possible. Clearly, science cannot answer all questions. There would need to be expert views with input from legitimate animal welfare organisations.
The Committee should primarily comprise of leading scientists, animal welfare experts, equestrian ethicists and supported by professional riders and vets.
The Equestrian Ethics Committee really will help the FEI take control of the public perception of equestrian sports; it will lead from the front on welfare; and put our future firmly back in our hands.
Wayne M Channon