Researcher: Horse Sports Risk Losing 'Social License'

POSTED ON  |  29-11-2019

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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 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.

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