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Has the Equestrian Industry's Social Licence Expired?

A social licence to operate (SLO) refers to the level of acceptance or approval by local communities and stakeholders of organisations and their operations.

The true meaning of a Social License for businesses in the equine industry is the acceptance and approval of people not directly involved in the horse world. The way that we, as practitioners, instructors and business owners, keep, train and exercise horses needs to acceptable to broad layers of the population. The state of equestrianism’s social licence is largely based on how well all those involved in horse sport and leisure safeguard equine welfare.

Currently, society generally supports the responsible use of horses. However, this support can easily ebb away if the public perceives that equine welfare is not being protected. And there is evidence that this is happening. People from both inside and outside the horse world are starting to question what was once seen as acceptable practice at high levels of horse sport.

Olympic medalist Andreas Helgstrand has been suspended from the Danish national dressage team until 2025 after an undercover journalist posing as a groom exposed welfare issues at Helgstrand Dressage, his sales and training facility. Rebekka Klubien found horses with welts from whips, mouth sores from aggressive bit use, and spur marks that were disguised with shoe polish when customers visited. She also filmed Helgstrand riders who rode abusively in training sessions, some with tight draw reins and some using rollkur ( a restrictive and cruel training method). When she told another groom about “stripes” from a whip on a horse’s back, the response Klubien received was that it was not unusual and, t that if customers came into the stable, a blanket could be used to cover the marks.

Olympic coach and dressage rider, Cesar Parra, was recently exposed for cruel training practices when photos and footage of alleged horse abuse - depicting acts of whipping, training with pulley systems, horse heads tied up, whip welts, scars, and blood marks, were posted online by working pupil, Adam Steffans, who packed up his own horse shortly after and fled in the middle of the night for fear of the repercussions after this courageous act of whistle-blowing. Para has now been suspended by the FEI, who said:

“Equestrian sport is built on a foundation of respect for our equine partners, with a duty of care to ensure their mental and physical wellbeing comes first, ahead of all competition and/or training ambitions. "

This is not the first allegation against Parra. In 2012, he answered two separate criminal complaints filed by the Hunterdon County SPCA, one alleging “torment” and “torture... of a living animal,” the other alleging “overdrive, overwork...abuse of a living animal.” The accusation came nearly three years after William PFF, a horse he was longeing, fell and struck his head at Parra's Readington, N.J., training facility.

Perhaps it is no surprise that this culture of cruelty towards horses goes hand in hand with abusive practices towards employees. Parra has been followed by reports of sexual harassment throughout his career, with Horses Unlimited of Albuquerque, New Mexico pulling all its horses from Parra's Jupiter stables after a newly arrived young temporary employee complained of sexual harassment. He is now being investigated by the FBI for claims of people trafficking related to visas for foreign employees. It is important to note that without the courage of a working pupil and a journalist posing as a groom these issues would never have come to light at all.

"The equestrian sector must learn from other industries and establish public trust, if it is to keep its social licence to operate. If these and other practices lead to society withdrawing its approval of equestrianism, the participation of horses in sport and leisure may no longer be permitted in its current form. Such loss of a social licence to operate typically starts with negative media, loss of public trust and, subsequently, loss of political support. This in turn may lead to increased regulation of the sport and ultimately a complete ban." - World Horse Welfare

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