The Horse & Society – an article by Carol Boulton

Posted on 16th August 2022

Many of you will know Carol Boulton, as she has been a Trustee for many years, whilst running her establishment Russells Equestrian Centre for over 40 years.  Carol works tirelessly for improvements to horse welfare, represents the ABRS at World Horse Welfare (WHW) and National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC) and is Chair of the Epona Trust.  Here is her article discussing horse welfare, the social license and the part every equestrian establishment has to play in ensuring the continuation of our sport and livelihoods:

At the Tokyo Olympics, when one of the pentathlon riders kicked and pulled her borrowed horse ‘Saint Boy’, finally losing her temper and crying with self-pity, some commentators remarked that she might have been allotted a ‘wrong un’, as if the horse should fill in the gaps in the rider’s lack of skill. However, the spectacle lit a fuse on some very dry tinder – highlighting an issue that had long caused disquiet (and several petitions) in areas of the horse world before the 2020 Olympics.

After the Olympic debacle in Tokyo with the abusive riding by the German rider and her coach, 135,000 people signed a petition to demand that the equestrian element of the Modern Pentathlon should be dropped. The question is; if the UK rider hadn’t won Gold, taking it from the German rider, (who was a shoe in until her disastrous performance), it would not have been televised and maybe the general public would have continued in ignorance of what had been a long-standing issue in this sport. This incident has crystallised what the unknowing public think of horse sports.

The ‘Muggles’, as Horse and Hound magazine dub them, have social media contact and they have opinions. They can tell if what they see is offensive and may not share the idea of competitive goals being all important.  They can also misinterpret what they see! I was reported to the RSPCA for ‘blindfolding the horses so they could not run around the field’ – the horses were wearing fly masks!

Why does this misinterpretation matter? As coaches and proprietors, we are in a unique position to deal with this kind of confusion and concern – in fact we do it every day, usually without even thinking about it, we can laugh together about silly situations and there can even be some competition for the daftest (‘Susie, you have to actually go into Minty’s stable” – “I can’t, he’s breathing”)! The truth is that the ‘Muggle’ view is of great importance if we are to be allowed to continue riding and using horses and ponies in competitive sports/disciplines.

Social licence is the agreement in Society, that a certain course may be pursued.  Social licence says that girls and boys can play football or that women may drive a car (not the case in all countries!) it is a changing view of what is acceptable in our society and peoples traditional view point can be challenged and over ruled.  Social licence said it was wrong to chase wild animals with dogs for sport. That was how traditional hunting with hounds was banned.

Social licence says no animal should suffer for a human’s leisure.

This puts the entire equestrian world under scrutiny. Whether it is the tight nosebands, the blood rule, the Rollkur debate, the whip debate, negative enforcement training; the list goes on. Coaches and proprietors work at the interface between equestrianism and the general public. We need to raise our awareness of how we present ourselves – what is your whip policy? Do you let riders wear spurs? How do you train your students to use them? Do you allow a ‘twitch’ to be used on your horses? Are Gag Bits allowed? Is your tuition, Task or Process orientated?

My daughter Verity and I are very lucky as we work for ourselves and can enforce our own rules. We do not allow Martingales, Draw Reins, Side reins, Gag Bits, any kind of drop noseband, and we can take the time to explain to people why this is so and the evidence and reasons for this choice. For many people it is not the case that they can make this choice and financial pressures can be crippling.  Or they choose to continue to: always do what they always did and so always get what they always got!  Not opening their eyes to the current pressures on the industry.  Proprietors and teachers can still do a lot to dispel many myths (e.g., that horse is naughty and not behaving if it doesn’t carry out the riders wishes)

Awareness is everything but it needs to be a special third position, an awareness which needs some forethought – a true outsiders view, bravely taken to ensure our sport and livelihoods can continue.

None of us can afford to be complacent!

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