The When, What and Who

By Dr Jo Hockenhull

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.

In June 2022, the international governing body of equestrian sports, called the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), launched an independent commission in response to growing concerns being voiced by the public over the use of horses in sports. The Commission was initially labelled the ‘SLO Committee’ to reflect their remit of helping equestrian sport maintain their social licence to operate (SLO) by working to restore public trust and increase transparency.

The Commission consists of ten members, spanning professional riders, researchers, veterinarians, and industry communications specialists, five of them connected to the FEI and five unconnected to the FEI. The Commission is chaired by Professor Natalie Waran, one of the founding members of the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES). The four other external members are: Professor Kathalijne Visser and Dr Camie Heleski, who have both been ISES council members, with Camie going on to be president; Professor Madeleine Campbell, a veterinary specialist in animal welfare science, ethics and law; and Jessica Stark, the Director of Communications and Public Affairs for World Horse Welfare.

The five members connected to the FEI are: Cayetano Martínez de Irujo, an international showjumper; Ken Lalo, honorary FEI board member and president of the Israel Equestrian Federation; Theo Ploegmakers, the current President of the European Equestrian Federation (EEF) and FEI Board Member; Cesar Hirsch, current President of the Pan-American Equestrian Confederation (PAEC); and Sabrina Ibáñez, President of the Association of Paralympic Sport Organisations (APSO).

At their inaugural meeting, the Commission decided that the name ‘Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission’ better suited their purpose than SLO Committee, and that is the name they have taken forward.

What is the Commission for?

The Commission’s aims as stated on their website are as follows:

“The purpose of the Commission’s work is to address issues of public and equestrian concern so as to ensure the welfare of the horse is paramount, and that there is ongoing social acceptance of the involvement of horses in sport.

The Commission will develop an evidence-based ‘Framework’ to guide FEI regulations, policies and practices, as well as to enable effective advocacy and influence relating to the ethics and wellbeing of horses used in sport.”

Commission activity to date

In November 2022, the Commission published its interim report. Alongside this, the Commission released several supplementary documents including the full results of the surveys they conducted on equestrians and members of the public, and the supporting information regarding the recommendations they made in the report on tack and equipment. All of these documents are freely available under the ‘Key Documents’ pages of their website.

In their report, the Commission introduced themselves, the concept of SLO and the justification for their establishment. They went on to discuss the findings of two separate international surveys that they had conducted in July/August 2022 to further make this point. The surveys were intended to gauge the opinion of members of the public as well as equestrian stakeholders regarding the use of horses in sport. These weren’t small surveys – the equestrian survey yielded 27,710 responses, and the public survey 14,273.

The public survey demonstrated the international sentiment that welfare standards in horse sports need improving. Two-thirds of respondents thought that horses sometimes or never enjoyed being used in horse sports. The findings also highlight concerns related to the use of horses for leisure purposes and this is something that all equestrians need to be mindful of. SLO is not just something that will impact the higher levels, it is something that affects us all.

In the equestrian survey, vets and leisure riders were the stakeholders most concerned about the welfare of horses used in sport, and 78% of all respondents agreed with the statement that welfare standards need improving. The top three concerns mentioned by stakeholders were the life of the horse outside of training or competing (the ‘other 23 hours’), the tack and equipment used on the horse, and training and riding practices.

The Commission went on to describe how the findings of the surveys, along with research evidence, the establishment of specialist working groups and further consultations, would shape their priorities and strategy going forward. They then used the survey responses to illustrate where key areas of concern are and how these were used – alongside available research data and reports from the specialist working groups – to draw up their first set of recommendations which focus on tack and equipment. Survey findings revealed that the top areas of concern related to bits (41%), the tightness of nosebands (20%), spurs (18%) and whips (14%). The early recommendations made by the Commission address the first three of these areas.

The early Recommendations as outlined in the report

  • Double bridles should not be mandatory
  • Spurs should not be mandatory
  • Nosebands should not be tight – A uniform method of measurement including an agreed definition of ‘too tight’, should be used based on the available science

More detail on each recommendation and the justification for it, including summaries of the underlying scientific evidence, is available in the supplementary documents on the website.

When I first saw these recommendations, they seemed to be an easy win for the FEI. By tackling the three top areas of concern relating to tack and equipment, the FEI would demonstrate that public concerns are being recognised and addressed by tangible action. By simply recommending that spurs and double bridles are no longer mandatory, the Commission’s recommendations show a willingness to change without banning these items which would have undoubtedly led to backlash from within. Giving people the choice, and in this way demonstrating that the sport was still possible without using double bridles or spurs, would provide a body of evidence to facilitate further change down the line!

Naively, I was really surprised by the outcry these recommendations engendered in certain circles. And remember, they weren’t calling for an outright ban; they were simply not making their use compulsory. The baby steps towards change obviously weren’t considered small enough by some quarters, and this is concerning when arguably larger issues that will need a greater change in mindset, such as how sports horses are managed, trained and ridden, are (hopefully!) yet to come!

This really gets to the heart of the challenge that the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission has ahead of it. There are elements within equestrianism that simply do not recognise the precarity of their sport and the need for change. We have to do better for our horses!

The Commission can only do so much if its recommendations are ignored. The FEI need to prove that they established the Commission with a view to real welfare improvements, rather than as a sham to appease public concerns.

“Equestrian stakeholders consider that for horses’ welfare to be improved: current welfare rules must be better enforced; new welfare rules should be informed by science; and those involved with horses should have a required level of equine welfare knowledge” EEWC


For more information see: Heleski CR (2023) Social License to Operate – Why Public Perception Matters for Horse Sport – Some Personal Reflections. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science doi:

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.