WELFARE VIRTUE SIGNALLING by Shelby Dennis  is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.

If you open up just about any rulebook from any horse show organisation, I am sure you will be able to flip through to find a section pertaining to Horse Welfare and what expectations there are of show attendees to ensure that horses are being treated ethically and fairly.

These sections tend to emphasise how important the welfare of horses is to the competitive organisation in question and how they seek to protect it within competition by refusing to enable any practices that negatively impact welfare or any cruel riding practices that cause the horse distress.

Such is the case with the FEI Rulebook. The FEI is one of the largest and most prestigious equine competitive organisations in the world, so of course they have an entire section dedicated to Horse Welfare, stating that Horse Welfare is of “paramount” importance to their organisation.

On paper, this is a very nice sentiment – but only if it actually gets enforced. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of this proclaimed commitment to horse wellbeing actually being upheld even, or some would say especially, at elite levels of equine competition. Not only are practices that have been proven to impact welfare being allowed and ignored but some are even being rewarded.

There has been growing concern about the ethicality of competitive equine sports. This concern has spread outside of the horse community, with many animal lovers from all walks of life noticing unethical practices in upper-level horse sports. This public concern often involves those outside of the horse world becoming alarmed by all types of riding practices, both inside and outside of competition, due to the impression that most equestrians must agree with the practices if they’re being enabled at the pinnacle of the sport.

Despite the growing welfare concerns and the increased prevalence of abuse to horses being highlighted and documented on social media, the FEI has done very little to actually practise what they preach and show their commitment to improving the welfare of horses in the sport through action, rather than just empty words.

In fact, just this year with their 2023 Dressage Rulebook revisions, they have removed some crucial aspects of their rules that served to enforce fair riding practices and set a standard of correctness that judges were supposed to be rewarding.

The removed section of the rulebook was a part of the rules where there were clearly outlined statements that specified what exactly was to be rewarded in the dressage ring as well as stating what shouldn’t be rewarded. These statements served the purpose of bringing clarity on what was determined to be correct riding to both judges and riders.

The removed sections specified how the horse was to be ridden in order to be marked as correct in the dressage ring, such as stating that the horse should be ridden on or in front of the vertical* and that riding behind the vertical was not correct and should not be encouraged. Previous rulebooks even verbatim stated that riding behind the vertical can be an indicator of too-hard hands, but such statements have entirely disappeared from the rules over time.

Over the course of years, the FEI has edited these sections to include less and less verbiage specific to riding behind the vertical and has softened the manner in which they discuss its incorrectness, and this year they removed this section from the main rulebook altogether.

The section that used to discuss riding behind the vertical was moved instead to a section on the FEI website where you have to go to a completely different page called “Supporting Articles” and click their guidelines to find it. The removal of this section of the rules and moving it to an entirely different part of their webpage has made it less easily visible for both competitors and the general public.

Now, why is this a problem you might ask?

Well, even prior to removing it from the main rulebook, the FEI was not enforcing this rule. On the contrary, there is substantial evidence suggesting that horses at the upper levels of the dressage sport are actually rewarded with higher marks when they are ridden behind the vertical, therefore providing incentive for riders at that level to ride their horses that way, despite the extensive evidence that it is harmful to the horse and provides no real benefit under saddle, outside of looks (which have only really become a trend due to being rewarded).

Interestingly, there are studies that show that in the lower levels of dressage, riding behind the vertical is penalised, but as you climb up the levels, there is evidence of it achieving higher marks than riding on or in front of the vertical. So, while lower-level riders are being held more accountable for this, elite professionals at the pinnacle of the sport are earning higher marks for it. What sort of precedent does this set for the industry?

For an organisation as large as the FEI to not enforce its own rulebook for a number of years, and then choose to go and remove the very part of the rulebook that was directly referencing one of the most prevalent welfare concerns in dressage – riding behind the vertical or in hyperflexion** – this really does make a statement of their commitment to welfare or lack thereof. Even still in their 2023 rulebook, they claim to be committed to the welfare of the horse and that welfare is paramount, but there is little to no action to actually prove this.

If anything, after the growing concerns regarding hyperflexion in the dressage ring and the increased incidence of riders riding far behind the vertical, there should have been an even more clear statement within the rulebook highlighting their commitment to not rewarding this and providing further clarity that they do not view it to be ethical or correct riding. But, they did the exact opposite.

It can’t be said for certain that the rules were moved for the purpose of making them less visible, but given the history of not following this aspect of their rulebook, it very much does come across that way. It makes it more difficult for people to point out the FEI’s hypocrisy in swaying from their own rulebook if they cannot find the very aspect of the rulebook that they have been consistently ignoring over the last several years.

With the 2024 Olympics looming in the near future, 2023 was a year that the FEI could have set a precedent to discourage riders from continuing practices that are harmful to the horse and that they likely only engage in because they are heavily rewarded for it. Their rulebook revisions could have been used to set standards to encourage more ethical riding practices before equestrian sports are once again under the microscope of global views during the Olympics.

FEI horse sports serve as the pinnacle of competitive success in the horse world. This means that people within the equestrian world, whether they want to be competitive or not, often are looking up to these upper-level FEI riders and wanting to emulate their practices.

The FEI has a responsibility to ensure that the riders competing at their sanctioned shows are doing so using ethical practices, because not only does it impact the horses at the upper-level sports, but it also trickles down and creates normalised practices at all levels of horsemanship, including pleasure riding. People assume that those at the upper levels of horse sports got there because they are the best of the best, and many assume that unethical practices would not be allowed at such a level; therefore, they implicitly believe in and follow the example that FEI riders set.

What we normalise at the upper levels can become normal everywhere in the horse world and the rampant neglect of acknowledging the issues that we are continually seeing in elite horse sports causes welfare concerns that extend far past the FEI arenas.

We are at a point in time where we need to organise as a community and show a commitment to welfare and encourage organisations like the FEI, which represent us whether we like it or not, to do the same.

The FEI’s choice to highlight and platform riding practices that are harmful to horses reflects poorly on all horse people. Much of the publicly documented instances of unethical practices at FEI events are then used as part of the push to end all equestrianism, including the act of just riding for pleasure.

People outside of the horse industry consume what they see in the media, and many assume that all horse people are guilty of cruel practices that they witness on social media or on TV, despite the fact that many of us condemn such practices.

But, if one of the world’s largest equestrian organisations is enabling unethical riding, it makes it look like we are all OK with what is going on because there is this perspective that an organisation like the FEI could not possibly get away with such conduct if there wasn’t massive industry-wide support of it. If we do not police ourselves within the industry and start advocating for better practices in and out of the show ring, we could see a push to end equestrian sports as we know them.

The biggest threat to the loss of the social licence in horsemanship is ourselves. The lack of desire to change and pressure on organisations that do not represent us to do the same could be what causes us to lose public faith in horse sports. Organisations like the FEI must represent the greater good of the horse world and highlight the best of our belief system. There must be a commitment to continued modernization taking notice of new scientific research on horses that provides clarity on what we need to address in the sport.

Elite horse sports can be accomplished much more ethically, but there is very little incentive for people to do so if they are rewarded for doing things that are unethical. Especially when the unethical practices serve the purpose of helping them speed up their path to the show ring, though it comes at the horses’ expense.

There is the assumption that upper-level professionals would not engage in training that is unethical and that with the experience that led them to the pinnacle of the sport, they must know better. But, there is no evidence of this. And, when they’re being rewarded for the very practices being criticised in studies due to their welfare implications, they likely assume the practices are perfectly ethical because the FEI’s rules outline a supposed commitment to horse welfare.

The fact of these problems existing at the elite levels in the first place is used as a reason to justify them under the assumption that people at that level could not be enabled and doing such practices if they were decidedly harmful. It breeds ignorance and encourages many, many other people to do the same thing.

As a huge international organisation, the FEI could be doing so much for reeducation and reform with the reach they have. They could make sweeping changes in the industry even just by starting with a simple statement. It is imperative that we pressure the FEI to make necessary changes for the welfare of the horses, who are voiceless and cannot advocate for themselves.

It is on all of us to advocate on the horses’ behalf and do the uncomfortable thing that is swaying from traditional practices. Throwing away what we have been taught to view as correct, and instead leaning on scientific evidence that is showing that there are certain things that we have normalised that are not acceptable, instead of believing the empty words of a hypocritical organisation like the FEI.

The horse community is a wonderful place and the vast majority of horse owners truly do love their horses, but unfortunately, even the well-intentioned horse people are often influenced by harmful practices that are enabled and encouraged and subsequently, they end up causing harm to the horses unintentionally because of it. Addressing the welfare problems in the horse world will help to curate a healthier and more meaningful partnership between horse and rider in addition to helping promote safety by reducing horse stress. Stressed horses tend to pose the biggest threat to human injury, so by compelling our show organisations to start cracking down on negative welfare and creating higher standards for what we view to be good horsemanship, we can not only improve the well-being of horses but also that of their humans.

It’s time to highlight the best of the horse world by fighting for welfare improvement in sport and setting fair parameters that actually measure welfare based on scientific evidence, rather than just industry preferences and traditions. The truth lies in how the horse feels and how they perceive what is happening to them; and if there are certain means of riding, like hyperflexion, that cause harm, we need to go with the evidence that highlights the harm instead of our perception of it as humans.

We have spent enough time in this sport prioritising the comfort of humans and avoiding difficult conversations because of it. Now, it is time to start prioritising the comfort of our horses.

*The vertical refers to the angle of the front of the horse’s face.

**Hyperflexion is when the horse is ridden with the neck highly flexed and the face behind the vertical.

Both hyperflexion and being ridden behind the vertical are classically incorrect and proven scientifically to be detrimental to the horses physical and mental well being.


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.