The Social License

17.01.2022 - by Theo Ploegmakers, EEF President

Recently the discussion about the need for the equestrian sport to have a "Social License" is becoming more relevant and intense and will also be in the center of the discussions about our sport in 2022.

But what is a Social License actually and how can we, as an equestrian community, get such a license. 

The true meaning of a Social License is the acceptance and approval by people not involved in the equestrian sports that we, as practitioners of this sport with horses, exercise the horse in a way that is acceptable in broad layers of the population. 

The responsibility for being allowed to exercise sports with horses lies entirely with us, the equestrian community, but do we know how to deal with a real Social License and how we can earn it? 

In theory, the way we practice our sports with horses should be the same everywhere.  In practice however, this is not the case and the rules are realized and applied differently in countries and societies around the world. 

Also, the pressure about how to manage equestrian sports differs in countries around the world. European NFs for example have immense social, government and EU attention and pressure, as well as a huge community to answer to, something which is usually not the case in most other parts of the world. 

So, it is justified to assume (a) that obtaining a Social License in Europe is more difficult than it is in the rest of the world, and (b) that a Social License in Europe can be different and more demanding than a social license elsewhere in the world. 

What is the “Social License“ in reality? The Social License concept in our case can be described as an unwritten ethical and binding understanding between the equestrian community and the “Society“, whereby the “Society“ accepts and appreciates equestrian sports and the way it is practiced by the equestrian community and the equestrian community respects and incorporates the relevant sensitivities of the “Society”.

Achieving such an understanding is only possible when the “Society“ acknowledges the equestrian community and sports as an important historic, cultural, business and leisure activity and when the equestrian community in turn is continuously informing and educating the “Society” about equestrian sports and horse welfare, while allowing full access and transparency to its activities.

This understanding is necessary today to gain acceptance, appreciation and support for our sport from the “Society”.

Only when the “Society” can understand the way the equestrian community is carrying out the equestrian sports, will the equestrian community and sports enjoy a sustainable future and approval from the “Society“.

Establishing such a relationship with the “Society” is not a simple matter, as the “Society” today is monitoring all sports closely, and equestrian sports even more rigorously because it involves animals. Unpleasant images involving horses in our sport, even unintentional or perfectly explainable to people with equestrian knowledge, will have a strong negative effect on the willingness of “Society“ to grant or maintain the Social License for equestrian sports.

Let’s not forget that the “Society“ is only looking from the outside into our sports without the necessary expertise and knowledge, but often with emotion or criticism. 

Bernie Rollin once wrote: 

“Society” basically says to us, the equestrian professionals, that it does not understand well enough to regulate this subject, therefore:    
"You regulate yourselves the way we would regulate you if we understood what you do, which we don’t. But we will know if you don’t self-regulate properly and then we will regulate you, despite our lack of understanding."

Unfortunately, our sports and our Social License can be damaged even by isolated or accidental events. Therefore, to highlight and consolidate the importance of the Social License, all stakeholders in the community must be involved and educated, including national federations, riders, owners, organizers etc. Everyone must be included and the Social License will be protected by and enjoyed by all. 

We will only deserve and be able to protect our Social License in the future:

1)    if we always put the mental and physical welfare of the horses above everything else

2)    if we listen to and engage all stakeholders when we propose rules and make decisions.

3)    if we form our sport and industry practice and rules based on facts and ethics

4)    if we are honest, transparent and accountable

5)    if we always act pro-actively and responsibly

6)    if we understand that we must work together with one voice for our common interest and livelihoods  

We also have to keep in mind that, what looks like adequate horse welfare today, may not be enough tomorrow. We have not only to accept this, but we have to anticipate in our behaviour that the standards of good horse welfare may be increased all the time.  

Especially in Europe, where we face a strong control from the “Society“, we have to be alert that we as a community also have to be ready to adjust when the “Society’s“ opinion is changing  and that we should probably even be ahead of or form the public perception about our sport and horses.

This is only possible when there is a strong cooperation and coordination between the stakeholders in the equestrian community and industry. It is obvious that there is a need for an ongoing structural communication between the FEI, the EEF, the riders, the owners, the organizers and the other stakeholders, so that decisions and rules are adopted together. And we have to accept that in those discussions the larger national federations and the top international riders demand and deserve a strong position, because they feel more pressure and responsibility and they have more knowledge and impact.

We, as the equestrian community, need to have a clear vision about the future of the equestrian sports.  This must be a vision of acceptance and growth through dialogue and mutual understanding with the “Society“, thus the Social License is the only way forward for the equestrian community.   

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