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12.3.2022 Sharing the Science: How Happy Are Equine Athletes?

The thoughts of focus groups on the welfare of the competition horse

“The international governing body for equestrian sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), states that the welfare of the horse must be paramount and never subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.” However, there is often a conflict between the demands of competition, and the basic needs of the horse. The horse’s physical needs tend to be considered more commonly than the psychological needs. A group of people involved in either equestrian sports or animal welfare research held a workshop to look into what the situation is now, and what needs to change. They discussed the use of formal assessment tools at competitions, and whether it was more important to ensure that the general management and training of horses improved. The term ‘quality of life’ was preferred by the group, rather than the term ‘welfare’, and the inclusion of formal welfare assessments welcomed. One of the strong themes that came out of the research was that monitoring the horse’s welfare (or quality of life) needs to include the time at home and in training, rather than just at competition. Competitions are a showcase, but it’s what goes on behind the scenes that matters.

Furtado, T.; Preshaw, L.; Hockenhull, J.; Wathan, J.; Douglas, J.; Horseman, S.; Smith, R.; Pollard, D.; Pinchbeck, G.; Rogers, J.; Hall, C. How Happy Are Equine Athletes? Stakeholder Perceptions of Equine Welfare Issues Associated with Equestrian Sport. Animals 2021, 11, 3228.

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Simple Summary

The welfare of horses within equestrian sport is increasingly being scrutinised by both the public and those involved in the sector. To identify the main concerns and discuss the potential to improve the welfare of these equine athletes, a workshop involving participants from equestrian sports and animal welfare research was held. Participants concluded that the main challenges in equine welfare arise from conflicts between competition demands and the basic needs of the horse. To enable those involved in equestrian sport to monitor the impacts of management, training, and competition on the welfare of equine athletes, the use of formal welfare assessment tools was discussed, alongside interventions which would promote positive welfare across equine athletes’ lives.


The international governing body for equestrian sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), states that the welfare of the horse must be paramount and never subordinated to competitive or commercial influences. However, there is growing unease about welfare issues from both within and outside the sport. The aim of this study was to understand stakeholder perceptions of current welfare issues within equestrian sport, determine whether there is scope for change, and explore attitudes towards welfare assessment. Participants (n = 48) from equestrian sport (n = 38) and animal welfare research (n = 10) attended a workshop that included welfare-related presentations and focus group sessions. The focus group sessions were recorded, anonymised and analysed using thematic analysis. Conflict between the demands of competition and the needs of the horse was identified as a key welfare challenge. Although the physical health of equine athletes is closely monitored, horses’ psychological needs are sometimes overlooked. Participants recognised that improving competition practices may not be as impactful as improving the general management and training of horses. The term “quality of life” was considered preferable to “welfare”, which had negative connotations. Participants appreciated the idea of incorporating formal welfare assessments into their training and competition plans but stated that existing tools are rarely used and are not deemed feasible for real-life conditions.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity, and compassion

March 12, 2022
Sue Palmer