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Douglas, J.;  Owers, R.;  Campbell, M.L.H. Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 18 June 2024).
Douglas J,  Owers R,  Campbell MLH. Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 18, 2024.
Douglas, Janet, Roly Owers, Madeleine L. H. Campbell. "Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 18, 2024).
Douglas, J.,  Owers, R., & Campbell, M.L.H. (2022, September 29). Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism. In Encyclopedia.
Douglas, Janet, et al. "Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism." Encyclopedia. Web. 29 September, 2022.
Social Licence Concept in Equestrianism

The concept of ‘social licence to operate’ (SLO) is relevant to all animal-use activities. An SLO is an intangible, implicit agreement between the public and an industry/group. Its existence allows that industry/group to pursue its activities with minimal formalised restrictions because such activities have widespread societal approval. In contrast, the imposition of legal restrictions—or even an outright ban—reflect qualified or lack of public support for an activity. The aim herein is to discuss current threats to equestrianism’s SLO and suggest actions that those across the equine sector need to take to justify the continuation of the SLO. The most important of these is earning the trust of all stakeholders, including the public. Trust requires transparency of operations, establishment and communication of shared values, and demonstration of competence. These attributes can only be gained by taking an ethics-based, proactive, progressive, and holistic approach to the protection of equine welfare. Animal-use activities that have faced challenges to their SLO have achieved variable success in re-establishing the approval of society, and equestrianism can learn from the experience of these groups as it maps its future. The associated effort and cost should be regarded as an investment in the future of the sport.

equestrian sport equestrianism equine ethics equine welfare social licence to operate

1. Introduction

The concept of ‘social licence to operate’ (SLO) first arose in 1997 in relation to mining [1] and has since been extended to other natural resource management industries such as fishing, forestry, and energy production [2]. The concept is also relevant to animal-use industries and activities, including dairy and sheep farming, wildlife use, zoos, hunting [2], circuses [3], marine mammal parks [3], and equestrianism [2][4][5][6][7].
A social licence is said to exist when an industry or activity has the ongoing acceptance or approval of society [8], and it allows industries ‘the privilege of operating with minimal formalised restrictions’ [9]. Social licence is not an ‘all or nothing’ phenomenon, and public acceptance of an activity can sit at any point on a continuum from psychological identification with the activity to outright rejection [8] (Figure 1). It is important to recognise that the legality of an activity or industry and the state of its social licence are entirely separate entities: the former is explicit and is granted by government, whereas the latter exists only as an intangible, implicit, and somewhat fluid agreement between the public and those who engage in the activity [4][10]. However, if the public rejects an industry or activity, legal restrictions are likely to follow.
Figure 1. Social licence to operate. An industry’s social licence to operate is an intangible and somewhat fluid agreement between the public and those in the industry. It can swing between psychological identification of society with those engaged in the industry/activity and rejection of the activity. The point on this continuum at which the social licence sits is largely under the control of the industry itself. Graphic: After Thomson and Boutilier (2011) [11].
Equestrianism is typically defined as ‘the art or practice of riding a horse’ [12]. However, for the purposes of the content below, equestrianism is defined as ‘any use of horses by humans for competition, leisure, entertainment, or companionship.’ Working equids [13] are specifically excluded from the definition. 

2. How Is the Social Licence Concept Relevant to Equestrianism?

No industry or activity is exempt from the power exerted by its social licence. Public opinion can swing against any endeavour. For example, loss of social licence has resulted in closure of natural resource management industries [14]. Societal concerns have also had a serious impact on animal-use activities, including equestrianism. Examples from across a range of jurisdictions include loss of self-regulation, which has affected greyhound racing [4][15], obstructive activity by private companies (trophy hunting) [2][16], loss of sponsorship (horse racing and three-day eventing) [17][18], reduced profitability (various animal-use industries, including kangaroo harvesting) [2], and regulatory bans (greyhound racing, horse racing, and hunting of large carnivores) [2][16][19][20][21].
In 2016, the author of an investigation into greyhound racing in New South Wales, Australia, noted that “organised sports … have a ‘social licence’ to operate only as long as they perform in accordance with public expectations” [15]. This report concluded that greyhound racing had lost its social licence [15], leading directly to a ban on the sport in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory [22]. The ban was subsequently overturned in New South Wales, but the sport remains heavily regulated in this state [23]. Greyhound racing is also illegal in the majority of states within the United States [24][25]. These bans illustrate how the values of society can shape government policy [16]: what may start as negative media and loss of public trust can escalate into loss of political support, revised legislation, and, ultimately, a regulatory ban on the industry or activity in question [2][4][16].
Despite minority opinions to the contrary (e.g., from those opposing horseracing), the social licences of multiple branches of equestrianism, both national and international, have to date been upheld by the majority view in most societies. Such SLOs are underwritten by ongoing political support [26] and mainstream media coverage that is largely positive. However, the status quo should not be taken for granted, and current threats to equestrianism’s SLO cannot be ignored. Negative media is already evident in various branches of equestrian sports [27][28][29][30][31], and well-funded, well organised opposition to equestrianism exists [32][33][34][35]. In some jurisdictions, public pressure has led to the introduction of external regulation (e.g., the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority in the United States) [36], and the loss of equestrian sports based on welfare concerns is not unprecedented: in 1997, jump racing was banned in New South Wales, Australia, under the state’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act [21], and in 2020, the National Federation of the United Arab Emirates’ membership of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) was suspended over welfare concerns and non-compliance with FEI rules in endurance competitions [37]. Moreover, involvement of the French National Assembly [38] in recommendations for equine welfare at the 2024 Olympic Games shows parliamentary interest in a sport that, until recently, has been largely self-regulating.
Many of the examples above focus on one equestrian sport: horse racing. However, the experience of other industries shows that suboptimal practice in one branch of an industry may impact upon the SLO for other branches [14], and that the adverse effects of an event that attracts public condemnation may be felt globally. Recent examples involving animals include the killing of Cecil the lion, which appears to have accelerated changes to trophy hunting laws, and poor riding in the modern pentathlon at the Tokyo Olympics, the repercussions of which reverberated throughout the horse world and beyond [16][39][40]. Therefore, no equestrian sport in any country can safely assume that its SLO will remain unthreatened, since the actions of a few can affect the futures of many [14].

3. What Underlies the Threat to Equestrianism’s SLO?

In natural resource management industries, SLO loss is usually related to practices that cause environmental or social harm [4]. In contrast, in animal-use activities, SLO loss is largely based on public concerns—real or perceived—about the safeguarding of animal welfare [2]. These concerns are currently being voiced about many aspects of equestrianism, including racing, dressage, show jumping, eventing, endurance, modern pentathlon, and showing of Tennessee Walkers [27][29][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47].
Public disquiet about animal welfare has grown over past decades. This change—much of which is likely to enhance animals’ quality of life—has been fuelled by a population that is increasingly urbanised [2][48] and that expects a more compassionate and ethics-based approach to the welfare of animals used in recreation than was previously the case [49]. For animals, such as horses, that belong to a social species, this includes providing the opportunity to engage in bonding activities such as allogrooming with familiar conspecifics [50].
The evolution of the public’s views on animal welfare is illustrated by the altered attitude regarding animal-use activities that were once deemed socially acceptable, including the use of animals in circuses, marine mammals in aquaria, caged animals in zoos, the hunting of wildlife, and dog fighting [3][16][48][49][51]. The rise in vegetarianism and veganism in many societies is also partially based on animal welfare concerns [52].
This wave of change in attitudes towards animal welfare is fuelled by advances in technology and shifts in how society operates. The use of hidden cameras [2] and the almost ubiquitous presence of mobile phones capable of taking high quality photographs and videos has greatly increased the visibility of ‘backstage’ practices [53][54]. In the absence of context, still photographs and short videos may appear to show malpractice where none exists. However, this argument can also be used in an attempt to disguise the reality of the events captured [27]. The growth of the internet and the rising use of social media mean that such images can be disseminated instantly and widely. As a consequence, almost nothing is hidden from public view and the potential for negative reports on social media to lead to rapid changes in public perception and government policy—as has happened previously in relation to trophy hunting of wild carnivores [16]—is ever-present. In addition, it is now easier for groups that oppose the use of animals in sports to attract funding [55].
Public attitudes about animal use are also affected by advances in scientific knowledge. This is underpinned by the growing recognition that animals are sentient creatures [56][57] for whom physical, mental, and social wellbeing are important [50] and by the growth of animal welfare as an established science [58]. In addition, greater emphasis among researchers on making science available and accessible to a non-scientific audience [59][60] has increased the ease with which scientific findings can be disseminated among both the academic community and the wider public [61]. It is against this backdrop of changing public attitudes, technological advances, and scientific progress that animal-use industries must pay attention to the maintenance of their social licences—licences that are under threat of erosion in the current climate [2].

4. What Have the Sports’ Regulatory Bodies done to Date to Maintain Equestrianism’s Social Licence?

Rules to protect the welfare of horses have long been a part of equestrian sports [62]. However, in tandem with changes in public attitudes towards animal welfare, many of those within equestrianism have also altered their views. These evolving attitudes are reflected in changes to the rules of competition and, in some cases, the introduction of overarching equine welfare strategies and recommendations [63][64][65][66][67][68][69][70][71][72]. Initiatives that aim to promote best practice have also been implemented in a number of disciplines, including awards for best body condition [73], best condition in endurance competitions [74], and best shoeing [75]. Other recently introduced measures that aim to promote the positive protection of equine safety and welfare include improved provision for the rehoming and retraining of retired racehorses [5][76], pre-race ‘suitability to race’ examinations [77], the use of deformable and frangible devices in cross country fences [78][79], alterations to the design and placement of hurdles and steeplechase fences [77][80][81][82][83], advances in the safety training of officials [79], evolution of the rules relating to types and fitting of tack [84][85] and horse falls [79][86], generation of falls and safety databases [79][87], and improved post-exercise cooling protocols [83][88]. Changes to the rules for equestrian competition at the Paris Olympics (2024) have also been recommended [38].
Rules and sanctions have also been developed to combat a range of practices that may negatively affect equine physical and/or psychological welfare. These include rules about trimming of vibrissae [89][90][91], excessive rider weight [91][92], the presence of blood on the horse’s body or in its mouth [93], abusive training methods [67], illicit use of medication [67], use of the whip [4][94][95][96][97][98], and changes in limb sensitivity [89][99].
Advances in the protection of horse welfare made by individuals and equestrian sporting organisations notwithstanding, there remain substantial challenges to equestrianism’s SLO. The issues that pose the greatest risk are those that are publicly visible (e.g., injury during competition) or that are brought to the public’s attention by activists, whistleblowers, and journalists, some of whom are involved in the sport [27][29][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47]. However, it is arguable that these are just the tip of the iceberg, and that many less visible welfare issues—which may, over time, enter mainstream public awareness—have a greater impact on horses’ quality of life [100]. These include the approximately 23 h/day for which many horses are stabled [100]. In this context, the relative absence, in most jurisdictions, of regulations relating to horses’ ‘down time’ compared with the plethora of regulations relating to their experience during competition is notable.


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