Social License to Operate

Horse racing has a problem, but it doesn’t stop there. Learn why all equestrian sports may be at risk, and what you can do to help.

Seven horses died at Churchill Downs in the 10 days leading up to the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Another was injured, and euthanized, on Preakness day. Even though statistics show that horse racing deaths have declined over the past four years, these recent deaths made headlines. And public outcry over horse welfare in the racing industry was, and continues to be, widespread. 

Think this doesn’t have anything to do with you? Think again. Public acceptance of any industry or activity is crucial for its preservation. Public rejection can mean the end. And the public doesn’t necessarily recognize the difference between horse racing and reining, Western pleasure, or even trail riding. That’s right. We’re all in this together, and we would all be wise to recognize that public perception matters. Maintaining the support of society, or the “social license to operate” is crucial for the longevity of all equestrian activities.

In this article, we’ll explore the meaning of social license to operate and see how it has impacted other animal industries. Then, we’ll look at the common missteps we, as horse owners, need to avoid when faced with public scrutiny.  Finally, you can check out our seven-step action plan to help you navigate the challenges we face.

An Inside Look at Social License

Social license to operate refers to the acceptance or approval of an activity or industry by society.  While it’s true that laws have the most direct control over what we can and can’t do, maintaining social license may be even more important. As long as the public approves of what we’re doing, chances are we’ll be left alone to regulate ourselves. But if public trust is lost, regulations will be called for and laws will be enacted. And a loss of public acceptance can have profound consequences on an industry. 

Let’s look at greyhound racing. In the 1980s, there were 50 active tracks in 19 different states. Thousands of spectators flocked to racing venues across the country. Fast forward to today, when only two tracks are still actively operating, and greyhound racing is illegal in more than 40 states. This change came about largely in response to public concern about the treatment and welfare of the dogs, including doping, risk of catastrophic injuries, and concerns about euthanasia of healthy animals after they retired from racing. The greyhound industry is dying, and it’s dying fast. It has lost its social license to operate. 

What about marine mammals?  Are you old enough to remember Shamu? She was an orca whale, captured from the wild in 1965 and sold to SeaWorld San Diego where she was the star attraction as the first ever live-orca show until her death in 1971. Orca shows continued with great success until an incident in 2010 involving the death of a trainer led to the production of the controversial documentary Blackfish that brought welfare concerns to the mainstream media. It wasn’t long before legislation that banned keeping orcas in captivity was adopted in response to public pressure. Sea-World has survived (so far), but only by making significant changes in how they operate and adopting policies that emphasize animal welfare and marine mammal protection.

A Well Known Example

Perhaps the best-known example of social license to operate impacting an industry is the demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, primarily due to public outcry about mistreatment of animals. After more than 140 years of operation, the circus shuttered its doors in 2017, even after it began phasing out the use of elephants in performances in 2015. The good news is that after a 2020 announcement that retired elephants were moving to a conservation center, the “Greatest Show on Earth” is coming back with a 50-city tour of a brand-new animal-free show in 2023-2024. Lesson learned.

How can the horse industry learn from these mistakes? By taking social license to operate seriously, and doing something now, before it’s too late! 

Photo by mani/

Let’s Not Make the Same Mistakes!

We may think we’re different, and that equestrian activities will never succumb to public pressure like other animal-industries, but we’d be wrong. And if we want to avoid the fate of the greyhound industry, we’d be wise to avoid the following big mistakes.

Misstep #1: Denial.

“Those people just don’t understand. They know nothing about horses, and they’re all worked up about nothing. We should just ignore them.” 

Guess what? It doesn’t matter. Whether the general public understands the horse industry or not, it still has the power to impact what we do. And denial is a key contributor to the loss of social license to operate. Even if members of the public don’t understand, they know what they believe. And they won’t be shy about expressing their concerns. If we just pretend that they aren’t there, their voices will get louder, and we’ll lose public trust completely. It’s best to pay attention to what they’re saying. Sometimes, it might even mean we need to change.

Misstep #2: Not my problem.

“It’s all about horse racing. That’s not what I am into, so it has nothing to do with me.” 

Think again. Response of the public to one branch of an industry commonly translates to another branch. The general public doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between racehorses and show horses. Even if they do, they often cite the same welfare concerns. In fact, one of the current issues gaining public attention is the “other 23-hours.” Welfare science tells us that horses require turnout and equine companionship to live happy lives. If your show horse lives in a stall at a boarding stable with limited turnout, many members of the public would be concerned about his welfare. They would not be wrong.
And how we maintain and treat horses just isn’t all that different in different disciplines. 

Response of the public to other animal industries can even spill over into equestrian pursuits. Give it a try! Google greyhound racing, and don’t be surprised to see links to articles about U.S. racetrack deaths. Reports of abusive practices in show horses won’t be far behind. 

Misstep #3: What they can’t see won’t hurt.

“My horse was being difficult during our ride today, but I would never school him that way in public.” 

Let’s face it. Nothing is backstage anymore. With the easy availability of cellphone video cameras and access to social media, anything you do can be seen by thousands, if not millions, of people in a short period of time. Anything you do, even in your own backyard, can get around. And even if it only happened once, that’s sometimes all it takes. 

Consider the example of the pentathlon “fiasco” at the Tokyo Olympics. Video footage of a coach punching a horse in the face when it refused to jump during the competition became widely available and faced intense public scrutiny. The result? The horseback riding portion of the Modern Pentathlon has been replaced with an obstacle course competition to preserve its status as an Olympic sport. 

Misstep #4: Who me?

“I know some of the things other riders and trainers do are cruel, but I’m not like that. I don’t have to worry about it because I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Are you sure? Times are changing, and welfare science is actively advancing. Even if you steer clear of things that present obvious welfare concerns (like beating your horse with a whip or tying his head down during a training session), it wouldn’t hurt to hold up a mirror when it comes to how you treat your horse. It would also be wise to do it before a member of the public does it for you. Let’s face it, many of the things we accept because it’s “always been done that way” probably aren’t that great. Horse locked in a stall 23 hours a day? Ears trimmed clean? Guilty as charged. 

Misstep #5: Just educate.

“We just need to educate them. If we just explain what we are doing, the general public will understand.”

Big mistake. The public doesn’t want to hear us defend ourselves, especially if things we do present legitimate welfare concerns. Instead, they want us to hear what they are saying, and take steps necessary to make things better for our horses. And what the public wants matters. Sincere efforts from us are what it is going to take to gain, and maintain, public trust. And public trust is essential if we want to preserve our industry. 

Industry leaders are doing their best to understand and accept the challenges facing equestrian activities. But, when it comes to social license to operate, everyone can make a difference. Photo by Video_StockOrg/

Seven-Step Action Plan

Industry leaders are doing their best to understand and accept the challenges facing equestrian activities. Concerns are taken seriously, studies looking at safety issues are well supported, and new rules related to horse welfare issues are being adopted and enforced. But, when it comes to social license to operate, everyone can make a difference. The following seven-step action plan will help you do your part.

Step 1: Listen.

If a member of the general public expresses concern about something they’ve observed at a barn or competition, listen to what they have to say. They just might be right. And even if they’re not, their perception is important.  Take it seriously. 

Step 2: Take Ownership.

Did some-one question something that you did? Own up. Take a minute for self-reflection. If you need to make a change, accept it! None of us are perfect.

Step 3: Be Transparent.

Be completely honest (with both yourself and others) about how you treat your horse. If your gelding spent two hours tied up in his stall at a recent show, don’t deny it. Someone will find out. And complete honesty is the only way to gain and maintain public trust.

Step 4: Educate Yourself.

Animal welfare science is a rapidly growing field, with a lot of emerging information that can make things better for your horse. And public interest in animal welfare is becoming more and more widespread. Take some time to stay abreast of new information as it becomes available so you can be informed and understand welfare concerns as they arise.  

Step 5: Walk the Talk.

It’s easy to be an armchair horse-welfare advocate. It’s a little harder (and sometimes inconvenient) to practice what you preach. If you claim to believe that turn-out is important, make sure your horse gets turnout. 

Step 6: Embrace Change.

Rule changes can be annoying. Changing veterinary advice can be confusing. New horse care recommendations can be expensive. But all of these changes are usually based on new information that is likely to make things better for your horse. Instead of complaining about that new rule, different advice, or changing recommendation, vow to learn where it came from and support it! 

Step 7: Be Brave.

This one’s hard. If you see something that isn’t right, speak up. Abusive training methods at your barn? Call out the trainer. Horses locked in stalls for days on end? Express your concerns to the barn owner. Overmedication of competition horses? Talk to your veterinarian. It might make you unpopular with some, but the horses (and the industry at large) will thank you. 

[Learn About Another Pressing Matter from Dr. Crabbe]

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