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Roly Owers: “Change starts with your own self and what actions you are taking on a day-to-day basis”

Thursday, 16 May 2024

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ. "Going forward, being open minded about change is key, because so often we hear people saying ‘that's the way we've always done it’," Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, tells World of Showjumping. Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ.


Text © World of Showjumping



“We need collective responsibility,” Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, tells World of Showjumping. World Horse Welfare – an international charity based in the UK – has been an independent adviser on horse welfare matters to the FEI for over 40 years. In 2014, the two parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

“It's so easy to blame others,” Owers points out. “The FEI should lead, but that doesn't mean that individuals and national federations and everyone in between shouldn't be actually taking their degree of responsibility as well. A good life for our horses can only be created when everyone who looks after horses knows what that means and acts accordingly. We need collective responsibility to make changes now. Going forward, being open minded about change is key, because so often we hear people saying ‘that's the way we've always done it’. However, just because you've always done it that way doesn't necessarily make it right today.” 

It is a long journey, not a destination 

At the FEI Sports Forum 2024, the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission’s final report was presented, as well as the FEI’s plan of action to follow up on the Commission’s suggestions. With 62 action points, the FEI’s vision is ‘A good life for horses’, with the mission of “serving as the guardians of FEI horses by formulating and implementing rules, guidelines, educational programs and other initiatives”.  

We need collective responsibility to make changes now

“It is a marathon, not a sprint; it's a long journey, not a destination,” Owers comments on the plan of action. “The reality is that we are only going to get change when people change their behaviour. That takes time and the horse world can be a fairly conservative community where change doesn't tend to happen quickly. The work of the Commission and the action plan is progress, but it needs to move faster. Change is sometimes frustratingly slow, but overall, it is going in the right direction. Change is beginning to happen and it is urgently needed in some areas.”

“However, the other challenge is the fact that this is not just for the FEI; the national federations have a huge role to play as well and it goes all the way across the individual riders, owners, coaches, officials and organisers,” Owers says. “It is a collective responsibility. There's often a tendency for people to say it's someone else's problem or someone else's role to fix it. Change starts with your own self and what actions you are taking on a day-to-day basis.” 

Education is really important

“A way of driving trust and transparency is welcoming independent scrutiny and the FEI did just that in establishing the Commission,” Owers points out. “The independent Commission has produced a really helpful framework with their recommendations. However, going forward, you can't just take that inside the FEI and inside the national federations without having some external oversight. Our understanding of equine welfare and horse behaviour is changing and advancing all the time, so you do need those external experts. More research is needed, but that requires two really important things. One; collaboration – it needs to be a collective effort. It can't be just the FEI that is going to drive all this research. And, of course, funding is needed as well: You have to put your money where your mouth is. Rules are only a small part of the equation. The only way of creating long-term behaviour change and getting people to do the right thing is showing them what the right thing is and how to do it. Therefore, education is really important. But you still need the whole carrot and stick; you need to enforce rules as one part of the jigsaw.” 

Don’t forget the voice of the horse

There are 62 actions points in the FEI’s presented plan. “There was a lot of talk about some existing activity going on already and how this is being developed. However, it would be good to understand the FEI’s long-term vision of what a good life for sport horses is, and what they expect from everyone involved in the sport to ensure they receive it,” Owers points out. “Many of the Commission’s recommendations aren't overnight issues. A good question that was raised by one of the members of the Commission was where the voice of the horse is in all of this?”

The responsibility is on the human to create an opportunity for a horse to have a good life

“It's a good thing not to talk about a partnership, but rather about being the ‘guardians’ of sport horses as that more accurately describes the relationship between horse and human and all the responsibility that implies,” Owers continues. “The responsibility is on the human to create an opportunity for a horse to have a good life and this does need to come through more strongly. It's going to take a global effort, because many of these questions are not simple. Going forward, I think it's incredibly important to have that independent oversight to ensure that the sector, including the FEI, does what they say they are going to do – and that they do it well.” 

Even though it might seem so, horse welfare is not a new issue at all. “There are aspects that are new, but the foundations are certainly not,” Owers points out. “In the past, we were focused far more on physical welfare whereas now we know through the five domains model of animal welfare, that it's as much about their mental well-being. Our understanding around what creates a good mental well-being is evolving quite rapidly and that has transformed over the last twenty years.” 

Focus on the good

“I'm an optimist and I think there are many good stories to tell,” Owers says when asked how he sees the future of equestrian sports. “There are many people who are riding at the top, using ethical training methods, having a good understanding of how horses learn, who genuinely are doing their best to give their horses a good life. I think it is really important that we show off the positives – because there are plenty of positives. There are clearly plenty of challenges at the moment as well, but those are in our grasp and I'm an absolute optimist. I think we will still be riding horses in decades to come. However, I think there are some real pressure points and we've seen that with modern pentathlon in the Olympics.” 

I think it is really important that we show off the positives – because there are plenty of positives

“It's certainly under threat and we have to move faster because that story is evolving very quickly,” Owers says about the equestrian sports place as part of the Olympic family. “There is real necessity and the Commission created a momentum. It's really important now that this momentum is maintained and a sense of urgency is created about implementing their recommendations. That's the challenge. If we can achieve that, then I believe there will be a strong future for equestrian sports. However, you have to be transparent and honest about the current challenges and tackle them as quickly as possible.” 

“Over the years, we have had a very constructive relationship with the FEI,” Owers concludes. “We certainly don't agree on everything but overall I believe that the FEI wants to do the right thing. However, as I said before, collective effort is absolutely necessary.” 



About World Horse Welfare 


World Horse Welfare is an international charity based in the UK. Founded in 1927, they work on four aspects: As a campaigning organisation, World Horse Welfare was founded to abolish the long-distance transport of horses to slaughter and that remains a core issue across Europe. WHW runs the largest rescue and rehoming scheme for horses that have suffered abuse and neglect in Britain and are increasingly trying to improve their educational output because so many of the welfare issues globally are due to ignorance. WHW works globally through partnerships, in 16 countries around the world. WHW promotes responsible horse sport and they are the only global welfare charity that actively supports responsible involvement of horses in sport. 



16.5.2024 No reproduction of any of the content in this article will be accepted without a written permission, all rights reserved © World of If copyright violations occur, a penalty fee will apply. 


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