What is a social licence to operate?

Social licence is increasingly important in horse sport and leisure – find out why.

Social licence is increasingly important in horse sport and leisure – find out why.

Whether horses are used in sport, for leisure or for breeding purposes, responsibility for their welfare rests on the shoulders of those who own, breed, train, ride and care for them. World Horse Welfare supports the responsible involvement of horses in sport, so long as their welfare is truly put first. We work with regulators and other industry bodies to advise on how horses’ welfare can be protected both during and after their career in sport. Significant improvements have been made but there is undoubtedly much still to do.

Although the horse-human relationship is an ancient one, for it to thrive long-term, equestrianism needs to ensure it continues to have the approval and acceptance of wider society. When an activity does have society’s approval or acceptance, it is said to have a ‘social licence to operate’ (SLO). You can learn more about social licence in the context of the horse world in our 20-minute video, and below.

The equestrian world needs to maintain and strengthen its social licence for it to have a future. This means that the welfare of the horse must be put first AND be seen to be put first, all of the time, and it is the responsibility of everyone who is involved with horses to demonstrate this. Sometimes, mistakes will be made. However, if all those involved in horse sport and leisure can learn from these mistakes and demonstrate that they are always striving to do right by their horses, wider society is more likely to trust that equine welfare is genuinely being put first and it is more likely that equestrianism’s social licence will be maintained. 

All those of us who own, care for, or are otherwise involved with horses should be mindful that perception of what constitutes good welfare is changing. Scientific research is broadening understanding of what horses need to have a good life, and the impacts that the choices of owners, handlers and keepers can have on their horses. For instance, evidence shows that we should focus not only on our horses’ physical wellbeing, but also on their mental welfare.

In order to truly do right by their horses, all those involved in horse sport and leisure need to reconsider how they breed, manage, train, compete, retire and end the lives of their horses. How these life stages are approached will affect equestrianism’s social licence in the years to come.

Two horses and riders hacking down a track between trees

What is the current state of equestrianism’s social licence to operate?

Currently, society generally supports the responsible use of horses. However, this support can easily ebb away if the public perceives that equine welfare is not being protected. And there is evidence that this is happening. People from both inside and outside the horse world are starting to question whether it is right to use the whip to ‘encourage’ racehorses, to keep horses in stables 23 hours a day, to remain unaware of (or, worse, to ignore) the expressions and behaviours that indicate pain, to breed animals that may not be fit for purpose or to pay scant regard to what happens to horses at the end of their careers.

If these and other practices lead to society withdrawing its approval of equestrianism, the participation of horses in sport and leisure may no longer be permitted in its current form. Such loss of a social licence to operate typically starts with negative media, loss of public trust and, subsequently, loss of political support. This in turn may lead to increased regulation of the sport and ultimately a complete ban. This is no idle threat – jump racing has already disappeared in much of Australia.

The state of equestrianism’s social licence is largely based on how well all those involved in horse sport and leisure safeguard equine welfare, as well as on public perception of how well it is safeguarded.

Handler stroking skewbald pony on the neck

What can the horse world do to retain its social licence to operate?

There are a number of key elements that must be taken into account to retain an SLO.

Values, trust and transparency

It is important that the horse world shares – and is seen to share – the values of the mainstream public in relation to equine welfare. This does not mean ‘mob rule’. But it does mean that society’s values must be considered, and that all decisions relating to the use of horses in sport and leisure should be underpinned by sound ethical judgement and, where possible, scientific evidence. It is also important to:

  • Create an atmosphere of transparency in which the public trusts people to do right by their horses
  • Listen to people from inside and outside the horse world and ensure that any concerns are heard and handled constructively and openly
  • Ensure that rules and recommendations are evidence-based wherever possible and that those rules are fully enforced
  • Embrace changes which are likely to improve equine welfare, even before the evidence is indisputable (in other words, espouse the precautionary principle)

Considering the ethics of what is done with horses is extremely important. It is vital to recognise that just because something is possible, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is desirable or acceptable. Therefore, whenever horse owners, handlers and keepers consider asking something of a horse, they should first ask ‘Should I?’ before asking ‘Can I?’.


Horses’ welfare should be considered and prioritised throughout their lives, every day, in competition and outside of it.

Everyone in horse sport and leisure should ensure that they know how their horses’ welfare is affected by their approaches to the following:

  • Breeding
  • Horse care and management
  • Disease prevention
  • Training
  • Rider weight
  • Use of tack and equipment
  • Transport
  • End of life choices

If welfare is likely to be compromised by the existing situation, changes should be made so that this is remedied.


Education of all those within the industry and the right attitude are also key: the horse world needs to prioritise a holistic approach to welfare and equip itself with the relevant knowledge and the latest evidence. This includes:

  • Promoting independent study of welfare issues
  • Assessing horses’ welfare and quality of life objectively
  • Supporting evidence-based welfare improvements

The final strand to consider is how the equestrian world communicates about horse sport. Ideally, this will:

  • Be positive and proactive
  • Highlight each horse as an individual and a partner
  • Reflect horses’ reality and champion good practice
  • Make it clear that unacceptable practice is not tolerated within the sport

To be effective, these communications need to be supported by an equestrian community that ‘walks this talk’, and that prioritises equine welfare in the way that horses deserve.

Social licence and the involvement of horses in sport

On Tuesday 21st June 2022, we held an event, which was attended by around 100 members of the equestrian world and the media, to highlight the challenges and opportunities faced regarding public perceptions of welfare in equestrian sport – and explore how they can be addressed. 

Further resources

  • Read the lay summary of our paper on social licence to operate here
  • The full paper (Douglas, J.; Owers, R.; & Campbell, M.L.H. Social Licence to Operate: What Can Equestrian Sports Learn from Other Industries? Animals 2022, 12, 1987) is available to read here
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