What is Social License to Operate?
An SLO is an intangible, implicit agreement between the public and those who pursue an activity. SLO was originally used to describe the social acceptability of mining operations, but the term has since been applied to a wide range of activities.
If an SLO exists, this shows that the public accepts or approves of that activity and that they will allow it to continue with minimal restrictions. Public opinion can change, however, swinging against an activity it previously approved of. This move towards public disapproval can escalate into loss of that activity’s SLO. This can lead, in turn, to loss of political support, revised legislation and even a total ban on the activity in question.
How does SLO affect equestrianism?
Here we are looking at SLO as it relates to horses in sport. Negative reports relating to various branches of equestrianism are already evident in the media and well-funded, well organised opposition to some sports exists. This has led to regulation of some activities, and to the banning of others (e.g., jump racing in some areas of Australia). A recent example of the repercussions that can follow from loss of social license is the decision that equestrianism will no longer form part of the modern pentathlon competition after the 2024 Olympics. This occurred as a direct result of poor riding at the Tokyo Olympics.
When considering equestrianism’s SLO, it is not sufficient to simply consider the branches of the equine sector that are currently being challenged. The experience of other industries shows that suboptimal practice in one branch of an industry can impact upon others. Therefore, although public attention is currently focused on certain aspects of horse sport, the wider equestrian sector needs to take notice of public opinion, knowing that focus can shift at any time.
What are the issues?
Loss of SLO in the equestrian world is largely based on public perceptions – real or perceived – about the safeguarding of animal welfare. Recent changes in public attitudes towards welfare are underpinned by the growing recognition that animals are sentient creatures and have been fueled by advances in technology and shifts in how society operates.
Much of the population now expects a more compassionate and ethics-based approach to the welfare of animals used in recreation than was previously the case – the changes in public acceptance of hunting, dog fighting, animals kept in zoos and the use of animals in circuses and aquaria are good examples of this.
In addition, our understanding of good equine welfare continues to advance. This means that many people in the equine sector – some of whom still value traditional methods – need to change how they manage and train their horses if they are to be seen to be practicing good welfare. Moreover, the visibility of all aspects of horse care, management, training, breeding and competing has been greatly increased by the almost ubiquitous use of mobile phones and their cameras. This is generally a positive development as some poor practices might once have occurred ‘behind closed doors’ although in the absence of context some images may appear to show malpractice where none occurs. Whatever the reality of the event captured, however, such images and content can be disseminated instantly and widely, and adverse public reaction may be both strong and widespread.
It is against this backdrop of changing public attitudes, technological advances and scientific progress that the equine sector must pay attention to the maintenance of its social license.
What can the equestrian world do?
Establishing public trust is key to maintenance of any activity’s social license and, for equestrianism, positive change needs to be made and reported. Earning and maintaining that trust will require substantial effort and funding, and this should be regarded as an investment in the future of the sport. Evidence from other industries suggests that an ethics-based, proactive, progressive, and holistic approach to the protection of equine welfare should be taken by the sector in order to maintain its SLO. Other industries’ experience also shows that denial of the problem is a key contributor to an industry’s demise.
Positioning equestrianism as a front-runner in the establishment of good practice would be beneficial. This means more than simply meeting minimum standards and reacting to bad publicity and issues. We need to be proactive in identifying welfare concerns and reforming quickly in the light of new evidence. Such reforms should consider both ethics and welfare and, where possible, should be grounded in science.
The equine sector also needs to be honest, transparent and collaborative, and to engage proactively with the media to show how challenges are being met, publicise positive changes and promote champions of good practice. Engaging with critics in a constructive dialogue and being open and forthcoming in sometimes uncomfortable conversations will be hugely beneficial in developing the shared vision for the future of the sport that is so crucial for maintenance of social license.
The actions that can be taken by the equine sector to maintain SLO can be summarised as:
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)