Have you ever been a long, long way from home, and heard a conversation that sounds oddly familiar? The accents may be differentand the formality may take some getting used to, but the feeling of deja vu is hard to shake. When the subject turns to comparing critical horse-related issues between the USA and other countries, it's uncanny how sure you will be that you've heard this before, albeit with a Texas, South Carolina or New York accent.
We watch the scores of Nations Cups, but who’s tallying where other countries stand in relation to us on issues like welfare, health and the growth--or shrinkage--of equestrianism and sport?
I was off to check on those scores last week when invited to report on the National Equine Forum in London, England. At times, echoes of American horse-related issues were faint, while at others, our issues reverberated eloquently from the stage of the beautiful Mechanical Engineers Hall auditorium.
The British Equestrian Federation has organized this event for 22 years now, and it is run under the constructive and thoughtful leadership of its president, Princess Anne, who was in the front row on Thursday. We sat in the shadow of the gates to Buckingham Palace; historically, only members of the Royal Family were allowed to stroll on scenic Birdcage Walk outside the Hall.
The Princess and her committee pulled together an agenda packed full of issues, updates, introductions and even some cross-pollination of ideas. The day began with micro-issues, as when World Class Performance consultants stopped a few strides short of an equestrian-science debate over the fine points of saddle slip, and progressed through the day to the macro-importance of the global priorities of the FEI and British horse welfare.
The hosts even went so far as to invite their arch-enemies on the jumping, eventing and dressage fields to the stage. A report from the German Equestrian Federation provided an overview of issues that equestrianism faces in that country, for comparison with what Britain is facing.
While the heady status of Team GB at or near the top of all three FEI Olympic disciplines meant that a certain amount of upper echelon sport horse topics would dominate the program, rank-and-file recreational riders and their horses were far from forgotten. In fact, it seemed that concern for the overall health and welfare of the horse community in the British Isles trumped the elite sectors, as if the leaders believed that a rising tide would float all the equestrian boats in this small but horse-packed island nation.
Who attends the National Equine Forum? Seats were filled with representatives of sport organizations, breed societies, health professional associations and riding-related businesses. It was a Who’s Who of movers and shakers seated next to icons, masters and celebrities. The British Equine Veterinary Association rubbed elbows with the Suffolk Horse Society and pony promoters stood as tall as FEI sport horse representatives.
The most eye-opening session for Americans was one by invited speaker Stephen Potter, operator of one of Britain’s select few slaughterhouses that is regulated for processing horsemeat for human consumption. His presentation was straightforward, honest and poignantly illustrated with photos of British war horses in World War I who were sent to slaughter in France at war’s end.
Potter described the trials of his position, which is wrapped in a great deal of bureaucratic regulation because many British horses are designated “not for human consumption” on their health passports. Owners of those horses are not allowed to sell their horses for slaughter, based on past medical treatment that might contaminate meat. Euthanasia and carcass disposal are expensive. Regulations for equine burial are strict. This was compared with horses that have never been documented at all via the nation's compulsory passport system, and hence have no traceable medical histories at all.
Sentiment by Princess Anne at last year's World Horse Welfare Conference bemoaned the lack of value of horses at the bottom end of the desirability scale because their documents--or lack of them--prohibits them from slaughter. At the end of their useful or healthy lives, these horses end up in need of either expensive euthanasia and highly-regulated carcass disposal or else must be "rescued" by charities who are faced with managing physical problems and dangerous behavior quirks, or reconciling outright owner neglect and, all too often, abandonment.
Finding new homes for older, untrained, unsafe and/or unsound horses is a very tall order.
Potter called for a review of current drug control legislation, which requires permanent exclusion from the food chain without good scientific reason, from his point of view. He proposed that updating regulations would increase the value of unwanted horses that might otherwise become welfare cases, and that such value could significantly improve equine welfare crises across the countryside.
Potter's presentation was met with resounding applause from the audience and other speakers, many of whom represented horse welfare organizations that Americans might assume would be opposed to the slaughter of horses. I was struck with how differently this man and his profession would be received in the USA, and if he would even be allowed to speak.
The pragmatism of the British equine community on this issue reflects a crowded nation with a finite capacity for horses when their useful time has passed. Yet while they are willing to at least consider sending a larger number of horses to slaughter, they slam the door on the idea that their horses--or any horses in Europe--should suffer en route to their deaths, or that those deaths should be anything but humanely handled to the extent that is possible.
I doubt that anyone seated in the plush seats on Birdcage Walk will be sending a horse to slaughter anytime soon, but they were willing to support opening the door wider for others to find a more liberal exit strategy for their horses. The British still don’t plan to develop a taste for eating horse meat, but everyone I spoke with would rather see British horses slaughtered on home ground rather than shipped across the English Channel to their deaths.
Other presentations on welfare attacked the question of low-value horses from different angles: pressure on charity farms overwhelmed by horses in need of homes, the ongoing battles to help horses in Europe en route to slaughter, “fly grazing” abandonment of low-value horses, potential and possibly imminent dangers of infectious diseases, and the perennial renewal of efforts to educate and inform horse owners about health and the dire consequences of vanity breeding.
Ingmar De Vos, Secretary General of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), had possibly the biggest and most subtle story, buried as it was in slides full of statistics and pie charts. The future was written there, if you looked deeply into the numbers.
He documented very clearly the shift in power within the FEI away from the formerly-dominant European nations to the strength-in-numbers emerging nations who have been encouraged to join the world competition scene.
The FEI is a democratic organization that is following Olympic Committee mandates to globalize horse sports and encourage new nations to compete. Britain and Germany may have the highest levels of expertise in most sports, but it is the new nations who hold the votes. Eventing, jumping and dressage may currently be in the Olympics, but many of the new nations are intrigued by the disciplines of endurance and reining, which currently are outside the Olympic menu of sports.
In spite of the recent recession, the number of horse sport events around the world grew by 48% since 2008, according to FEI statistics. Endurance enjoyed the greatest growth; 20% of FEI registered athletes compete in endurance, which is dominated by Region 7 (North Africa and the Middle East). Vaulting has seen the most growth during recent years (381% increase) followed by reining with 167% growth. The largest increase in hosted events in all sports is in Central America.
As he calmly recited the facts and slides full of stats and pie charts and world maps flashed by a nation experiencing great growth the sport of eventing, the room seemed to shrinkand Ithought I saw people’s shoulders touching forthe first time. It was tough to find the strengths of Great Britain on many of the FEI's maps and charts.
Britain may have stood at or near the top of the all the podiums in their triumphant 2012 Olympics in London, but the pressures of the rest of the world are all around it--in sport, health, recreation, economics and welfare. The podiums are changing shape beneath their polished tall boots.
A National Equine Forum that keeps reminding the country’s influential decision-makers where they stand both locally and globally was the urgent mission of this important event, which history will judge as a success as long as the audience was listening and plans to go to work on the issues that were laid in their laps.
That's not a small assignment, nor a light responsibility. The ultimate message of National Equine Forum was delivered in a subtle, civilized and unmistakable tone: the future is landing on Britain's doorstep. Whether the attendees heard Princess Anne's carefully crafted provocations as a prophecy of doom or a clarion call to action will determine the future for Britain's love of the horse.