‘WHO owns equine welfare?’ was the title of a session at the Irish Equine Veterinary Association (IEVA) conference for equine vets in Kilkenny in early November. The message resonated for this writer with ‘We all need to do better!’ which was the key message from the World Horse Welfare’s conference in London a few days previously.

At both meetings, consideration was given to the roles and responsibilities of owners, keepers, riders, regulators, charities, vets and quite pointedly the general public. These latter may not be directly involved (though their taxes may fund some activities) and they (though not necessarily knowledgeable) may exert great influence.

Those directly involved were represented from a professional’s perspective at the World Horse Welfare meeting by event rider Matt Brown.

A few key points he made left a keen impression on this member of the audience. They are paraphrased and extended here:

- Those directly involved with horses and equestrian sports must ‘be the best that we can be’, every day and on every occasion – whether that be at home training horses, instructing others, or on the field of competition itself.

- Be kind when people make unintentional mistakes or take a genuine misstep - beware the temptation to reach for the keyboard and issue condemnation on social media – especially if the ‘offender’ is inexperienced and in particular if you are not prepared to put your name to it.

- We’ve all been there, we’ve all made errors and those who say otherwise fool nobody but themselves. I’ve certainly made major mistakes in my veterinary career that have had adverse consequences for animal or owner. And I’ve long remembered those who said ‘Cheer up, you meant no harm’, ‘These things happen’, ‘You weren’t the first and won’t be the last’.

- Recognise the need for regulators to hold a line and support them when they issue sanction in cases of serious malpractice or malintent. Regulators act - when they act fairly and proportionately - in all of our interests as well as in the interests of our equines themselves.

Racing regulators

The veterinary view was articulated at the IEVA conference by the five vets (this writer included) sitting on the podium. By way of introduction, one outlined how racing regulators in Britain have moved forward with the industry there. Another described how Horse Racing Ireland has engaged very positively with this space this year.

This speaker again encouraged vets to engage with their clients, with those who care daily for horses, with all industry players to promote good welfare standards; but also to ‘not be shy at publicising good practice when you see it’, continually encouraging all involved with horses to ‘be the best that we can be’, to borrow the phrase used earlier. Another vet outlined how IEVA itself has actively encouraged its members to get involved by way of an equine welfare committee.

Vets haven’t necessarily been the best (too busy perhaps!) at getting publicly involved in the welfare space, sometimes leaving it to others to make the running and set the tone around this subject. There are many outside the veterinary space who understand and drive the science of animal welfare, with the effect that great strides have been made in our understanding of animals’ needs as well as how to influence human behaviour to provide for these better.

But nature abhors a vacuum and if those with real knowledge don’t actively lead and influence then don’t complain if others occupy the space instead. They may take matters in a direction you don’t much like. As a veterinary colleague of mine is wont to say ‘If you are not at the table, then you are probably on the menu!’.