The International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) is urging its members and everyone else concerned about the sustainability and reputation of competitive equestrianism to feed back to the FEI on its horse welfare action plan.

As awareness of Social License to Operate (SLO) grows, the final recommendations of the FEI's independent Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission were debated last month at the FEI Sport Forum in Lausanne. The FEI is inviting feedback on this by May 15, to welfare@fei.org

The commission's final report can be read HERE.

FEI veterinary director Göran Äkerström said it is about “acknowledging and respecting the natural needs of horses within the context of international equestrian sport.” We should not refer to them as “partners" anymore, he said, because that indicates equal standing. Instead, "we are their guardians."

The 62-points action plan will cover, among other topics: 

  • a broader approach to reviewing tack and equipment (see below regarding the IJRC view of double bridles); (Max Kühner did a good job as member/riders representative of the tack up group together with fellow IJRC members Rodrigo Pessoa and Nick Skelton)
  • resuming scientific research on hyperflexion and rollkur, which the FEI acknowledged is "dividing the community," plus training at home and the care of the horses in the "other 23 hours" it is not competing, for which there are insufficient existing rules and guidelines;
  • developing guidelines, principles, rules and registration of all trainers to ensure ethical training methods and bring trainers under FEI jurisdiction for disciplinary proceedings (which currently applies only in FEI endurance); 
  • harmonized post-mortem reporting protocols in national events;
  • updating the FEI Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse in collaboration with World Horse Welfare and strengthening the awareness and use of the FEI Equestrian Charter;
  • implementation of an Out of Competition Testing Programme for prohibited substances;
  • reminding stakeholders that anyone can (confidentially) report horse abuse to the FEI at any time (abuse as defined by Article 142 of the FEI General Regulations), and to provide national federations with “model rules" on horse abuse. FEI legal director Mikael Rentsch said: “It doesn’t look good when a scandal arises if you are not able to act because your rules don’t allow you to. "

IJRC president François Mathy Jr and director Eleonora Ottaviani took an active part in these debates in Lausanne and also highlight the topics below.

Welfare initiatives at national level

Eleonora Ottaviani drew attention to the importance of developing welfare initiatives at national level and in legislation. She cited the historic development in her native Italy, which in September 2023 legally recognized the horse as an athlete by a state law. Other European countries have discussed enacting the same, but Italy is the first to do so.  This new law gives sport horses legal equivalence to the human athletes who compete alongside them, plus further protections against abuse.

Back in January, Eleonora spoke about this key development at a conference in Bologna University organized by the Italian equestrian federation, FISE. She said the new legislation provides "the opportunity to finally recognize the horse as the subject, and no longer object, in our sport. 

A video giving the views of Ludger Beerbaum (to watch the video click HERE) and Jos Lansink (to watch the video click HERE) was presented.

"The news of the enactment of this important law was greeted with enthusiasm by the members of the IJRC. For the first time, the words 'athletic horse' or 'athlete horse' have become a legal term,” said Eleonora.

The new legal status of the equine athlete in Italy also: 

  • seals a pact which has existed for thousands of years of reciprocal respect, ensuring improved life quality, between man and horse;
  • legislates a Guarantee of Safeguarding for a partner;
  • underlines that Horse Welfare must be preserved not just with vague terminology, but with specifics like Art 19/1, regarding nutrition, healthcare,       handling, and Art 19/3, regarding appropriate saddlery and shoeing;     
  • demands that Sporting Federations and Sport Promotion bodies can apply sanctions, without prejudicing the consequences, in terms of civic and penal responsibility;   
  • makes all equestrian workers and operatives responsible for horse welfare;     
  • covers new legal and fiscal scenarios, as well as transportation policy currently in the news, also regarding European Union norms.                
  • Veterinary check before each event (included national show)

The law also  aligns itself to the FEI in forbidding training methods that may damage the health or psycho-physical fitness of the horse (such as rollkur;) to  FEI standards  for tack and saddlery, and veterinary checks before competition; to norms requested by the IJRC regarding stable security at shows, supply of a grassed area, sanitary safeguards and guaranteeing the obligation that all stakeholders must intervene in sanitary emergencies (such as the equine herpes virus crisis in February 2021.)     

Double bridles

The IJRC cautions against introducing restrictions to the use of double bridles in any or all FEI disciplines without scientific evidence and full consultation of all FEI stakeholder groups. 

At present, FEI dressage is under unprecedented public scrutiny. To some pressure groups, the controversial dressage training technique of hyperflexion/rollkur and the use of double bridles are connected.  The IJRC believes that these two issues have been wrongly conflated on social media, and that the currently emotive opposition to the double bridle is misplaced.

A double bridle is a classical piece of equipment. Historically it has, and should only be used, by a highly skilled rider using the most subtle aids to achieve precision. In that context the double bridle has no more potential to cause discomfort than any other bit.

In November 2022, the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission recommended making the double bridle optional, initially, at all levels of dressage. Following representations from dressage stakeholder groups and the FEI Dressage Committee, the FEI Board decided not to adopt that recommendation.

Last autumn, after requests to reconsider from the Netherlands and Sweden, the FEI dressage committee reiterated that: "the double bridle is a technical (sport) matter and not a matter of wellbeing/welfare. We understand the topic of social (media) perception, but from the results of the online survey made available to this Committee we could not find scientific evidence, nor unquestionable data, that allow us to reach to a different conclusion at this moment.

"It is time to gather a multidisciplinary team, which includes experts from all stakeholders, to develop study/research to understand all pros and cons about the proposed change."

The debate about double bridles has inevitably widened and came up for discussion at the 2024 FEI Sport Forum. François Mathy Jr said: "The discussion about double-bridles feels alien. We need to be able to use precision tools. You need to involve riders in the discussion. A loose noseband is described as bad, but when my horse puts his tongue over the bit, it is worse for him.”

"We are the ones who are riding with this equipment. It's like if you start talking to a Formula One driver about taking away his steering wheel and his brakes; I mean the precision that we have to ride with in these courses – not only for the results, but also for our and horses safety. If you don't want to see crashes, we need to be precise. We need to be able to use these tools. It's very, very important to keep us involved in those discussions.”


Photo: @IJRC/S.Secchi