Social license to operate: ignore it at your peril
Publish in Forge magazine, March 2023
Social license to operate (SLO) is not a new phrase, it has been used for decades. But what does it mean? It refers to the ‘ongoing acceptance of a company or industry’s standard business practices and operating procedures by its employees, stakeholders, and the general public[i]’. Perhaps more concerning is that companies and industries often run into the concept only ‘when it is too late’. SLO has long been used in other industries including banking and mining. It may seem alarmist but those engaging in badger-baiting and cock-fighting probably never thought their hobby would be banned – in years to come will we be saying the same about equestrian activities?
The equine industry, and the public perception of how we use horses is under scrutiny – more than it has ever been – and the proliferation of smartphones and electronic devices has never made it easier to capture and share negative moments with horses.
And, whether you agree or disagree, opinion is changing and change is happening. You don’t need to look too hard to find evidence of this; from the hunting of foxes with hounds and the end of jump racing in south Australia, the hotly debated use of the whip in racing and protests at Grand Prix show jumping events, to the use of the double bridle in FEI competitions and the change of wording in dressage tests for marks now given for ‘harmony’ instead of ‘submission’.
At a webinar organised by the Showing Council last year[ii], Sally Iggulden, Beverley racecourse CEO, suggested that it was dangerous to assume that most people don’t have views on whether horses should be ridden. Showing Council Chair Dr Jane Nixon described the scope and rate of change to have increased massively and it is vital that we have a clear picture of what the problem is.
Described as a ‘wake-up call’ for equestrianism, a YouGov survey commission by World Horse Welfare in May 2022 found that 20% of people do not support the continued involvement of horses in sport. 60% felt that more safety and welfare measures should be in place[iii]. Nearly a quarter of 4000 equestrians responding to a survey on Dr David Marlin’s Facebook page agreed with the statement ‘the welfare of sport horses is often compromised’[iv]
Not taking the issue seriously yet? A recent petition by the Dutch Party for Animals has collected over 30,000 signatures to consider a ban on the use of bridles on horses. Due to the success of the petition, this will now be debated in the Dutch parliament![v]
‘When does use become abuse?’ was the title of the 2022 World Horse Welfare Conference. It examined the ‘visible debate’ and explored what the equestrian industry may learn from other industries. What were once considered traditional practices are now posing new questions from an ethically evolving society. The conference explored how equestrian sport could evolve to maintain the acceptance of the public and protect its social license to operate. The standards to which organisations are expected to behave is increasing with time.
Why should we be bothered? SLO does not depend on what we think. It is what society – both equestrian and the wider public – thinks. Their opinion – whether we like it or not – matters. It will influence equestrianism – the role of equines at work, in competition, breeding and at leisure. Our clients will be impacted (if they haven’t been already).
For farriers, a brief loss of temper or a knee-jerk reaction in a frustrating situation can have a devastating impact with the potential for sanctions to be imposed by the owner, a welfare group or perhaps the regulatory body. It is a hotly debated topic within the farriery social media pages, but the Farriers Code of Conduct is there to protect the farriery profession – and its reputation – as a whole and to separate those upholding good professional standards from those who don’t. But SLO goes beyond this.
Each and every one of us who has horses – for leisure and competition, pleasure and career – has a role to play. It is about doing the right thing, being seen to do the right thing – communication and education. In the words of Lee Cain at the World Horse Welfare conference, ‘We have to be receptive to change – so others don’t change things for us’. Will you be playing your role?