National Equine Forum delivers an educational and emotional 31st event

The National Equine Forum (NEF) took delegates on an educational and emotional journey of discovery at their annual event earlier this month.

Themes included the Defra perspective, Equine ID, and the public acceptance of equestrianism. The latest data on the sector, the sustainability of riding schools, current equine health risks and working with paraprofessionals were also covered. The programme was interspersed with more personal accounts of saving horses in Ukraine, championing the cause of representation of ethnically diverse communities within the sector and using learning theory to transform a horse with several unwanted behaviours including bolting, into a dressage star.

With royalty, governmental, veterinary, educational, charitable and equestrian association representatives in attendance, the event was live streamed around the world with many virtual viewers including delegates from Italy, USA, South Africa, New Zealand and Ireland. 

“We felt privileged to welcome such highly informed and engaged speakers across the programme,” said NEF Vice Chair Dr Pat Harris. “They provided the latest facts, figures and news from the sector and delivered empowering and heart-rending personal perspectives of equestrianism in its many guises – to a rapturous response from the audience. Tickets for the face-to-face event were sold out well in advance of the day. We sold a record number of virtual tickets too this year and have a steady number continuing to subscribe to the playback.”

The equine industry in a changing world

The Defra view

Chaired by Prof Tim Morris the session commenced with an industry overview from The Rt Hon Lord Benyon, Minister of State, Defra. He outlined the government’s work with the British Horse Council to improve equine identification and traceability; plans include digitising more of the process for faster updates and greater accuracy as well as enhanced traceability to manage disease outbreaks. Proposed new approaches to enforcement include more scanning and ID checks at routine vet visits and sales.

Lord Benyon also outlined the government’s work to help streamline border processes for international racing, competition and breeding, including a proposed new imports regimen using digital technology, balanced with biosecurity measures to protect the national herd “to ensure we remain attractive for trade, while reducing the friction and burden of these processes”. He emphasised that he had heard the sector’s concerns about the ongoing review of the welfare in transport regulations loudly and clearly.

Hurry up and wait – tales from the British Horse Council

David Mountford, chair of the British Horse Council expanded on equine identification with the announcement of Digital First Equine ID, a simple, accessible digital ID process. He wove several Chinese proverbs into his presentation in memory of former NEF chairman Sir Colin Spedding who had a penchant for proverbs, including; ‘with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown’, emphasising that “we as a sector must work hard with Defra to make it work.”

Public acceptance of the equine industry in a changing world

Roly Owers, Chief Executive of World Horse Welfare, discussed public acceptance of the equine industry. He reiterated the importance of doing the right thing by our horses in an intelligent way to demonstrate that we are worthy of the public’s trust, saying “avoid the hollowness of words and walk our talk as we will be judged on actions not words.” He reminded the audience that we all need to pull together, as we all play for ‘team equestrian’. He said: “recognising the challenge is an important first step, the decisions we make today and tomorrow will help shape the sport for years to come.”

Opportunities and challenges for the future of the equestrian sector

BETA National Equestrian Survey 2023 – the initial findings

In this second session of the day, chaired by Beth Maloney, Claire Williams, Executive Director of the British Equestrian Trade Association set the scene by revealing the initial findings of the BETA National Equestrian Survey 2023. The results showed that while fewer people in the UK own a horse, more people were participating in riding, with the percentage of people riding in the past 12 months up from 4.7% in 2018 to 4.8%. The survey showed that 3.2 million people had ridden in the UK over the past 12 months and the estimated number of regular riders was 1.82 million. Claire said: “The data, despite the turbulence of the last two years shows positive signs for the sport and the industry.” However, she noted that cost was the biggest factor for giving up riding across all ages.

Riding is at risk – addressing the sustainability of our UK Riding Schools

Following Claire’s presentation James Hick, Chief Executive Officer of the British Horse Society went on to discuss the sustainability of the UK’s riding schools, describing them as the life blood of equestrianism. Despite the rapid decline of riding schools, equating to a loss of more than 1.5 million riding lessons in a year, most centres were reporting a waiting list of 50 clients or more. James emphasised the importance of continuing to address the workforce crisis, protect off-road riding and remove the barriers to make riding accessible to everyone. 

Opening a new riding school is possible

Jane Holdsworth, proprietor of Radway Equestrian and Julia Coles, Proprietor of Pony Magic shared their experiences of gaining a Council Licence to allow them to offer riding lessons. They also discussed how they manage their running costs and stated the need for dedication to the job, as well as a passion for horses.

Equine health

Equine infectious diseases – reducing risk together

Chaired by Dr Pat Harris, this session looked at two significant health risks to our horses. Prof Celia Marr, chair of British Equestrian’s Equine Infectious Disease Action Group (EIDAG) spoke about how we can work together to reduce the risk of equine infectious diseases. She explained how EIDAG provides practical guidance to all stakeholder groups to minimise the risk of the spread of infectious diseases and that British Equestrian (BEF) had set up a rapid response group to manage major health threats in the general horse population. The Group had proved to be invaluable in recent months.

CANTER – Controlling ANTIparasitic resistance in Equines Responsibly

Dr Claire Stratford, Principal Veterinary Advisor at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) introduced the new pan-industry group, CANTER (Controlling ANTiparasitic resistance in Equines Responsibly) to tackle the increasing threat that wormer resistance poses to horse health and the equine industry. Claire explained that the aim was to support a consistent approach to parasite control across the equine community and to become a ‘single source of truth’ on issues related to antiparasitic resistance in equines, in an area that has traditionally seen some mixed messaging. Further information can be found here.

How to tackle unwanted behaviours

The first of three more emotionally charged sessions, ‘How to tackle unwanted behaviours’, explored the science behind how horses and humans learn, why horses behave in the way they do and what to do with unwanted behaviours. Chaired by Dr Pat Harris, the topic was brought to life with the story of Hannah Bryant and her Welsh Cob ‘Gavin’, and how Dr Gemma Pearson, who is Director of Equine Behaviour for the Horse Trust, helped build confidence and trust with a horse who had initially refused to be caught and had subsequently bolted with his rider. Hannah and Gavin were now competing successfully in dressage. A panel discussion followed, with social scientist Dr Tamzin Furtado from the University of Liverpool giving a valuable perspective on the importance of understanding human behaviour change too.

Equine Fitters Council and Directory

In the first of two topical slots, chaired by Dr Sheila Voas, Hugh Thomas, chairman of the Equine Fitters Council, launched the new Equine Fitters Directory. This online resource will provide an independent and verified list of saddle, bit, bridle and harness fitters. The directory, overseen by the Equine Fitters Council, a not-for-profit and impartial body set up by the Saddlers’ Company and Loriners’ Company, will open next month.

RAMP – developing solutions

The second topical slot saw the President of the Register of Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP) Jo Paul report on the current regulatory situation and the solutions being developed by RAMP with this voluntary scheme. She explained that their aims were to make gold standard musculoskeletal care accessible to the horse owning public, encourage them to look for RAMP registered practitioners for their animals and for vets to signpost owners to such registered practitioners.

Influencers and their responsibilities across the media

In this session, chaired by Sarah Shephard, Ashleigh Wicheard, committee member and mentor at Women in Racing, together with Eleanor Jones, news editor of Horse & Hound and Rhea Freeman, founder of Rhea Freeman PR provided their perspectives on influencers. Rhea laid the foundations by explaining the importance and outreach of social media and how we all play a part in being influencers for the sector. Eleanor went on to explain how, long before social media, magazines, newspapers and websites were influencing their readers’ behaviour and choices. She emphasised that it was in the sports’ interest that the media highlighted the issues and championed positive change to help secure the future of equestrian sports.

Ashleigh Wicheard then gave an inspired and empowering viewpoint in her role as an influencer (@missblackequestrian on Instagram and TikTok). In the second emotionally charged session of the day the audience watched a moving video of Ashleigh taking the knee before going on to spectacularly win the Markel Magnolia Cup in 2022. She explained how the race had achieved international media coverage, drawing important, positive attention to the current lack of diversity in equestrianism. She hoped that her success would encourage and empower others from ethnically diverse communities to follow her lead and take up careers in equestrianism.

Memorial lecture: British Equestrians for Ukraine Fund

Charlotte Thornycroft, a volunteer for the British Equestrians for Ukraine Fund took the NEF audience on a heart-rending journey, in conversation with Alec Lochore. She described some of the horrors of working in a war zone for seven months and how she was driven to take on practical tasks when no alternative solutions were available, often working through the night to meet the need. Examples included single-handedly unloading 40-tonne lorries containing aid deliveries, securing the kindest possible deaths for catastrophically injured horses and providing a safe place of refuge for struggling people as well as their horses. Charlie was given a standing ovation at the end of her talk – the first time this has ever happened in the event’s 31-year history.

The Sir Colin Spedding Award

Charlie Thornycroft was announced as the winner of the Sir Colin Spedding Award. She was presented with the Award by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal. It was a complete surprise to Charlie when she was announced as the winner, to rapturous applause from the audience.

The event’s President, HRH The Princess Royal, provided a closing address. Dr Pat Harris formally closed the event with thanks to all committee members, sponsors, corporate friends and friends for enabling it to happen.

The NEF replay is available until 31 March 2023, free to all those who were registered for either the face-to-face event or the live streaming, and available for £20 for those who want to watch for the first time.

Picture: Sarah Shephard interviewing Ashleigh Wicheard at the 31st National Equine Forum, #NEF23

Picture courtesy of Craig Payne Photography