Everybody is entitled to their opinion – but does everyone have a right to express their views, however ill-informed or irrelevant they may be? And does the need to uphold the principle of free speech give people licence to deliver those opinions at any time, and in any situation, without considering how damaging and hurtful they seem to others?
The charity World Horse Welfare (WHW) addressed the philosophical and practical aspects of the question “whose opinion matters?” in relation to safeguarding the health and welfare of equines during its annual conference on 11 November 2021.
WHW chairman, Michael Baines, noted that the charity has always based its guidance for horse owners on the best available scientific evidence, provided by an international network of knowledgeable and experienced veterinary scientists. However, in developing the programme for the meeting, it was recognised that in the current climate where many people distrust the opinions of experts, important decisions are being made without any reliance on reputable science.
The consequences of misinformation have been made much worse through the power of modern communications as social media streams have propagated these lies and ensured that they have continued to circulate for many months
Most alarmingly, the equine anthelmintic drug ivermectin has been adopted by many thousands of people as a supposed treatment for the COVID-19 virus, without any sound evidence on its efficacy and often with fatal results. In this case, the consequences of misinformation have been made much worse through the power of modern communications as social media streams have propagated these lies and ensured that they have continued to circulate for many months, said Michael.
Within the world of equine sports, social media channels have amplified the public response to a series of controversies that have emerged over recent months. These include the sight of Irish race trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse while making a phone call, a BBC Panorama programme on conditions at an abattoir for the slaughter of unwanted Thoroughbreds and the ill-treatment of a horse competing in the modern pentathlon discipline at the Tokyo Olympics.
In the latter incident, the resulting negative publicity led to a decision by the Olympic authorities to remove horse riding from the programme for the modern pentathlon event at future games. WHW chief executive, Roly Owers, made it clear that he would not defend any instance of welfare abuse, but said he was concerned that if left solely to the court of public opinion, any judgements made would be voiced by “whoever shouts loudest”.
Roly Owers made it clear that he would not defend any instance of welfare abuse, but said he was concerned that if left solely to the court of public opinion, any judgements made would be voiced by “whoever shouts loudest”
Roly argued that if the organisers of equine sports are to retain their “social licence” to continue using horses in competitive events, they must proactively address any welfare concerns. The care and well-being of the animal should be the underlying principles behind every decision made. So, if scientific evidence emerges to show changes are needed in the rules and practices of the sport, these should be introduced promptly, but “if not, we should be prepared to stand firm and justify our position”.
The dangers of allowing people with no direct involvement in or knowledge of a welfare issue to lead a debate on it were illustrated by the experiences of horse owner and sometime WHW groom Jordan Headspeath. She described the fallout after she posted a video of one of her ponies walking through deep snow during the bad weather that accompanied Storm Darcy in February 2021.
Jordan said she was unprepared for the ferocity of the public response to the film and the accusations that she was being neglectful and cruel to the animal. She did point out that her Highland ponies have been bred over 500 years to deal with the harsh and unpredictable climate of the Scottish mountains and that her own animals were well cared for and were well sheltered against the elements.
The current Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders and former equine practitioner, Neil Hudson, confirmed that politicians are also exposed to the icy blast of public hostility through social media. He said that the disagreements he had experienced in his veterinary work had not prepared him for the vitriol he has received since entering Parliament. He urged everyone to act with more tolerance and respect when posting messages online.
[Sara Cox] said that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are a valuable source of material and ideas to use in her radio shows. But she takes pains to ensure that the subjects she covers remain light-hearted and fun as she is aware how quickly these discussions can spiral out of control
Broadcaster, disc jockey and lifelong horse rider Sara Cox was one of few at the meeting prepared to defend the role of social media. She said that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are a valuable source of material and ideas to use in her radio shows. But she takes pains to ensure that the subjects she covers remain light-hearted and fun as she is aware how quickly these discussions can spiral out of control.
RCVS past president and head of an equine practice in Berkshire, Chris Tufnell, said he has stepped away from using the main social media platforms. This decision was taken after finding that he had other more important duties and after realising that he wanted to post “I think you may find that it is more complicated than that” in response to many of the statements appearing on his screen.