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sustainability - the future

Sitting in on an European Equestrian Federation webinar about the carbon footprint of our horses and the impact on the environment of what we do was extremely thought provoking. Sarah reports back - October 2023

Making Strides in Sustainability: The emission challenge

Research has been taking place in Europe about the impact of equestrianism on the planet, and in particular, the sport horse.  There’s no doubt that many areas of what was deemed acceptable practice with our horses are culpable in producing a large amounts of greenhouse gasses.  The time has come to examine what sort of carbon footprint keeping and using horses makes, and how it can be reduced. 

The European Equestrian Federation, like the FEI, is leading from the front on this issue and recently hosted a webinar on sustainability.  The content focused on the ridden horse, but it is applicable to driving where in reality, the carbon footprint is likely to be bigger, especially if driving multiples which can involve bigger lorries and more feed.  Naturally, the further and more frequently a horse is travelled, the greater the negative impact on the planet, especially if they are ‘global’ horses who are flying too.

The EEF has partnered with the research team at Wageningen University in Holland and examined horse use in both Holland and Sweden.  They tracked activities from birth to maturity, across a range of competition disciplines and from this, tried to ascertain the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions the horse is accountable for. This has led them to create ‘Hoofprint’, which is an equine-specific emissions calculator.

Hosting the webinar was Ulf Bromster and the main presentation (in excellent English) was made by Iris Huisman, supported by Theun Vellinga and Hassan Pishgar Komleh.  Much of their previous experience is based on looking at agriculture, raising awareness and looking at ways to change practices to increase sustainability in that industry.  Equally, they have looked at animal science and this in turn leads to welfare, Social Licence to Operate and how changes in human behaviour can be implemented – all of which is based in scientific facts.

A key area in terms of greenhouse emissions around horses is food production.  This ranges from the ingredients in the composite feeds (i.e. where does the corn, barley & flaked maize come from – and how far does it travel?) to the production and transport of hay and other forage.  One change we can make in terms of improving our impact is to select our feed with greater awareness and ensure it is produced as locally as possible.  There are databases concerning feed production which relate to the agricultural sector, so a lot of information is in circulation about both impact and ways to reduce it. 

Moving on, the problems of overfeeding means that not only is more food being consumed than necessary, but there is the impact of higher manure production then the welfare issues around overweight horses and resulting problems.  Being able to have some flexibility in the horse’s diet can be helpful.  Similar comments can apply to bedding and what is used.  Inevitably, another key area to consider is the production of ammonia and nitrogen which comes from manure, and how it can be sustainably disposed of or recycled with proper management. 

Undoubtedly, transport is the biggest issue.  If taken out of the equation, then feed accounts for 60% of the carbon footprint but depending on how much and how far a horse travels, then the percentage of the footprint that applies to travel can be up to 90%.    Naturally, for young or breeding stock, then this is far less, and the emphasis goes back onto feed and emissions.

Another area which hasn’t been researched but was mentioned is the building of stables or barns and arenas.  On the plus side, many of these sorts of buildings can be fitted with solar panels, but on the negative, they take up grassland or areas which might otherwise be oxygen producing.  What materials are used for the building and maintenance of these structures hasn’t been examined, but perhaps will be at some stage. 

The impact of holding events and competitions was also raised, and not just the transport that is inevitably involved in getting there and back.  Gathering lots of horses or animals in one area means more manure, which has to be disposed of (more transport) and if indoors, the need for more electricity etc.

These studies are being broken down into global, continental, national, regional and local levels.  On average, a show jumping horse tends to travel more than a dressage horse – in Europe – and geography and proximity of events or training facilities also makes a difference.  There is also an acknowledgement of the need to balance sustainability and change our behaviours against the clear mental, emotional and physical health benefits to humans of being involved with horses.  Currently, it is felt that what is key is to raise wider awareness of the sustainability issues, make assessments then collect data, define structures and compare the information before recommendations are made.

Rounding off the presentation was the excellent Professor Natalie Waran who is based in New Zealand, although she studied at, and has been connected with, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities in the UK.  She is a lead researcher and chair of the Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission and is always worth listening to. 

She reminded us about the role the climate crisis plays in maintaining a social licence and how this applies to equestrianism.  Citing how quickly the world and attitudes are currently changing, she stated that issues such as wars, water and food scarcity will impact how we keep our horses.  The speed with which situations and perceptions change can lead to inaccurate information and in turn, problems with the SLO. 

Nat recounted how on a recent trip to Hartbury College while she was in England, she sat on a mechanical horse and had a simulated race over jumps.  It was a memorable experience, and there was no need for a real horse or the associated carbon footprint, and she left the room feeling exhilarated.  She also pointed out that it can be problematic that many of the researchers are older than the ‘GenZ’ category who are outraged by the sorts of human behaviours that have had such a negative impact on the planet, and how we must be sensitive to the intergenerational differences in how these issues are understood and reacted to. 

She used examples of industries in New Zealand as salient reminders of how quickly situations and practices that were once deemed as acceptable can change to being totally unacceptable, citing intensive farming of dairy cattle and milk production, and the forestry business.  Both have come under fire recently and been forced to make changes because of the negative impact they are proven to have on the environment and in turn, their diminishing social licence.  Equally, another example was used to illustrate how quickly our attitudes change when not so long ago the use of animals in circuses was commonplace and indeed, considered to be a form of entertainment.  But due to changing attitudes and the science behind the them, animals are no longer there and circuses have had to adapt what they present in order to survive.  For those of who have horses, one issue which is problematic and is shared with other industries is land availability which it is a commodity that is becoming ever rarer. 

However, trying to remain upbeat, Nat feels that with small steps, big changes can be made.  We must all show that we are responsible and are willing to make a commitment to change if we are to maintain the social licence in equestrianism.  Another area she highlighted was the waste around veterinary products (think what your wormer comes in, and what you have to throw away after.)  She also spoke about the problems of too many overweight horses and how feeding them too much protein increases nitrate leeching as well as directly impacting health.  At the very least, having an awareness is a starting point.

Her message was a reminder of what we should all be doing – Replace, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.  We have to be aware of the ‘change cycle’ in human nature and understand that we tend to naturally resist when asked to make changes and are often in denial of the need for it.  A reluctance to change is prevalent in equestrianism which tends to be an inherently conservative world and much of what is done is based on tradition, what has been done for generations and what was learned from ‘Masters.’  Nowadays, we should be more open to being informed by science and appreciate that some of the best fact finding is done in the margins. 

Another message Nat emphasised is that regardless of what area of horse sport or practice we are involved in, we are, to the outside world, regarded as one industry.  For example, the racing industry has acknowledged the need for change and made it in order to remain engaged with the non-horsey public.  But anything that is done between horses and humans is largely viewed as being the same by the majority.

In terms of sustainability, any changes that we implement must be favourable to both the horse and the environment.  We have an opportunity now to make change and put knowledge gained into actions.  Having an understanding of the human behaviour models will be helpful, as will an acceptance that welfare and sustainability go hand in hand.  Nat stated that we are all standing on a burning platform, and we must change the way we live, work, compete and behave.  It is a rapidly evolving world, and we need to keep up! 

Further reading – 24 recommendations by the FEI’s Equine Ethics & Wellbeing Commission EEWB 24 Draft Recommendations.pdf (fei.org)

Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission – Home (fei.org)