‘May’ I mention foxhunting?

 So I haven’t posted for the longest time, but in my defence I’ve had PhD corrections to do and without a shadow of a doubt that’s made this last year of teaching the toughest in my 21 year career in education.  If any of you out there are thinking of doing a PhD, think again, and then a third time, and then a fourth and a fifth, if you still have the ‘fire in the belly’ then do it and don’t look back.  Churchill is supposed to have said ‘if you’re going through Hell…keep going’, that one will be useful for you I can assure you.  I’ll let you know if it was all worth it when I have my final result.

Anyway, to the subject of this post, I’ve been thinking about doing a piece on fox hunting for some time but with an election imminent and fox hunting back on the political agenda this seems to be the moment. Yet again this sport is being used as ammunition by politicians who give the impression they know very little about it. The Countryside Alliance and other pro-hunting lobbies want to see the back of the Hunting Act 2004 and at least the relaxation of the rules on hunting animals with dogs. Unsurprisingly, Theresa May’s Conservative Party (do you see what I did there?), nervous about a hung Parliament, has seized on that as a vote winner in rural areas. This has the left wing, in particular the Labour Party using the issue as a stick to beat the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn recently referring to the sport as ‘barbarous’ apparently.

I want to talk about this from the point of view of an ordinary common-or-garden horse rider, I know a lot of those and I know a lot of them who go hunting, ‘following the hounds’.  I’ve been doing the same a couple of times a year for the past 17 years myself. I’m also a socialist, a member of the Labour Party, the thing is I don’t ‘get’ the hunting debate because I have never, ever and never would hunt foxes and most of the horse riders I know who go hunting wouldn’t either. They’re not ‘posh’ either by the way, most leisure riders are in my experience keeping horses on a shoestring, doing without cars on HP and foreign holidays for the love of horses.  The puzzle is I don’t hear the point about it not really being about foxes at all in the rhetoric from either side.  The hunts I ride with use bloodhounds following a pre-laid scent, not foxhounds and bloodhounds that couldn’t catch a cold by the way.  I’ve lost count of the time spent waiting for the ‘whipper in’ to go and find the floppy-eared canines that were lost somewhere.  I have also personally witnessed the pack stand stock still when commanded ‘hold’, to let a hare run right through the middle of them, and that’s exactly what they did.  This is the thing, the point of hunting is no longer, if it ever was, to kill foxes.  It’s to test the skill of the riders and their courage, not to mention the stamina and manageability of the horses.  The terrain is tough, the pace fast and the ditches, hedges and fences a real challenge.  You have to have some serious cojones to do it  at all and I might add the biggest tend to belong to the women riders, and I’ve seen plenty of humans injured but no defenceless animal prey, none in 17 years.  The pro-hunting lobby like to go on about countryside traditions and ‘townies’ not understanding the ‘country way’.  Sometimes the need to control the fox population comes up, that’s a red herring if ever I encountered one, hunting with hounds on horseback is the least efficient method of pest control I can think of, bar none.

The nub of it all is this, all of the tradition and pageantry that goes with fox hunting, all of the excitement, danger and skill development that was originally gained from hunting animals, can now be had from hunting people.  Volunteers laying a scent of course…much as we would like to be hunting ill-informed, self-serving politicians, that’s frowned upon. So why is this point never made?  Why are the arguments still all centred around such as whether hunting foxes is cruel or not, necessary or not?  When that’s no longer the point of the sport at all?  Perhaps the answer is that those who would gain political advantage would rather not have a debate on the real issues, just on irrelevant ones that are nevertheless easy to print headlines on and raise passions about.  Funny that, hope they don’t do that on any other important social issue………..

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Conferences, past present and future

eq-cu-program-and-abstract-list-webbIn October I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the ‘Equine Cultures in Transition’ International Conference at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden and I have to say I have never been to a conference quite like it.  The venue was luxurious and historic and the catering and organisation were both second to none, remarkable in itself but what really set this conference apart was the truly inderdisciplinary nature of the symposium.  Who new that horses could form a part of really high level research in disciplines as diverse as sociology, sociological anthropology, photography, choreography, law and gender studies?  The common ground with all the participants was a love and appreciation of the horse and its unique place in contemporary society but the quality of the research and the effort put into designing these studies and mining the corpora of data was inspiring.  Many thanks to Mari Zetterqvist Blokhuis and the team for putting that on.  sodertonI know they are looking for an institution to take this forward next year so if you are interested please do contact Mari at Södertörn.  Participants and speakers came from Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia, the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland to name a few and the networking opportunities were unmatched if you research with horses.  Many thanks as well to the Equine Research Network (EqRN) for making us all aware of the conference.  You can find them on Facebook as well as the web.  I also discovered the Equestrian Social Science Group through the conference, well worth joining.

soderton-audienceRegular readers of this blog will not be surprised I used the opportunity to present a paper which had a ‘pop’ at the slavish adherence to ‘strict liability’ in integrity regulations in horse sport.  A conference paper in similar vein I gave in 2015 was picked up by a US publishing house who have asked me to submit a book proposal based on my PhD thesis so hopefully my ideas will make it out to a wider audience before too long.

At De Montfort University we are hosting a conference on 11th April 2017 – ‘Horses, Society and the Law: Past, Present and Future’, the call for papers is out and again we aim to make this conference as multi-disciplinary as possible because so many disciplines intersect with the law and shape it.  this is an extract from the call:

Horses may appear to be an anachronistic part of 21st century, mechanised society. But in fact, horses continue to contribute significantly to national economies as well as playing an integral role across many sectors of society, and in so doing are both influenced by and influence the content of the law. This symposium explores the relationship of horses, society and the law across many positions, including, for instance, the use of horses in the rehabilitation of juvenile and adult criminal offenders, the role of the horse in national identity, modern popular culture and cultural heritage, in sport, and in leisure and recreation activities, and in the preservation of public access to bridle paths and other green common areas….

Confirmed keynote speakers include Sophie Wells, OBE (Para – equestrian gold medallist at London and Rio Paralympics) and Dr Georgina Crossman (LOCOG member of staff and National Technical Official at the Rio Paralympics).  Contact the conference administrator, Katie Scott on klscott@dmu.ac.uk or my co-convenor Dr Sarah Sargent at Sarah.Sargent@buckingham.ac.uk for queries on content.

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The End for Equestrianism at the Olympics?

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Rio 2016, the ‘last hurrah’ for horse sport in the Olympics?

This rather nightmarish headline, for those of us committed to horse-sport anyway, is a possibility sad to say. These sports are being ‘evaluated’ based on viewership, social media and outreach to consider whether they should remain in the Olympics, this is as a result of the disappointing figures from the London 2012 Games. Equestrianism in the UK received a boost from the 20 gold medals won by Team GB culminating in that win by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Of course this is a Worldwide sport, if somewhat Euro-centric in mindset, so the UK position isn’t necessarily reflected in other countries. Horse sport is ferociously expensive to put on, particularly eventing as it can’t be held in one arena and equestrianism generally has long been plagued by a public perception that it is elitist. There is also a feeling in the Olympic body that particularly eventing and dressage are largely based on the skills required by a 19th Century cavalry soldier and thus these sports are something of an anachronism. It wouldn’t surprise me entirely if the Rio 2016 Olympics I’m watching as I write this were the last Games to have horse sport within it as a discrete discipline.

Go compare

Is this how we are seen?….Really?

More generally there is an urban myth, particularly in the UK that to be involved in horse sport, riders and owners have to be wealthy. The ridiculous caricatures in the 2016 ‘Go Compare’ TV advertisement campaign featuring horse riders with ludicrously exaggerated ‘cut glass’ accents are but one symptom of that. This, like many myths is based on some truth. Before the arrival of the motor car it was mostly necessary to be wealthy to own a horse, the better the specimen, the more moneyed the owner generally was, much as it is now with ‘high end’ cars. In the process of my research I considered the changing place of the horse in society and there is no doubt that particularly in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries the horse was a central feature of our economy, they were traded in huge numbers and were the root of a significant body of litigation which later grew into what we now know as consumer rights law. It is unsurprising then that the myth remains that to own horses you have to have money. For those of us owning horses at the amateur level this seems odd in the extreme though. It may be a different matter in the Home Counties but in the bulk of the UK horse owners and riders are conducting their pastime on a shoestring, going without luxuries, sometimes necessities, to keep their horses. We can be fairly safe with the notion that an average leisure horse costs about the same to buy and run as a second hand car.  Of course second hand cars vary enormously in cost but the analogy holds just the same.  Visiting local shows, even county level, I am often struck by how old and beaten up most of the vehicles are yet how pristine and polished the horses and riders mainly turn out to be.  This is all anecdotal of course and ripe for a properly funded research study but it is hard to reconcile the lived everyday experience of an ordinary horse owner with the received truth that horses equals riches and glamour.  Horse racing is traditionally the ‘sport of kings’ but again it wouldn’t take me long to find owners and riders locally scratching everything they can together to keep their horses attending races each week, only a couple of vets bills away from financial ruin.  Of course horse racing, because of its betting component, has grown to have an appeal which transcends class and you don’t have to have an affection for horses to enjoy spectating, the adrenalin rush of gambling does that for many.

I am also struck by the disconnect between my circle and the world of elite horse sport.  World class dressage horses can cost millions of Euros and eventing requires a significant income just to afford the entry fees for competitions.  The predominance of royals, both UK and Middle-Eastern in eventing and show jumping doesn’t help.  It’s not just the gene pool of the animals that seems to matter either, there are a number of families that are synonymous with elite level equestrianism.  Imagine if it were not really feasible to make it in football or rugby unless a player was related to a certain family group?  Of course the sheer cost of owning a top level competition horse is prohibitive for most people but this is also true of an Formula 1 car, however it is possible to make it in F1 racing from very humble beginnings.

Olympic gold

It isn’t medal tallies that determine the ongoing popularity of elite horse sport, it’s viewing figures and social media content, we need to wake up to this.

The concern may not be so acute in horse racing of course because of the completely different way it is funded and how it is a ‘bespoke betting product’.  Elite equestrianism with its traditions however has to deal with the perception of elitism whether or not it is deserved though.  I can remember when showjumping would receive prime time weekend sports TV coverage but that is no longer the case.  Cricket went through this, so did darts and snooker.  For differing reasons the old formats were losing viewing figures and popularity.  The result was a resurgence after a shift in format.  Such as floodlit cricket, broadcasting rights deals and sponsorship on shirts were an anathema to purists but these are now the lifeblood of  20/20 cricket and the Indian Premier League as just one example.  The One Day format is also more conducive to effective and popular TV coverage.  A transformation with similar drivers has happened in snooker and darts too.  I have little doubt that elite equestrian sport has to something similar to address falling viewership, social media and outreach figures if, as I suspect that is what the current scrutiny reveals.  Equestrianism’s ruling class won’t like it of course but the

trick riding

‘Half time entertainment’ for equestrian events

time has come for shorter formats intermingled with the equivalent of ‘half time entertainment’ perhaps with some of the trick horsemanship and other riding displays performing that function.  Perhaps betting needs to be encouraged and rules simplified focusing less on purism but more on what is digestible for a TV audience, what will fit between commercials as well.  Dress and tack traditions need to be addressed to encourage sponsorship beyond that provided by the purveyors of    ridiculously expensive riding attire.  We need to persuade airlines and power companies, betting operations and high street fashion brands to sponsor riders and events as a matter of routine to bring in the viewers, the cash and survival.  Major motor manufacturers sponsoring horse trials are a start but only that.  Food for thought I suggest but something must be done if our sports are not to fade to the status of ‘minority interest’ pursuits.

 

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Now Brexit is for real, what next for horse sport?

Brexit

Whether you were a ‘remainer’ or a ‘leaver’ last week doesn’t really matter anymore the fact is we voted to leave. It is just possible that either the Scottish National Party or the overall ‘remain’ majority of Westminster MPs might be able to block implementation of the referendum decision but let’s assume Brexit will happen. There are some other facts, right now there is no functioning government in this country worthy of the name and no credible opposition. The main political parties are in utter turmoil and likely to remain so for some months and none of them appear to have a proper plan in place for this eventuality, make of that what you will. We are likely to have a new Prime Minister by September and quite possibly a general election shortly after that. We may have a different party/ies in power this time next year. It is not surprising then that investors who hold British pounds and share holders who own shares in British companies have been selling them like mad which is why there has been a dramatic fall in the value of both. All of this is because of Thursday’s vote, that much is not in dispute.

What we cannot predict is how fast we can recover and what good things will come out of this. We may be able to trade more freely with the rest of the world, we may be able to have a good trading relationship with what is left of the EU without most of the rules people have been complaining about for decades, we just do not know. The question for us is what does this mean for horse sport? The good news is that the governance of the major sports has very littleGavin - cromwell-thumb-500x375-11960-thumb-500x375-12294 directly to do with the EU. The Olympic sports, show jumping, eventing dressage and Para-dressage together with many other major ones like carriage driving and reining are governed by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) based in Switzerland, they operate globally by the national sports governing bodies (SGBs) like the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) in the UK answering to them. Horse racing is organised on a national level, the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) is the UK SGB for that sport but it also has quite a lot of influence internationally as the oldest racing organisation. There is no international body for horse racing that has the same function as the FEI.  There is some sports law case law that has some basis in EU law but little if any of it is in equine sports.  How limits on the free movement of persons into the UK will affect international sports competitors, owners  and trainers, veterinary personnel and yard workers of course is a very difficult question to answer yet, again it depends on our future relationship with the rest of the EU.

In terms of horse owners and competitors, leisure riders and everyone in between on that spectrum, the repercussions, at least in the short term will probably be much as they are for all sectors. During the early period of uncertainty it is reasonable to expect fewer people in the horse industry to be hiring new staff or making many major purchases. The market in horses at all but the elite level will probably slow down and people will hold off on major projects like buying a new horse box or building, say new ménages and the like. On a day to day basis if the products and services you use are from this country the price should stay much the same but if what you buy comes from overseas, even if it is just coat products or items of tack, these will probably become more expensive because the British pound is worth less now than it was this time last week by quite a margin. In terms of personal finances, which after all affects most of us in terms of owning and maintaining horses, mortgages may become more expensive if the Bank of England raises interest rates to help the economy generally, this is by no means a certain move though. If/when we do leave the EU then holidays are likely to become more expensive and travel generally for competitions etc. on the continent more costly and complicated. If the leavers are right however the long term upward motion of the economy due to being free of the EU might counteract this, watch this space.

Something dramatic and profound happened last Thursday, whether we celebrate it or regret it as individuals the motto ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was never more apt. We are British after all, that’s what we do….

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My ‘Road to Rio’!

 

Sophie W and JM

Sophie Wells MBE at her base in Harby, Notts with JM.

This is of course meant in a vicarious sense because there is more chance of finding rocking horse poo than there is of me qualifying for dressage at the Rio 2016 Games…maybe 2024, ‘if your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough’!!  No, I’m actually referring to our ‘local’ dressage superstar, Sophie Wells MBE from Harby, Nottinghamshire.  Sophie, after Team Gold medal success at London 2012 and 2014 World Equestrian Games, has qualified for Team GB Paralympic Dressage in the Summer and she’s only 26. In Nottinghamshire as well as in the wider horse community we’re all behind her of course as well as all the GB Olympic and Paralympic equestrians in their quest for 2016 participation.

I am lucky enough though to have lessons with Sophie on my TB, Mojo or ‘Rhythm is a Dancer’ (should have been ‘[s]He Moves in Mysterious Ways’ if we were going for song lyrics…..) as does my wife, Dawn on her coloured, Miller. I first met Sophie in March and have to say that for someone of relatively tender years yet with so much success already she is very grounded and is also very intuitive as a trainer. She noticed straight away that I wasn’t helping Mojo on 20 metre circles with where I was putting my weight.  In 45 minutes Sophie had helped me to see that it was perfectly possible to guide Mojo in circles and spirals using just my weight and the reins being used only for ‘bend’ getting a much better outline than I had before. Mojo can be a handful so I was glad to be in expert hands.

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Sophie at London 2012

One other thing that helped is Sophie’s voice projection, I’m a bit deaf but I had no trouble even though it was a really windy day. After a spell competing in France and coaching in Belgium Sophie is back now and I’m ready for my next lesson on 21st May.  I had plenty of homework last time, let’s see if it’s paid off.

me n moj

In ‘competition mode’.

One of the factors that made me pick equine sports regulation as a research interest and indeed for a PhD thesis topic was the fact that I am active in the sport, albeit very much at grass roots level. This gives me a useful perspective and means I don’t have to have too many ‘head-space’ compartments as work, research and pleasure overlap in a useful, stress-reducing way, so far anyway…

Good luck Sophie, and all the Team GB Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.

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What does horse sport, tennis, ice skating and cycling have in common?

A strange definition of ‘cheating’ you might say. I do understand that the world of sport has a fair number of competitors at the elite level that have little or no regard for the ‘Corinthian Ideals’ and are desperate enough to win to take banned substances in an organised fashion. It does the fight against this attitude no good however to ‘throw the book’ at the unwary and the naive.

This week Maria Sharapova revealed she failed a drug test with Meldonium in her system but this news follows hard on the indexheels of revelations that figure skater, Ekaterina Bobrova, and cyclist Eduard Vorganov also tested positive for the same drug.  Most of the reporting on this latest disclosure rather misses the point though.  The drug is on the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) banned list but only since the 1st January 2016.  Prior to this it was being monitored but allowed as it was also taken for therapeutic benefits and this was the reason Sharapova had been taking the drug since 2006.  It may be that athletes have been taking Meldonium for its performance enhancing benefits all along but this isn’t the central issue, whilst the drug is ‘legal’ this is not cheating.  Once it became a banned substance there is of course a potential problem.  ‘Strict liability’ means that once the ban is in place there is really no way under the regulations as currently drafted that Sharapova, or any athlete, can escape a ban.  Sponsors have been quick to distance themselves from the athlete as if she is morally at fault and they do lynchnot want their products to be tainted, they will have provided for this with a ‘morality clause’ in her sponsorship contract.  But what did she do wrong?  She didn’t read an email attachment with the new list of banned substances on it.  Does this make a a cheat and morally suspect?  I don’t personally think so and I didn’t think so when I read in my PhD research about the equestrians, such as Ireland’s Dennis Lynch, who faced sanctions after the 2008 Olympics because their horses tested positive for Capsaicin, a substance derived from chilli peppers.  This substance was in a horse liniment called Equiblock designed to ease muscle fatigue.  It had been but recently banned by the FEI but Lynch hadn’t checked carefully enough.  He had opprobrium heaped on his head by Horse Sport Ireland as if he had set out to cheat which seems to me highly unlikely given the likelihood of testing and the inescapable prospect of a consequent punishment.

The problem I have with the regulations for both human and non-human athletes is that the question which ought to be central – ‘was the action a deliberate attempt to cheat’ is all but absent from the discussion in ‘court’.  The substance is there so there will be a guilty verdict no matter what.  There is then some debate about the ‘sentence’ based on whether the accused was acting deliberately or negligently.  To me this refusal to consider moral fault before establishing a verdict is just for the convenience of the ‘prosecutors’.  It is considered too difficult to prove doping infractions if deliberate moral fault must be proved, ‘we cannot, without blinding reason and cause, move one millimetre from strict liability – if Tiger woodswe do, the battle to save sport is lost’ says Lord Coe, virtually no one disagrees and careless athletes become ‘collateral damage’ in the war on dopers.  Coe’s assertion does not apply to all sport anyway.  USGA Golf has a ‘discretion rule’ which allows the USGA to waive a strict liability offence which would otherwise mean disqualification.  Tiger Woods benefited from such in the Masters Tournament in Georgia in 2013 when he inadvertently signed for an incorrect score.  Furthermore in criminal law many strict liability offences have a defence built into them which means that if the accused did everything reasonably necessary to avoid the commission of the offence they escape liability.  Not so in doping and no proposals to bring one in either.  The offensive thing is that whilst such as Sharapova and Lynch have their reputations tarnished for being unwary the real cheats are getting away with it by being more technologically sophisticated than WADA are.  Even the former DG of WADA , David Howman admitted to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 that only ‘dopey dopers’ were being caught under the current procedures.

Ironically it is horse sport that potentially has the game changer here, although it has barely been noticed.  It was hrace horsesorse racing that was the first sport to have any form of doping control.  This was at the turn of the 20th Century in response to American trainers using cocaine to jazz up the performance of their horses in British races.  Now, tucked away in a paragraph of a report by Dame Elizabeth Neville into integrity issues in horse racing there is the suggestion that rules, such as those regulating doping, should be written around a series of principles rather than in detailed and rigid paragraphs which must be read literally.  One would hope the principles would be written around the concept of cheating and not penalise the lack of currency of an athletes pharmacological knowledge.

One thing is sure, what we have now, in relation to anti-doping for human and non-human athletes isn’t working, we need a change of tack.  After all as has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain and Ben Franklin at one time or another ‘the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result’.

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Some thoughts on ‘Brexit’ for the horse community

Yes I know it’s been a while! Getting my thesis to the point of submission has been all consuming, plus the worst flu I have ever had knocked out most of March.  However on the theme of the impending referendum I haven’t seen very much on what effect either result would have for those of us who work with, write about or own horses. I thought I would pen some musings for what they’re worth.eu horse

In the course of my research I discovered that the British Horse Industry Confederation (BHIC) published a report which amongst other things stated that in 2008 the annual turnover of the whole industry was over £7 billion. This was an estimate as many figures relating to leisure and sport horses are. It is not even possible to know with any certainty how many horses there are in any European country, research up to now has standard deviations in the region of 60% (!).  This BHIC figure of £7 billion though is about the same size as farming in the United Kingdom and there are 70,000 jobs dependent on it.

The same survey estimated that there are 1m horses in these islands which are the responsibility of about 0.5m people.  About 4.3m people are classified as riders in the UK with just under 50% riding on a monthly basis.  In terms of participation (as opposed to spectator numbers) that is a greater number than those regularly partaking in fishing, cricket and even rugby.

Deloitte accountants alsHorse passporto did some work on behalf of Ladbrokes in 2010 on the gambling industry. The whole sector employs around 100,000 people in this country and that it contributes £6 billion to the economy. The relevance for us is that every year 15% of horseracing’s income is derived from this industry.

These figures are not be sniffed at but one thing I have noticed is that the horse industry is particularly bad at throwing its weight around. With those numbers politicians should be alive to what concerns horse people, many of us are or shortly will be of voting age.  We should be more vocal, even more radical and we definitely should be using our votes, each and every time there is an opportunity. Voter apathy is what will leave horse related issues ignored not active opposition.

So what if we leave the EU or stay in? I wouldn’t seek to sway the blogosphere either way but I would say this.  The arguments from the ‘Leave’ and ‘Stay’ camps are staggeringly poor.  So far all the breathless brexiters can come up with is some sort of call to return to a golden era prior to our membership when apparently we managed our own affairs without interference and perfectly competently.  Presumably the same golden times that produced the economic criteria that lead to our joining the EU in the first place.  There is also a deliberate attempt to confuse the EU with the European human rights apparatus which actually is a completely separate organisation which we wouldn’t be leaving in the same breath anyway.  That seems to be all they have.

In turn the europhiles don’t appear to be able to do more than scare us with talk of migrant camps in Kent instead of Calais and dire warnings about major manufacturers and employers pulling out of the UK if we leave.  There are no concrete figures and no clear indication of how the nation would ever really settle as part of the EU post a winning ‘stay’ vote given the amount of ardent eurosceptics there are in seemingly every walk of life.  How are we ever going to be other than the ‘grumpy grandad at the wedding’ in future dealings with the EU with so many ‘antis’ at home, stoked up by a right wing press and represented by politicians in Brussels whose avowed intention is to wreck the EU?

One thing is for sure neither path is going to be easy.  An exit would be painful and new trade deals will take years to negotiate and may or may not be more to our liking than the current subservient relationships the Swiss, Icelanders and Norwegians have to put up with.  Staying in means years more tension in Brussels and Strasbourg between us and our trading partners.  One other thing is for sure, this is all going to affect the horse industry and associated sectors just as much as it does everyone else.  The only answer is listen to what they all have to say with due skepticism, do your own homework, talk it over with friends and family and cast a vote.  Ignore the whole process and…well…you’ll have to put with whatever happens without complaint….won’t you?

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