Four months on from Operation X: Secrets of the Horse Billionaire

In this article, Giverny Wroe, a senior associate in our sports and insurance disputes team, provides an overview of the action taken by various regulatory bodies following the documentary, Operation X: Secrets of the Horse Billionaire.

Equestrian sport is one of the most unique Olympic sports. Athletes and their equine partners (weighing c.700kg) work as a team to achieve sporting excellence. For the most part, there's incredible friendship and respect between horse and rider. However, there's continuous work to do to combat equine welfare issues which still exist throughout the world, and to ensure that horses competing at the highest levels do so because they enjoy it and that they are fit, healthy and happy throughout their careers as athletes.

In December 2023, there was much controversy in the equestrian world following the release by Danish Commercial Television of Operation X: Secrets of the Horse Billionaire. The documentary showed footage from an undercover reporter, who'd been placed in the world-famous training facility, Helgstrand Dressage in Denmark as a professional groom. The footage alleged to reveal welfare issues which have been investigated by the Federation Equestre Internationale (“FEI”) (the international governing body for equestrian sports) and the Danish Equestrian Federation.  

The consequences have been serious with it being reported in the media that a number of riders were to be investigated and the owner and head of Helgstrand Dressage, Andreas Helgstrand, being excluded from selection for the Danish National Dressage Team until January 2025. This in turn will mean that he won’t have the opportunity to be selected for and compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

While the two-part documentary hasn’t been aired commercially in the UK, clips have been released worldwide on various social media platforms. The clips show employees of Helgstrand Dressage training elite dressage horses from which serious welfare issues have been raised.

The training facility at Helgstrand Dressage is vast. Its website states that it employs 60 staff (including professional grooms and riders) who train 350 horses per day and ride 10,000 horses per month.

Helgstrand has taken remedial action, and it released an interview through its website with Andreas Helgstrand providing details of the steps which the facility has taken to combat the issues raised and ensure that equine welfare is their top priority. However, they aren’t the only ones, and equine welfare is now, rightly so, at the forefront of agendas across a number of the equestrian disciplines.

The FEI issued a statement on the documentary. That statement followed their creation in June 2022 of the “Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission” which it says is:

“An independent body tasked with addressing societal concerns related to the use of horses in sport, and to provide an independent evidence-based ‘framework’ to guide FEI regulations policies and practices in relation to equine welfare and wellbeing”.

British Equestrian also launched the “Charter for the Horse” in March 2024. This is a pledge adopted across all 19 of the British Equestrian member bodies (to include British Dressage, British Eventing and British Showjumping) and is committed to safeguarding the mental and physical wellbeing of horses.

Riders, trainers, governing bodies, and regulators throughout the world will be reflecting on both their training methods and welfare policies. Others have also faced scrutiny following the release of Operation X. For example, the FEI announced in February 2024 that they're investigating former Olympian, Cesar Parra (USA) in respect of welfare concerns and it's clear that regulators will be looking at welfare issues very closely.

Equestrian training facilities (along with other equestrian establishments, governing bodies and providers) should review their existing training and welfare policies and practices. They'll want to ensure that adequate policies, guidance, and supervision are in place to ensure they're adhering to guidance from relevant governing bodies. Ultimately, ensuring that equine welfare is at a high level.

Equestrian insurers, when placing risk, may want to consider the measures which potential insured's have put in place to combat and protect against welfare issues. Claims brought pursuant to welfare issues will likely become more common in the future and they could be very expensive to defend, especially when there are reputational and regulatory issues which will need to be considered alongside. Insurers will likely want to factor that into their assessments when considering proposal forms from brokers and their assessment of risk. Brokers and risk managers will also need to be alive to these issues, especially when recommending steps which insured’s can take to improve their risk profile and when arranging their equestrian insurance.

In our next article, we'll explore the steps which training facilities in England and Wales can take to minimise the risk of welfare issues arising and/ or complaints by owners being made.

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Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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