Riding Schools as Future Learning Centers for an Environmentally Just Equine Sector and Broader Society

Susanna Hedenborg1, Petra Andersson2, Simon Beames3,
Aage Radmann3 & Gabriella Torell Palmquist4
1 Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University; 2 Swedish University for
Agricultural Sciences; 3 Norwegian School of Sports Science; 4 Karlstad University


In media, agents within the equine sector have been cast as potential threats to the environment, rather than as carriers of solutions (Svt 2020 & 2021, Miljö & utveckling, 2017). We want to change this: a sector that better understands itself will be more effectively positioned to transform itself into a positive force for enduring pro-environmental change. While the equine sector in Sweden and Norway provides leisure activities, entertainment and employment for many people of all ages, these come with associated negative effects. In a new book by the journalist Arne Müller (2021), the equine sector is cast as a ‘climate villain’ that emits more carbon dioxide than domestic aviation. Müller concludes that while research is scarce, feed and transport are serious threats to the environment. Similar conclusions are found in other studies on the environmental impact caused by the equine sector, which show how nutrient leakage from manure piles, paddocks and pastures is a major problem, alongside the aforementioned issues of feed and transport (Blomberg & Välimaa, 2016).

Responding to Müller’s book, several voices from the equine sector have emphasized that the sector is aware of the challenges and that work to counteract the environmental impact of the sector has begun and is ongoing. There are, for example, booklets on horses and sustainable development which were published to inform and inspire stakeholders in the equine sector (Hästen och hållbar utveckling, 2021; Hesten som resurs – Lokal næringsutvikling, 2018); policy documents; and local recommendations concerning the handling of stables from an environmental perspective. Little, however, is known about how recommendations and policies are operationalized in practice, and there is a need for studies to concentrate specifically on evaluating strategies used to implement pro-environmental changes in daily work at stables.

As demonstrated by environmentalists in other fields, sector-wide transformations are challenging (Steyaert & Jiggins, 2007). This is chiefly because knowledge about environmental impact is not enough, it must be combined with motivation for change and action.

Current knowledge position

In many sport management studies on the environmental effects of events, mega events have been the principal focus (McCullough, 2017). There are few Scandinavian studies regarding environmental justice, and it is likely that the Scandinavian sport model, which heavily features membership organizations and voluntary work, presents other ways of handling environmental challenges when compared with the more studied Anglo-Saxon sport model. In addition, there are large knowledge gaps related to understanding behaviour and attitudes regarding environmental issues in the sport sector, and how the decision-making processes of individuals and collective actors in sport take place (cf. Mistra Background Paper, 2018). Previous research on the equine sector has studied how keeping horses can negatively impact the environment. The nutrient leakage (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus) from manure piles, paddocks and pastures has been of particularly high interest (e.g., Masud Parvage, 2015; Keskinen et al., 2015).

There are also several studies describing rapid and ongoing changes in landscape use, especially in peri-urban areas in Sweden and all middle to high income countries, where many small farms have closed due to structural changes in agriculture and are now used for equestrianism instead (Elgåker & Wilton, 2008; Elgåker, 2010; Elgåker et al., 2010). These changes in land use have given rise to several unforeseen conflicts and culture clashes (Elgåker, 2011). Municipalities reacted slowly to these developments, and their documents and policies arguably reflect reactions rather than strategies (Svala, 2006), such as how to handle horses close to people, with regard to allergens and ski tracks. In other words, horses have been seen as a problem in the neighbourhood that must be solved by the horse community, rather than as an asset that can benefit all. An exception is Palmgren (2007) who studied the horse as ‘landscape caretaker’, in terms of how grazing and deworming agents positively affect local biodiversity. There is a dearth of rigorous scientific knowledge reporting on how agents within the sector perceive challenges and solutions in relation to environmental policies and local practices. Svala (2008) shows that there is low interest in sustainable development among the horse community and a general scepticism towards “organic stuff”.

As the research referred to was conducted more than a decade ago, values, perceptions and ideas on environmental issues may have changed, and it is quite possible that there are generational differences in how challenges and solutions in relation to a sustainable development are identified. These generational differences will be further studied in our project. As example, an unpublished Swedish study conducted by the Swedish Equestrian Federation, together with Ungdomsbarometern, highlights how young equestrians claim they are interested in sustainability and behave in a more environmentally friendly way than the average young person. Findings show that they try to live a life that is environmentally and animal friendly and identify themselves as interested in the outdoors, and as feminists and anti-racists as well. In addition, however, they are more stressed than other young people. Although we believe that young people’s interests in a sustainable future is essential for changing the sector, we acknowledge that these issues are also a source of stress and worry for young people. Therefore, the project aspires to create transformative learning environments within the riding schools, where the burden of transforming the sector is shared amongst the community, rather than resting solely on young people’s shoulders.

Findings show that they try to live a life that is environmentally and animal friendly and identify themselves as interested in the outdoors, and as feminists and anti-racists as well. In addition, however, they are more stressed than other young people.

In a pilot study from the Mistra Sport and Outdoors project, data was gathered from websites and conducted interviews with representatives from several Swedish sport federations. The data demonstrated that the Swedish Equestrian Federation has come further than other sports federations in their work on environmental issues in relation to strategic plans and policy. There remain, however, two principal knowledge gaps in relation to how agents in the sector have handled the environmental challenges: how recommendations and policies are operationalized in practice; and which strategies have been, and are being, used to implement pro-environmental changes in daily work at stable yards in Sweden and Norway.

Based on the knowledge gaps identified above, our objectives of the project are:

      • Identify the challenges and obstacles associated with creating a more environmentally just equine sector in Sweden and Norway.
      • Develop sustainable solutions to the identified challenges for equine sector in Sweden and Norway.
      • Design effective educational tools that will foster an enduring transformation towards a more pro-environmental equine sector.

Theoretical framework

The project will initially be informed by two framing theoretical perspectives: institutional economic theory and directional transformation. Institutional economic theory can explain continuity, and hence friction towards change (North, 1990; Magnusson & Ottoson, 1997; Pierson, 2000). Institutions consist of formal and informal norms, and in this project, we will investigate how institutions foster and hinder pre-environmental transformations. In addition, we study how norms are connected to social positions, such as gender, generation and social class (cf., De Los Reyes & Mulinari, 2005).

Altering institutional arrangements, both formal and informal ones, can be expensive – not least because devising new institutional solutions requires time and energy. Also, in contrast to technological innovations, oftentimes such alterations do not generate increased income. It is therefore crucial to identify these various costs in order to develop alternative strategies for development.

Directional transformation is a normative and prescriptive perspective. Our project is based on the assumption that environmental sustainability is both urgent and necessary. In that way our study stands in contrast to traditional Earth system research, in which studies are mainly descriptive and analytical (European Environment Agency, 2018). Scoones et al (2020) have problematized the narrow framing of environmental issues by natural scientists and call for a shift from top-down modes of change informed by expert knowledge to activities from below. Others have suggested that for broader societal shifts to low carbon living to occur, transformations are needed in the way knowledge is produced and used. There are ethical dimensions as well. Franks, Hanscomb & Johnston (2018) highlight connections between the environmental crisis, ethics, and the potential for change that can come out of increased ethical awareness. In the project, we will take a practical approach to environmental ethics, focusing on its transformative potential.


The theoretical frame directional transformations informs our methodology and the collaborative approach to understanding pro-environmental action in the equine sector (cf. Scoones et al., 2015; Fazey et al., 2018). In addition, the methodology draws from experiential learning theory (eg. Kolb & Kolb, 2008), transformative learning theory (Moore, 2005) and inquiry-based learning (eg. Torbert, 2004). Representatives from riding schools, national equestrian federations and higher education institutions in the equine sector will be collaborative partners, as their attitudes, decisions, and actions have a far reach. As such, they can be regarded as key actors and role models in transmitting knowledge and good practices. In the project we will, in collaboration with these partners, identify, study and evaluate the various ways that environmental challenges and solutions are perceived and worked with in practice, while developing educational tools designed with the principal aim of transforming the sector through reaching and influencing a high number of riders of all ages who attend the riding schools.

Our point of departure is that knowledge cannot simply be produced and communicated to stakeholders; in order to transform practice, research needs to be co-designed and co-produced between all stakeholders in the research process.

We aspire to shape practices that can be used in riding schools through influencing riding instructors’ and stable managers’ pro-environmental knowledge and by developing strategies and practices in the riding schools.

A model drawing on the literature surrounding ‘wicked problems’ is used (Westin et al., 2016; Rittel & Webber, 1973; Ritchey, 2011; Ison, 2017). The model features elements that are complex, intertwined, moving, and not entirely known or understood. A wicked problem in the equine sector may be, for example, attaining social and economic sustainability while reaching environmental sustainability goals. Another wicked problem may be the potential of risking social licence to operate if the sector becomes associated with negative environmental impacts (cf., Heleski, et al., 2020). Addressing wicked problems cannot be undertaken singlehandedly by policy instruments, new technology or economic incentives. Neither can governance responsibility be shouldered by one organization or one discipline. For the development of effective and efficient governance, dynamic interactions between academia, civil society authorities and business are essential (Steyaert & Jiggins, 2007). The chosen methodology enables transformative change through a simultaneous process of practice in the field and generating data. These are linked together through a process of cyclical, critical reflection. The project includes three phases: planning, transformation and output. In the planning stage (phase 1), a preliminary diagnosis is defined, data is gathered, the results are critically examined, and actions are planned together by researchers and partners. In phase 2, a learning process between researchers and partners is initiated; here, planning continues alongside action steps being taken. Phase 3 features changes in behaviour, data gathering and the development of measurements. In our project, we have already identified collaborative partners in the National Equestrian Federations and the higher education institutions in the equine sector and have gathered some initial data.

In phase 1 (year 1 of the project), additional collaborative partners in the riding schools will be identified and further data will be gathered with support from the partners, such as:

      • Documents: Policies and steering documents from the National Equestrian Federations (NEF) and the National Equestrians Centers (NEC); curricula and syllabi from educational institutions within the equine sector.
      • Survey: A survey with questions regarding environmental challenges and opportunities will be sent to riding schools in Sweden and Norway, registered by the Swedish Equestrian Federation and riding schools registered on www.rideskoler.no in Norway. Questions for the survey will be formulated by researchers and collaborative partners.
      • Interviews: 10 semi-structured focus group interviews with 3–5 people, and 10–15 individual interviews, in each country will be conducted with stakeholders identified by scientists and collaborative partners. Participants will include teachers at the NECs, riding school managers and youth section representatives. Questions for the interviews will be drafted by researchers and collaborative partners.
      • Participant observations will be conducted at riding schools, federations and institutions for higher education in Sweden and Norway. Sites will be identified by, and data collected by, scientists and collaborative partners.

The data will be analysed in workshops and learning groups, together with the partners. In addition, innovation workshops, trying out novel educational tools and practices, and identifying test-beds will be carried out at the NECs, the NEFs and two riding schools (one in Norway and one in Sweden). This form of practitioner inquiry (see Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; 2009) has been successfully adopted in a recent study by Beames and colleagues (forthcoming), who showed how it is possible to conduct sustainability research on one’s own community of practice. Through reviews of product websites and grey literature, and through recorded and analysed debates within the staff team, the group arrived at five key considerations for making sustainable clothing purchases that are both nature- and human-friendly. Practitioner inquiry can be undertaken by stakeholders in riding schools, as a concrete way of arriving at, and adopting, viable and personally meaningful pro-environmental behaviour amongst individuals and communities.

We aspire to shape practices that can be used in riding schools through influencing riding instructors’ and stable managers’ pro-environmental knowledge and by developing strategies and practices in the riding schools. We have identified riding schools as important in the implementation process as their activities reach many people of all ages. Interviews and participant observations will be conducted again in phase 2 to capture the formal and informal ways in which institutions may alter their environmental policies and practices; continuous critical examination of the process will be used as feedback. Phase 3 features an evaluation of the actions and, if successful, reinforcing these actions will be suggested as a means of fostering and sustaining enduring pro-environmental change within the equine sector.

Copyright © Susanna Hedenborg, Petra Andersson, Simon Beames,
Aage Radmann & Gabriella Torell Palmquist 2022


Beames, S., Høyem, J., van Kraalingen, I., Eriksen, J., Vold, T., Abelsen, K., Rosenberg, A. & Augestad, T. (in review). The jacket: Making sustainable clothing choices in outdoor education. The Canadian Journal of Environmental Education.
Blomberg, J. & Välimaa, C. (2016). Hästen och hållbar utveckling. Hur kan hästen bli en planetskötare? Stockholm: Svenska Ridsportförbundet, ZeroMission. <https://hastnaringen.se/app/uploads/2021/01/hasten-och-hallbar-utveckling.pdf>
Caney, Simon, “Climate Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/justice-climate/>.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (Eds.). (1993). Inside/outside: Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.
De los Reyes, P. & Mulinari, D. 2005. Intersektionalitet: Kritiska reflektioner över (o)jämlikhetens landskap. Malmö: Liber.
Elgåker H. & Wilton B. (2008). Horse farms as a factor for development and innovation in the urban-rural fringe with examples from Europe and Northern America. 10th annual conference, Nordic Scottish University for Rural and Regional Development, Vejle, Denmark, 2007 03 08-2007 03 10. In: Innovation systems and rural development, 43-55.
Elgåker, H. (2010). “The new equine sector and its influence on multifunctional land use in peri-urban areas”. GeoJournal. DOI:10.1007/s10708-010-9398-y.
Elgåker, H., Pinzke, S., Lindholm, G. & Nilsson, C. (2010). Horse keeping in urban and peri-urban areas – New conditions for physical planning in Sweden. Geografisk Tidskrift – Danish Journal of Geography, 110(1), 81-98.
Elgåker, H., (2011), The new equine sector and its influence on multifunctional land use in peri-urban areas, GeoJournal(2012) 77:591–613.
European Environment Agency (2018). Perspectives on transitions to sustainability. EEA Report No 25/2017. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/perspectives-on-transitions-to-sustainability/file
Fazey, I. et al. (2018). Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research. Energy Research & Social Science, 40, 54–70.
Franks, B, Hanscomb, S & Johnston, S.F. (2017) Environmental Ethics and Behavioural Change. Routledge: London.
Heleski, C, et al (2020), “Thoroughbred Racehorse Welfare through the Lens of ‘Social License to Operate—With an Emphasis on a U.S. Perspective”, Sustainability, Vol 12, Iss 5.
Ison, R. (2017). Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World. London: Springer.
Keskinen, R. et al. (2015). “Recycling nutrients from horse manure: effects of bedding type and its compostability”, Agricultural and Food Science No:26(2), 68-79.
Kolb, A.Y. & Kolb, D.A. (2008). Experiential Learning Theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education, and development. In Armstrong, S.J. & Funkami, C. (eds.): Handbook of Management Learning Education and Development (pp. 42-68). London: Sage Publications.
Magnusson, L. & Ottoson, J. (1997). Evolutionary Economics and Path Dependence, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
Masud Parvage, M. (2015). Impact of Horse-keeping on Phosphorus (P) Concentrations in Soil and Water. Uppsala: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
McCullough, B. et al. (2017), Routledge Handbook of Sport and the Environment. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Hedlund, Monica (2017) ”Hästhagar är ett dolt miljöhot” Miljö & Utveckling <https://miljo-utveckling.se/hasthagar-ar-ett-dolt-miljohot/> (publicerad 2017- 01-12).
Moore, J. (2005). Is Higher Education Ready for Transformative Learning? A Question Explored in the Study of Sustainability. Journal of Transformative Education, 3(1), 76–91.
Müller, A. & Kireeva, A. (2021). KliMat – på jakt efter den hållbara maten. Skellefteå: Ord&Visor förlag.
North, D. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Palmgren Karlsson, C. (2007). Hästen – landskapsvårdare eller marodör? Slutrapport till Stiftelsen Svensk Hästforskning, Stockholm: Stiftelsen hästforrskning.
Pierson, P. (2000). Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics. The American Political Science Review, 94(2), 251-267.
Ritchey, T. (2011). Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision Support Modelling with Morphological Analysis. Berlin: Springer
Rittel, H.W.J. & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.
Sandford, G.N. et al. (2021). Ozone pollution: a ‘hidden’ environmental layer for athletes preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics & Paralympics. British journal of sports medicine, 55 (4), 189-190.
Scoones, I., Leach, M. & Newell, P. (2015). The politics of green transformations. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Scoones, I. et al. (2020) Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 42, 65–75.
Steyaert, P. & Jiggins, J. (2007). Governance of complex environmental situations through social learning: a synthesis of SLIM’s lessons for research, policy and practice. Environmental Science & Policy, 10, 575-586.
Svala, C (2006), Sammanställning av kunskap från studenternas arbeten i kursen Hästen, samhället och planeringen, unpublished, SLU Alnarp.
Svala, C (2008), Hur hålls hästarna i Sverige och vilka är motiven. Projektrapport. Alnarp: Sveriges Lantbruksuniversitet.
”Hästgödsel anses vara en oreglerad miljöbov” (2020). SvT Nyheter Småland <https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/smaland/hastgodsel-anses-vara-en-oreglerad-miljobov> (publicerad 2020-09-21).
”Hästbranschen påverkar klimatet mer än inrikesflyget” (2021) SvT Nyheter Västerbotten<https://www.svt.se/nyheter/lokalt/vasterbotten/hastar-ett-forbisett-klimatproblem> (publicerad 2021-05-04).
Torbert, B. (2004). Action Inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Westin, M., Calderon, C. & Hellquist, A. (2016). Att leda samverkan – en handbok för dig som vill hantera komplexa samhällsutmaningar. Visby: Swedish International Centre of Education for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University – Campus Gotland.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.