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The Enemy within our Sport- Bullying in the World of Equestrians

If you have been around the equestrian world for any length of time at all- you have seen or heard it. The snide comment at a show about how “that girl” showed up with used breeches, a less than stellar saddle, or a horse that did not fit the model breed standard. The whispers in the barn aisle when a new boarder arrives, and doesn’t seem to like to gossip or follow the crowd.

Whatever the scenario, we have all witnessed, and maybe even been a part of, bullying in our industry. Sometimes we all laugh and joke about “barn drama” or how “crazy” horse people are. There are a million memes about it and Youtube videos dedicated to it. But behind all the jokes and humor runs a vein of truth, and it’s a problem.

People may think that the word bullying is too strong to use for many of the situations we see in our sport, but is it? Gossiping, negativity, bad sportsmanship, placing a win over all else- aren’t these the stepping stones to bullying and even more serious issues- like harassment and even abuse (mental, emotional, or physical).

There have been 2-3 instances in the news, just in the last week, in the equine community, that have shown that this negative culture is out there. Sexual harassment, a shooting, and a domestic dispute- this is not the rundown of the nightly news in a metropolis. These are the issues we are facing at the highest levels of our sport across all disciplines.

Articles on gossip and bullying in out industry are popping up everywhere. HorseNetwork.com published one yesterday, thehorse.com last week, and Practical Horseman last month.

So, where does this culture we have created come from? I think part of the issue is that our sport is often based around competing, winning, and supporting the individual over the group. There are many aspects of the equine world, especially if you are showing, no matter the discipline, that revolve around “proving yourself”- to judges, to peers, to coaches, to the people investing money in your future. This type of pressure tends to bring out the best traits in some, but often the worst traits in many others.

When you really think about it- I bet any one of us has a dozen examples throughout our riding career of being bullied in some way. I know I do. Starting out my riding career as a lower middle class working student, who rode whatever her trainer allowed, and had hand-me-down show clothes- 100% you bet teenage Lela heard the whispers at the shows.

And when you grow up- it is often worse, not better. Being a professional horseman as a career is NOT easy, no matter what anyone tells you. Finding rides, clients, lessons- it’s all a competition of a sort- even if you are not showing. Limited clientele with disposable income means that there is always a push and pull for trainers to get the “upper hand” and gain those clients in their chosen discipline or riding circle. You are often forced to be the wolf or the sheep. When I think back on my 20s- I probably was often the wolf- just so I did not get eaten alive.

This probably resulted in my unknowing participation in creating this negative culture as well. I was always looking for the win- for myself, my students, my horses. Trying to prove I was good enough to make it in the industry-regardless of my social standing. So, was I friendly and open-hearted to other trainers? Probably not. Did I make comments on how other riders needed to work on their equitation or get their horses “spiffier” for the show? Probably.

In my 30’s, I had an awakening of sorts. I realized I wanted to be more- as a human being, as a horseman, and as a member of my equine community. I tried to drop my guard a little- be less bossy, stop throwing my bravado around like confetti, and stop placing less value on other horseman to feel more valuable myself. I tried to be more open to having positive, meaningful interactions with others in my sport. And as often happens, I found that within my daily equine life- I had myself surrounded by other wolves, they run in packs you know. Only now they thought I was a sheep.

I lived in a perpetual state of anxiety within my equine community for about a year and a half. It took me a while to realize that I was really being bullied and harassed, and even longer to realize that the only thing that could change that was fact was me. I lost confidence, so-called friends, and even changed jobs to get to a place where I felt positive and comfortable in our industry. When I started talking to new, better, more positive peers and mentors- I quickly realized that what happened to me, happens to just about all of us.

Surround yourself with like minded individuals.

So, what do we do about it? I think the first step is to look within ourselves daily and ask one question? AM I BEING THE BEST VERSION OF ME TODAY?

The best version of you is the one who builds others up, not tears them down. The best version of you is one who is friendly to the new girl at the barn, without talking trash about her later behind her back to the other barn girls. The best version of you seeks out others who have the same positive goals, vision, and aspirations for the industry. The best version of you is the one who cheers for her friend when she rides better than you or beats you in the class for the day.

Be around those who inspire and aspire in the same positive way!

Because the truth is that the only way we are going to change this high competitive, individualized industry is TOGETHER. So, go outside your comfort zone, stop doing the things you have always done, and find your “tribe”. Help start a movement towards positive change in our sport. Instead of intimidating others,- try to inspire them. Need help getting started on the journey? Find someone already walking it- we are out there and welcome all who want to join! As a great horseman once said- “Be a part of the solution, not the problem.”

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