There has been an abundance of posts circulating through Social Media lately regarding bullying (of all forms) in the Equestrian industry. These posts have included everything such as identifying and ignoring the so called “trolls”, to making a positive statement about staying true to yourself regardless of if you’re considered Plus Size, severely underweight, have feathers in your hair or anything else that you feel makes you, you. Like everyone else in the world, I have negative thoughts both about myself and others from time to time, but I wanted to talk about how we can make changes to our behavior to change the stigma that circles our sport.
Like most, I have actively participated in the vicious circles of catty people talking about other people’s choices, ignorance or differences. I’ve gained entertainment from the failure or unfortunate choices of others and while you may be turning your nose up I would be truly shocked if you haven’t as I literally can't say I don't know ONE person who hasn't said something negative about themselves or someone else int heir life. Using a recent example from my life that was made from one friend to another (directly) with only the most hysterically supportive of intentions, a die-hard Hunter friend (and truly good person) who we will call Friend 1 told Friend 2, who we often joke as being the “tacky barrel racers of the English world”, that she would rather jump into a shark-infested pool than be seen wearing Friend 2’s new SILVER breeches. Now, because we are all friends we know it’s just harmless fun (positive connotation) and no one is butthurt over it, but it is the perfect example of a simple difference of opinion and how, in less friendly circumstances, it can lead to bullying (negative connotation) - unwarranted negative comments or criticism.
Looking back to the most memorable moments of bullying that I was present for, the root of all topics were either A: Difference of Opinion, or B: Poor Training. Difference of Opinion is straight forward but it is also one of the most absolutely ridiculous reasons to bully someone. It’s easy to get caught up in the conversation, but when you sit back and think about how idiotic you sound because you didn’t like someone’s choice of show coat, saddle pad, or how they rode that turn to the tricky fence on course, you are very quickly humbled. Difference of Opinion really encompasses nearly everything else that isn’t relative to Poor Training when you think about it – Don’t like their coach? Difference of Opinion. Don’t think their horse is as nice as they do? Difference of Opinion. Think it’s ridiculous they’re doing one level/height than another? Difference of Opinion. I could go on with examples, but the reality is – are you anymore right than them? After all, if your opinion is different than theirs, theirs is obviously different than yours, but guess what? Neither of you are necessarily wrong. Chew on that for a minute.
The second most common reason for bullying is Poor Training (of the horse and/or rider) and/or ignorance from the bullies. Pieces of this could be lumped into the Difference of Opinion theory, but some other parts don’t exactly fit. Using myself as an example, many of you know I recently blogged about a very poor outing for my horse and I. I haven’t shown in years, and most people recognize me as the Show Manager, but rarely recognize me on a horse. When I was warming up for my classes, my mare was going quite lovely and I rode down a rail where several horses were tied as their owners prepared for their upcoming classes. As I trotted down the rail, I overheard two girls chatting. I’ll save you the he-said-she-said, but one girl said to the other “#14? I don't know I’ve never seen her before!” and the other quickly replied with “Her horse is really cute!”. I didn’t look over to see the girls, so I can’t say who it was but I could have got off and hugged them. It was nice to be both recognized, yet not recognized. It made me feel good – my winter training was paying off, and we were going to kill this first show together! Every time I rode past after that I didn’t hear any relative comments, but as time progressed things quickly went down hill and things fell apart with my mare and I. By the third class, Sierra was so tense she would barely go forward and her trot resembled the needle on a sewing machine, I’m sure. On one of my many trips down the same rail in my final 3 classes, suddenly the conversation changed. Now I heard comments including “I take it back, I don’t like that horse.”, “She needs to put her leg on, her horse isn’t forward enough”, “That horse looks nuts!” “Wait, isn’t that the same horse that was at the jumping clinic and bucked that lady off twice?”, “She needs to let her reins out” and “She should have stayed home, that she shouldn’t be at a show”… and those were just what I heard as I rode past so I’m sure there was more when I was out of earshot. I was gutted. Not only was my horse being a turkey by now and I was trying my best to ride thru it with poise, understanding and suppleness, my hope of changing peoples opinion of her after that infamous October Jumping clinic was out the window and I was being judged negatively for my (in)ability to navigate her thru these newly discovered waters as she had never been like this with me. While standing in the line up for the second to last class, I whispered to a friend “I’m trying not to be disappointed”, but as I sat there and clapped for my fellow riders as they received their placings, I was devastated. At that time, the judge came up to me and genuinely congratulated me on my ability to ride so tactfully through the sticky bits, and I chose to focus on that rather than let the negative rail birds ruin my day and how I felt about my horse; I rode my final class and got off once again ribbonless, but alas with a smile on my face.
The point of this personal story is that I was bullied and those choosing to throw such shade didn’t know anything about me or my horse (other than that she was the ‘crazy one’ at the clinic in October when I lent her to a friend). They had no background information, they have never seen me ride before, they weren’t aware of any of our accomplishments of which I am proud of, and they didn’t even venture to guess why things began circling the drain as the day went on – they instantly assumed it was because of something I was doing wrong or just simply that my horse is a piece of trash who should remain hidden behind the barn. Many times we get stuck judging a book by its cover without investigating the contents - that's human nature - but it's also cruel and unfair.
While my intent with this example isn't to respond to the comments that I overheard, I can personally say while chatting in the line up with my friend we had a brief conversation on what I could be doing wrong to encourage my mare to become so tense. Anyone who knows me knows I’m the first one to blame myself but this is the first circumstance in my life where even a week later, I truly don’t feel like I did anything wrong, rode any moment poorly, or changed anything to frazzle her, but the rail birds don’t know that. I really believe my horse was just ‘done’ and was being very clear with me about it, but someone leaning on a rail with no history or information might not recognize that and just like the Difference of Opinion, this leads to bullying.
There are all types of bullies – there are polite bullies who word things jokingly or ‘in passing’ with a smile, the two faced bullies who are supportive to your face and rude behind your back, the open bully who will rudely tell you off directly to your face, and more but it’s important to remember that bullying isn’t necessarily what you say – it’s HOW , WHEN and WHO you say it to.
All negative comments can be matched with a positive one. As a demographic, we are naturally inclined to focus on the bad moments in life and overlook the great ones. You may learn more from the bad moments, but dwelling on them and allowing them to fester inside you is detrimental to your well being and in turn, you’re bullying yourself (yes, that’s a thing). There is a lot to be said for miserable people making people miserable, and your outlook on life starts with how you treat yourself. For example, instead of telling yourself “gah! We chipped fence #1 because I didn’t see the distance, its my fault!” you could tell yourself “I’m going to work on seeing distances to single fences, but did you see us nail fence #6?!”. You’re still acknowledging your short falls, but following it by a positive thing that makes you feel good. Due to this way of thinking, instead of focusing on the negative comments that floated from the rail as I rode past or tearing myself apart over what I did wrong, I said “heck yeah this judge is right, I DID ride her well and didn’t let it get me rattled!”
I am actively working on refraining from vomiting negative comments when I have a Difference of Opinion or spot Poor Training and I know it’s a work in progress, but if even 50% of the naysaying opportunists adopt a similar mindset, we will be that much closer to dissolving the stigmatism that has been suffocating our sport since the dinosaurs. At the end of the day, worry less about others and more about yourself - but treat yourself and others with the same positively supportive kindness you hope others will treat you with. To see a positive change, you must be willing to make the necessary positive changes within yourself.