I adore horses, I love riding, I love my job within the horse world. I really do, it makes my life whole. I don't think I could be without horses in my life and there are many truly incredible people I've been so fortunate to meet all because of our mutual love of horses... however, the horse world is an incredibly toxic place and growing up in it has forced me to develop a tough skin, but also be incredibly quick to assume the worst in people when their comments can be even remotely construed as something insincere. Why? Because, people are so frequently terrible in the horse world that it really isn't far off to always assume the worst in people. Now with the popularity of social media, it's getting worse. People are holding their peers to a higher level of accountability than the top level professionals of the industry. If a junior/amateur rider posts a video where they miss a distance, where their leg slips back or where something imperfect happens, as it regularly would in schooling, they are torn apart. Now, if the same thing happens with a professional where their equitation sways from what is considered the acceptable "norm", people more often than not pull the "they're a professional, that is just their style and clearly it's working for them." While that may be true, I'm certain that odd equitation styles develop long before a rider becomes a winning professional at the pinnacle of the sport, they don't just randomly decide to start riding differently after hitting a certain level of prestige.
So, when did we become so resistant to critique professionals but so willing to absolutely tear apart lower level riders for every little thing? In doing so, we're creating a world where it's unacceptable to still be learning. This means that people are encouraged to lie about the reality of their riding journey or hide it completely in order to avoid the hostility of other riders. In all honesty, it's completely and utterly ridiculous. Above anyone, the top level riders who essentially run the sport should be the ones who are subject to most critique. This doesn't mean we should be petty and constantly nitpicking riders who are effective just because they don't look like they're ready to step into an equitation ring and win, it means that we should be more critical of the lapses in correct and ethical horsemanship of people who are the most likely to get away with it. Turning focus away from people who largely ride for pleasure or are in training with experienced professionals that help guide them in the right direction and directing it towards those who set an example for everyone within the horse world is a shift that we need to see. Or, direct your anger towards those who are actually abusing and neglecting their animals. There are tons of horses out there in need of homes. Why not use your voice to rally for their well being instead of ragging on Sally Sue for missing a lead change?
The malice in the horse world has become a disease. I am embarrassed to say that I'm apart of a world that is in so many ways, completely unwelcoming. People no longer even know the meaning of constructive criticism anymore. They instead try to write off their words, which are more often than not dripping with condescension or full of profanities, as being helpful. I'm certain that deep down, people must not be so ignorant. They've got to know exactly what they're doing. If you're truly invested in helping someone, you should not be going out of your way to make them feel small or make them feel embarrassed in front of a crowd. Now, with that said, even in the case of constructive criticism, why is it that people online think that sharing photos or videos is an automatic invitation for critique? Would you walk up to someone at a show, while they're being trained and start talking over top of their trainer, entirely unsolicited? Would you comment on a friend's profile picture and start tearing apart what you don't like about their makeup? I highly doubt that. These sort of basic social graces should extend to being online. Many of the riders we see and follow on social media are in programs with highly experienced trainers. I find it terribly unlikely that there are so many junior and amateur riders out there who have such good eyes that they can point out things from short, edited videos that trainers are unable to find in hours of unedited, unfiltered training. If that is the case, then we have a mighty talented generation who need to capitalize on "internet training" because clearly people are wasting their time on "in person" training... But... I doubt that. Another issue with this sort of presumptuous critique is that there's no way to really screen people to see if they're qualified to be advising other riders in the first place, especially when it's unsolicited. At least when people solicit advice online, there's some sort of back story. But, without that, we often have hoards of unqualified people feeding potentially dangerous advice to impressionable people. It's an accident waiting to happen.
We all enable this type of thinking. We all enable people to be nasty, we do so by shrugging it off and being like "oh, that's the horse world for you, horse people are crazy!" Yes, we are crazy for getting on dangerous flight animals, but we don't need to be bitches to each other. We don't need to be in constant competition with each other and trying to tear each other down even outside of horse shows. We need to take a stand and denounce this type of behaviour. We need to have higher expectations when it comes to sportsmanship and common human decency. If someone is old enough to use a computer or use their phone or converse with other riders around the barn, they're old enough to learn some semblance of respect. If you're a parent, keep an eye on your child. Bullying is all too common in barns, especially ones with lesson strings filled with youth. Make sure they're not a victim. Make sure they're not participating. If you're someone who utilizes social media frequently, take a stand when you see people being unnecessarily terrible. Use your voice for good.
I guess what I'm saying is that until the horse world truly becomes a place where people can feel safe in honestly portraying their journey and all of the hardships that come with learning all of the ins and outs of riding and training unpredictable flight animals, there is no easy way for people to honestly be able to offer helpful, unsolicited critique. The environment we've created online in particular is so hostile that people are often quick to jump to the defense, myself included. But, in a world where people make you feel like an absolute failure for making mistakes even the best of the best made at some time and in some cases, still make on occasion, it's hard to see the best in people. It makes me sad and so very tired. I'm tired of feeling anxious every time I see I got a comment. Tired of feeling sick to my stomach when I know I'm being more "honest" than most when choosing clips to share of my horse's most recent schooling. But most of all, I'm tired of being contacted by people so much younger than myself and with so much to offer, who are more tired than me. So tired, in fact, that much of them end up leaving the horse world all together because of how nasty people have been to them. So tired that they may be afraid to go to the barn if they haven't quit yet. Afraid to share their riding photos and videos online even though they desperately want to. Afraid to participate in what should be an inclusive environment of like minded people but what is really like a game of Russian roulette, trying to weed out the good people from the absolutely mean spirited and toxic ones.
The amount of mentally ill horseback riders may surprise you. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders... All of these are far too common in the horse world. Even coaches push people to developing such disorders by having ridiculous expectations in terms of weight as well as being allowed to be far too mean to their students because, apparently, that's just what the horse world is like. Harsh. Social graces go out the window because we allow each other to have no self control. We allow people to be terrible. We are all responsible. You never know what struggles someone is dealing outside of horseback riding. We place such a huge focus on something that in reality doesn't matter anywhere near as much as being a good person. Your value isn't created by how many ribbons you win or how your equitation looks, how many cute riding outfits you have... No one really cares about these things except for people who are so caught up in the horse world that they neglect to realize being a good person trumps all. Your riding prowess isn't going to win the hearts of people who don't give a damn about the equestrian world. Your personality and kindness is. This isn't to say that horses aren't a lifelong passion, because they totally are.. It's just to say that there's more important things to focus on and we get far too caught up in it all. It's time to take a step back and remember how what we do effects others. It's time to start working towards creating a more inclusive environment for everyone, from beginner to advanced.