Equestrianism is a sport unlike any other, one requires people not only to be able to work with other people of varying genders and all different age categories, but also with animals with a mind of their own who at times can be exceptionally dangerous. As such, being an equestrian requires an incredibly unique skill set in comparison to other sports as well as all of the patience in the world. Other athletes have to worry about themselves mainly, team mates second and for the most part, only really have to focus on their own health and soundness. Equestrians are focused on keeping themselves out of harms way along with a 1,200lb animal that happens to have an affinity for trying to kill itself in the most unique way possible.
The horse world is also very unforgiving, with a million different opinions, many different “right” ways to do things and a whole bunch of exceptionally proud people who often want to have the last word, even if it is in relation to someone who has absolutely nothing to do with them or their life. This means from a young age, equestrians are subject to harsh criticisms and stringent training styles along with the unsolicited opinions of their peers. This creates a fairly hostile learning environment with ever present learning barriers that test the willpower and self confidence of up and coming riders. So, how does one become great in the horse world? How do you know if you are on the pursuit of greatness in your riding career? What constitutes a “good” rider?
The first thing I want to touch on is peer influence in the equine world, especially with the growing popularity of social media and specifically, the equestrian niche online. The online horse world is an exceptional learning environment in a lot of ways. It offers easy to access information for people who are motivated to learn, with everything from studies to tutorials on things such as wrapping legs, basic first aid or even many different aspects related to riding theory. The problem arises when people are unable to weed out fact from fiction and when other equestrians present opinion as fact, often times poisoning impressionable minds and leading them to believe that certain extremist beliefs are “fact” in the horse world or just outright endangering people when training advice that is not applicable to the rider or horse at hand is offered. This is the downfall of social media, the sheer number of people putting out information or offer unsolicited (or in some cases, solicited) advice who are not qualified to be doing so. So, how do you avoid this? The first thing to keep in mind is that on personal social platforms, anything can be said. There are no rules for submission when people are posting to their own Instagrams or Facebooks. They can say anything they want and they can make it sound real. This is why it is so important to utilize credible sources to fact check information before blindly running with it. Some notable sources for credible horse information would be websites such as The Horse, which offers numerous horse related articles on all sorts of different topics. As far as online training advice goes, my personal recommendation would be to seek the foundation of your riding education from credible sources in person. People who you can screen and ensure that they have the knowledge that they claim to and people who can actually see you ride in person and make recommendations based upon that. No one online can watch a 1 minute Instagram video and give you the same guidance that you get in a 30 minute lesson. No one. If you’re motivated to improve, the single best way to do so is by taking lessons with quality trainers who care about your growth as a rider, this is not something you will be able to realistically find on a strictly online basis.
The second problem related to peer influence online is the negative commentary. This can range anywhere from the occasional snide comment to full on cyber bullying. People online often have unsavory intentions and although they may try to make it come off as otherwise, there are a lot of nasty people in the world that try to hurt people for their own entertainment or in an attempt to make themselves feel better. For example, when my horse was injured last winter, I shared this information online. Not for advice, but just for a fact of the matter “this is what is going on” type deal to allow people to know why I was no longer riding him at the time. Unfortunately, such sharing was met with numerous anonymous messages telling me how my horse was “Done for” , “never going to be able to jump again” and that I could “Say goodbye to his riding career.” Messages such as these came through in spite of my vet’s assurance that my horse’s prognosis was a full return to work provided his rest and rehab went well. While these messages irritated me, I personally have full faith in my vet and his ability to assess my horse. Unfortunately, many younger and more impressionable minds feel less that way and comments like that heavily influence the way they feel about their decisions about their horses. Even more so when such comments are in relation to their riding, picking out flaws and simply focusing on the negatives. This leads to self doubt, embarrassment and feelings of inadequacy. Sadly, many equestrians both young and old avoid sharing their riding online even if they may like to, in fear of the criticism from strangers.
So, how do you combat such negativity? How do you grow a thicker skin? I’m sad to say that even if you ignore the comments and move on with your life, there will still likely be times where your feelings are hurt. Unfortunately, that’s life. However, there are some mantras that you can remember to help remind yourself that the opinions of strangers you do not know or care about are insignificant. If someone comments to insult your riding while you are actively working to improve yourself, realistically, how does that change anything? If you are actively taking lessons and doing everything you can to work on yourself and your horse, you are doing everything you can to better yourself as a rider. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Even the top professionals have bad rides, bad days and flaws in their riding that they are working on. The difference is that being focused and motivated to better yourself is productive, whereas targeting other people online to spread negativity is not. Pride yourself in your productivity and focus on things that matter and constantly remind yourself that those trying to tear you down are coming from a place of inadequacy. Noticing flaws in other people’s riding is a fairly normal thing to do and in a lot of ways, it can be educational to watch other riders and pick out the good and bad, however, going out of the way to publicly point out and ridicule the flaws in other people’s riding is definitively not a normal thing to do. As equestrians, it is important that we remind ourselves of our self worth and pride ourselves in the smallest of improvements. Similarly, it is important that when we are feeling down, we make an effort not to take out our frustrations on other riders. The best riders in the world do not waste their time picking on people who are beneath them skill wise, they set an example as role models and work on motivating people to get to their level. So, for this reason, you can assure yourself that anyone going out of their way to pick on you has a long way to go in their personal growth, may it be riding wise or attitude wise, both are so important in the horse world. Also, at the end of the day, who you are as a person will always come before how good your equitation looks or how advanced of a rider you are. Practicing good horsemanship and sportsmanship is so much more important than anything else.
Unfortunately, in certain cases, toxic behaviour can come from those in charge, such as trainers or barn owners. In these cases, it is really important as a rider to remember that you are paying for the instruction that you get and that you are paying to attend a specific barn. If you find yourself getting exceptionally anxious prior to going to the barn or your passion for horses leaving you because of a specific person in the barn, it may be time to re-evaluate whether or not it is the barn for you. Riding is supposed to be fun, though things can get tough at times and it can be hard work, at the end of the day your trainers and the people at the barn should be your support group, your cheerleaders. If the barn has come a toxic place to go instead of a safe haven, a change is in order. In the event of bullying at the barn from your peers, speaking to your barn owner or trainer is often the best move, along with your parents if you are underage. Most barns adopt zero tolerance policies when it comes to bullying and will not accept this behaviour from their students. Now, if the toxicity is coming from a trainer and/or owner of the barn, it is a little trickier. Once again, if you are a minor, my recommendation would be to go to your parents first and tell them what is going on. Be very honest and transparent about your feelings, don’t hide anything. If you find your parents brush it off, try to sit down with them and talk to them about how passionate you are about riding and why the problems at the barn are affecting you so much. The best trainer for you is the one that matches your personality and pushes you to be a better rider, if a trainer is leaving you demoralized and frantic, you probably are not in the best mind space to learn and grow, so for that reason, there would probably be a better training style for you.
Working to better yourself as a rider is a lifelong journey. You will literally never stop learning new and different ways to do things. There are so many different sections of the horse world, all of which have something to offer to you learning wise. The only way to become great in the horse world is to apply yourself, seek knowledge and stay motivated. True greatness can only be achieved when the rider embodies the crucial aspects of good horsemanship and good sportsmanship, both of which are centered around the kind and ethical treatment of both horses and humans. The horse world can be a very supportive community full of lovely people, try to be one of the ones who is remembered for going out of their way to be kind and supportive to others, if you succeed at this, you will always be held in higher regard. And, realistically, what really can people criticize if you’re always positive and kind while actively working to improve yourself as a rider? Sure, they can try to pick apart your flaws, but how stupid does that make someone look when a rider is motivated to become the best they can be and doing everything that they need to do to get there?
Stay focused on your own journey and your own growth as a rider. Any tiny improvement is still improvement. Every rider will progress at a different rate and while some people may learn a certain skill faster than you, you are more than likely to be more skilled at another aspect of riding than they. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and the sooner we focus on ourselves and the individuality of our riding career, the sooner we realize that comparing ourselves to others is an utterly useless endeavour that achieves nothing other than self doubt.
Chin up and heels down, dear. You are doing just great and in a few months from now, you will look back and realize that you’ve improved. In a few years from now, you may laugh at some of your old riding photos, pointing out things that you used to find difficult but now can do with utter ease. The journey may seem slow and strenuous at times, but when you look back on it, you realize how far you’ve come and how quickly. Take pride in your accomplishments, no matter how small, you deserve them. You do not need to be the best to be great. You do not need to be winning at huge venues to be worthy as a rider. You can enjoy the ride whether you ride for pleasure or show. No matter your ambitions, everything you do is amazing. Swinging your leg over a 1000lb flight animal is a major feat in the first place. Whether you’re just learning how to post, still working on the lunge line or jumping around 1.20m courses at WEF, you are on a beautifully unique journey and you are doing amazing. Keep it up and don’t forget to smile and enjoy the ride.