Let’s get this straight: negativity has no place in the equine world. The horse is an animal that lives in the now. They don’t care if your dressage test was botched — they probably didn’t even know they were performing a test. But the mental state of the rider can have a significant impact on the horse, and constant negative energy should have no place in that partnership.
And yet we see negativity Every. Single. Day. The media has had a field day with the story of Michael Barisone and Lauren Kanarek. Not only the fact that an ex-Olympic dressage rider shot one of his students, but that the victim faced online bullying afterwards. If you want my opinion, the story just sounds like a tragic ending to a bad relationship between two not-so-great people. Equestrians are so rarely in the New York Times. Yet, the big story that gets in the paper is about attempted murder and bullying. Is that really what we want to be known for?
Meanwhile, another high-profile mess, SafeSport and George Morris, has also made the pages of the Times. Another equine great brought down by a past tainted with sexual abuse of his students. More online bullying and discord ensued after that news broke. Equestrians everywhere fell on both sides of the split as to whether or not the allegations were true.
In the midst of all of this, videos of animal abuse regularly circulate the internet, filling our heads with unforgettable images of tragedy and pain. I believe that it’s important to remember that we are our animals’ voices and that role comes with the added responsibility of standing up for them — but I don’t need my Facebook feed filled with horrible videos every other post.
Even with all of these negative stories and images, equestrians somehow feel the need to bring ourselves down too. I was scrolling through Facebook the other day when I came across an ad for C4 Belts. The first image was a belt for eventers with the phrase “Why suck at one discipline when you can suck at all three?”
Ha ha, yes, very funny. But to me, that attitude can be so damaging to both horse and rider that why the heck would we want to emulate it, even as a joke? Go to any horse show, stand at the ring, and wait. If you wait long enough, you’ll hear trainers say absolutely despicable things to their students. Tears are far too common on show days when riders break under the pressure of making their trainer look good with a perfect round.
All of that pressure creates fear and anger in riders that gets passed on to our horses. It’s common and accepted for riders to growl — sometimes literally scream — at their horses to tap into that prey drive, pick up the pace, and jump a little higher in a jump off.
That animal blesses you by not throwing you on the ground every day and our response is to put the fear of God into them? We’re humans — not mountain lions. Acting like one is a surefire way to ruin your relationship with your horse.
There are significant repercussions for the maelstrom of negativity that currently has its talons in the equestrian world. At the heart of our sport is the horse. The creatures whose hoof prints built America and made possible every technological advance that we have today. The horse is second in its impact on history only to the wheel. Negative attitudes, training practices, and bullying all comes back on the horse. The animal that can sense every breath, shift of our seat bones, and pretty much read our minds must be undeniably burdened by our human pain, anger, and negativity.
As equestrians, our partnership with our horses is vital to the success of our businesses, riding careers, and happiness. Negativity is a surefire way to destroy any foundation that partnership was built on. The rise of positive reinforcement training and change-makers like “The Zen Racehorse” is a sign that we are finally recognizing the impact of our emotions on our four-legged charges. While I’m not entirely sold on using just positive reinforcement training, I’m grateful for the fact that it shows a paradigm shift in how we think about our relationships with our horses.
The horse isn’t the only one that suffers from negative attitudes and actions in the equine world. The mental health of our best riders is also at risk. The phrase, “It’s not the horse’s fault” gets pounded into the heart of every serious equestrian. In some ways it’s good. It (should) protect the horse from the blowback of our mistakes. But, that single phrase can bleed surprisingly fast into other areas of our lives. If the horse isn’t at fault then there’s only one party whose fault it can be — the rider’s.
If you ride competitively for too long , you’ll quickly find yourself applying that mindset to everything. Your trainer looks bad because there aren’t enough blue ribbons hanging in the barn aisle at the show? Your fault — if only you hadn’t knocked that rail. The horse tore a tendon in the paddock? Your fault — you probably didn’t condition him well enough. Your family spent far too much money on a horse that was only sound for one season? Your fault — you should have looked at his conformation a little more closely.
Pretty soon, it becomes: You didn’t get that blue ribbon in the equitation class? Your fault — you should have lost that extra five pounds.
Body image is one aspect of horse showing that is just now starting to be talked about. And a good thing too. Eating disorders run rampant in our sport as trainers search for the rider with “the look.” I’ll tell you a secret — it’s always the skinnier rider.
Why do we torture ourselves like this? What happened to just enjoying the ride? Connecting with our horses? Having fun?
In 2020, let’s give ourselves permission to enjoy our sport again. It’s not always about the ribbon, the money you spent on your horse, or striving for perfection. Sometimes it’s about taking the negative with a grain of salt, reveling in our own imperfections, and looking for the positive.
Next time, buy the belt that says “Imperfectly perfect, and loving it.”