Changing the Equine Industry

The equine industry as a whole has fallen to pieces. There is a profound lack of public interest in the sport, so little in fact, that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has considered removing equestrian events from the Olympic Games. In 2012, 13% of Americans said their least favorite sport is Equestrian, and that percentage has only increased in recent years. The Equestrian sport is listed as one of the 6 least-watched Olympic sports.

Looking at the sport from a spectator perspective, I would say welfare is the biggest problem. The racing industry may have created a lot of issues, but so have people involved in the Olympic disciplines. Everyone has seen the video of the modern pentathlon rider whipping and punching her horse in tears. Even though that is separate from the true equine industry, it reflects badly on all of us. Since that video began circulating, questions have been raised about the welfare of horses in the entire industry. The public does not like seeing anything that looks “bad”, which is understandable, but there are risks involved in the sport. The public doesn’t see the horses as athletes, they see them as animals and pets. No one wants to see horses getting hurt or dying. Accidents happen and horses get injured on course, but there are some things we can control and improve. Our athletes are injured in rotational falls more often than we’d like, but at least FEI has added safety measures to prevent this. There have also been more rules added around whip usage, but some people are finding a way around that. I mean come on… electric spurs? And the drugs? The public has learned a lot in the past few years about illegal drugs being used on horses thanks to Bob Baffert, but we’ve seen it in the other disciplines too and it makes the front page every time. There is no reason to be doping horses to get ahead. Again, a lot of the public sees the horses as pets, and I would say most of them would not approve of drugging unsuspecting animals. The FEI has been cracking down on drug usage, which is definitely a step in the right direction, but not the entire solution.

The second problem, the ineffectiveness of SafeSport, is also visible to the public. We all know about Larry Nassar and “Athlete A”, and the public has been highly interested in the abuse in every sport, even Equestrian. SafeSport’s mission is to end abuse in sport, and unfortunately it hasn’t been very successful. In the Equine industry, people believe there is no due process in SafeSport’s procedures. There was an uproar after George Morris, a world-renowned champion of our sport, was banned in 2019 due to alleged abuse of young equestrians during his coaching career. Whether the verdict was correct or not, the process of him being banned was a mess. The public has now seen that we have major issues concerning abuse by trainers and coaches. There is also a concern that SafeSport is not doing enough to protect the victims because it is not meant to be a court of law, yet it acts as one. It would be better to leave allegations of assault to the police, and let the courts run their processes. I understand that the statute of limitations can prevent justice from being served, but we need to discuss a new process for SafeSport.

Problem three is social media! It’s too easy for people to spread rumors, lies and misinformation. Not only does the public see these posts, but so do others in the industry. Social media platforms have become the center for cyberbullying. I’ve certainly experienced bullying through social media, and I’d be willing to bet most of you have too. The online bullying by trainers, coaches, and even fellow riders must stop. We are destroying our sport from within and pushing people out. I know plenty of people who have quit riding because they can’t deal with the “drama” at the barn. I’ve seen drama in almost every barn I have ridden or trained at, and it’s ridiculous.

The emotional abuse I experienced during my time as a rider so far, although I didn’t know that’s what it was until recently, was awful. And the worst part is- most of the abusers were adults! Yes, we’ve all had issues with our peers, especially as teenagers, but being bullied by an adult is a far worse. When a mentor or an adult you respect (whether it is a trainer, coach, barn owner etc.) takes advantage of you, it’s a bit soul-crushing. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening a lot. The demands of riders are too tough. I’ve heard the term “barn rat” thrown around in other articles, and I think that is the perfect phrase to describe riders working in the industry. We’re taught that in order to get ahead, you need to do whatever your mentor tells you to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s working 16-hour days, running endless errands, or riding the crazy youngsters that no one else will get on. You have to “suck it up”, and deal with it. We do the barn chores without being paid, ride the young horses as a “reward”, and get lessons sometimes where a lot of us are screamed at and told we won’t make it in the industry. You’ll never hear a “thank you” and without realizing it, you become a shell of your former self. And all of this is acceptable! We are teaching young riders that it is okay to be treated like sh**, and that you need to work in that environment to get ahead. No matter how many times I suffered emotional abuse from numerous mentors, I always came crawling back with the hopes of becoming a top rider someday. I know other riders are going through the same thing, and it’s simply not okay.

To those outside the industry, this may seem like an inconsequential piece of the puzzle, but it isn’t. Riders and workers are turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of working in such awful environments. One of my friends recently committed suicide because the demands and expectations of the industry were too high. It is so stressful that it pushes people over the edge. Living in Michigan, which isn’t a huge Equestrian hub, I didn’t see the extent of these problems until I visited the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Florida. I saw riders go from the ring to the bar (which is on the grounds!) and drink themselves into oblivion. Cocaine is a big issue there as well, and everyone turns a blind eye to it. If drinking alcohol and using drugs isn’t bad enough, those riders then drive their sports cars home instead of catching of a ride. Several people have died after getting into car accidents once they left the show grounds. Get Home Safe, a rideshare service created by Robert Dover, was created to offer rides to those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is great to see some action is being taken, but it’s sad that group had to be created at all; it would be best to stop this issue at the source. It all goes back to the working conditions and unhealthy environment these riders deal with.

The last problem I see is the corruption in the industry. We know that riding is a rich man’s sport. Horses are very expensive as pets, but even more expensive as athletes. Those of us that aren’t born into a riding family have to start at the bottom. Without money, it’s hard to climb the ladder, partly because of those at the top of the industry. Top owners, sponsors, and riders are using money to influence the sport in the direction they want without any consequences. For those of us at the bottom, it’s a catch 22; you need sponsors and owners to back you with funds, but you can’t get that without showing at the upper levels to prove yourself, yet you need money to show at the upper levels. The same people continue to show at the upper levels, and others are not welcomed into that circle. It just isn’t fair. We try so hard to make it to the top, but that elite circle won’t break. Maybe life isn’t fair, but it shouldn’t only be money keeping us from making it to the top. Give us a fighting chance.

We may not all have the funds to influence the sport, but we do have a voice. Those of us involved in the equestrian industry need to spread awareness of these issues and push for change. It’s not enough to talk amongst ourselves and complain about the downfall of the sport. It’s time to act. Those of us involved in Olympic disciplines need to bring these issues to USEF, USDF, USEA, USHJA, and even the FEI. We have to change the industry now, before our sport disappears entirely.

If you are interested in working to improve the Equestrian industry, please join the Facebook Group “Equestrians For Change”. I certainly don’t have all the solutions, but I think if we all come together and discuss these issues, we can advocate for positive changes in our sport! I look forward to hearing your thoughts and opinions!

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