Let me set the scene…
I was the typical horse-mad girl, obsessively competing at every available fixture until my late teens. The next part of my story is fairly common: high school, then university and then life took over and I opted-out of the sport (until another brief interlude in my 30s).
Finally, in my 40s, I decided to reintroduce myself into the sport when I decided that volunteering would be the ideal way to get back on the scene and into riding.
Having worked professionally for global sportswear brands and involved in major sporting events as a marketer, I became part of the volunteer media team for two elite Olympic-qualifying events in Australia (the Sydney CDI and the Sydney International Horse Trials). Eventually, I become a committee member for the Sydney International Horse Trials.
My media skills allowed me an entry into the upper echelons of the sport that, in all honesty, my riding skills probably would have not.
It’s sad to say, far from feeling the warm embrace of the equestrian community on my return, my overwhelming feeling was that I was an outsider – someone who hadn’t paid their dues, someone not worthy of an opinion.
Don’t get me wrong, I have met some amazing, passionate and dedicated equestrians through volunteering. I was fortunate enough to interview several of my personal heroes, be inspired by some incredible equestrian performances and marvel at the army of volunteers and officials who selflessly give up their time in the searing heat, freezing cold and sometimes pouring rain to support of other equestrians perusing their dreams.
The fact remains, however, that my overall experience was tarnished by a series of ‘mean girls’, ‘megalomaniacs’ and ‘mini-dictators’ who were defending their personal fiefdoms and maintaining the status-quo, all looking to put me in my place.
I literally gave up hundreds of hours of my spare time to help promote equestrian sports. I traveled far and wide (this is Australia after all), in search of quality content for cash-strapped events – but it was never enough to give me insider status.
No one is perfect; but I can honestly say, each year I consciously sought to improve upon the last, and actively sought to modernise the promotion of these equestrian events. Besides developing social media strategy, I oversaw the introduction of video content, establishing Instagram accounts, blogs, ambassador programs, an exhibition, consumer competitions and, last year, developing a documentary that was selected for an international film festival.
At the end of the day, all this work counted for nothing when I was cast aside as an unworthy outsider for making a legitimate bullying complaint about an insider. My bully openly admitted to the ongoing harassment – yet no disciplinary action was taken. Even worse, I was then stood down from my roles. That’s right, asked to leave without explanation…
Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the situation for what it really is. Outsiders haven’t spent years close to a problem so their opinion isn’t weighed down by vested interests or misplaced loyalties. So, here’s my “outsiders” analysis: ”Equestrian sports have an enormous image problem!”
This first became evident to me when I was trying to attract sponsorship. I was looking to secure mainstream corporate sponsorship, outside the usual rug and feed companies. Having approached several major corporate sponsors, the feedback was always the same…”Our company can’t be seen to support a sport that is considered elitist and lacks inclusion.”
When I founded the online support-group Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports (SBIES) to help me come to terms with own bullying experience, a whole other level of outsider status was exposed.
It is interesting to note that an outsider had to be the one to establish such a group. It was a well-known fact that bullying has been rife in equestrian sports since the dawn of time, but no one wanted to talk about it. For years good people had been standing by, quietly tolerating rampant bullying. Equestrians who thought they should try were too scared to address bullying in their clubs and associations for fear of ostracisation and retribution.
I’m proud to have been the one to have got the conversation started and I’ve since connected with grateful equestrians all over the globe seeking to improve the culture of the sport for the better.
Through SBIES, I have been introduced to the myriad of equestrian social media hate groups. The main purpose of many of these groups is to openly mock beginner riders. “Beginner bashing” is almost a separate equestrian discipline, as thousands of riders participate in these groups. How can this be seen as acceptable?
When teenage beginner riders have to preface their Instagram posts with comments like “Please don’t hate..”, rather than being comfortable sharing her progression and passion for the sport, then I believe our sport has a problem.
It’s all part of the same problem: a sport that is all too willing to label newcomers as outsiders and participants whose opinions are not valid.
These outsiders support the industry. We pay our entry and membership fees, coaches, tack stores and livery yards. We are the investors of the sport, so don’t we deserve a legitimate voice as well?
Just because I’m not part of the sports elite, lack the riding talent of some or years of dedication as an official, it doesn’t mean I can’t have a valid opinion or that I can’t make a significant contribution to the progression of the sport.
SBIES has been contacted by numerous riders with extensive corporate and community experience, who were looking to contribute to the sport in a positive way because they had also been rejected by equestrian community insiders. These outsiders with fresh perspective also saw the situation for what it was: a sport with outdated systems and administrative practices outside of the societal norm.
It is widely believed that equestrian sports will be unlikely to be retained as an Olympic sport past 2024. If equestrian sports are to survive post the Los Angeles Games, now is time for some real soul-searching. We can’t keep supporting a system that propagates two classes of equestrians.
For equestrian sports to thrive, the insiders need to reconsider the manner in which they mentor and navigate the experience of ‘newbies’ to the sport. The current ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ model will only continue to cause a high attrition rate for new riders, volunteers and would-be-sponsors – the very people the sport needs on side to see growth.
Put simply, for equestrian sport to survive we need to be kinder to the outsiders and let them in.
Anyone in Australia who provides a truthful assessment of the state of equestrian sports is often accused of “bringing the sport into disrepute”. Surely, an honest dialogue is what is exactly needed at this crucial juncture? It’s time to clean up our own backyards and evolve the culture of equestrian sports to be inclusive, encouraging and more accepting.
In business, if you don’t move with the times you invariably go out of business. In defending old traditions, are equestrian administrators ultimately contributing to their own extinction?
Outsiders have something to contribute and if only the insiders are willing to listen. We may very well just save you from yourselves.
Contact Hannah from SBIES on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0412 257 882
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