OPINION | 9.07.2018

Just like the Harvey Weinstein-inspired #metoo movement, participants of Equestrian sports in Australia are bravely coming forward with their negative experiences and declaring it is time for change.

Prior to this, there were many good, smart people who fought like HELL in private, in an attempt to right wrongs and get reform across the line. Without their efforts, the current groundswell would not be possible. We say a heartfelt thank you.

When we started Stop Bullying In Equestrian Sports, it was to simply provide a ‘safe’ place for victims of bullying to come together, share their stories and try to turn a negative experience into something positive.

We did not expect to become a frontline support-service, but our followers started to confide stories of such deep trauma that we soon realised we were ill-equipped for what we had uncovered. We subsequently sought advice from Beyond Blue (what a great organisation) to make sure we could direct people to resources that weren’t being offered by the sporting bodies.

Another surprise was the extent and depth of issues, from the grassroots to Olympic level, with a common and disturbing theme of fear and worry about reprisals. In short, people were genuinely concerned about harm to them or their horse if they raised their concerns through official channels.

Then, what began as one distressing story told to SBIES, became many. Our community now has almost 4,000 followers with many hundreds of professional and amateur riders also making a public ‘pledge’ to stamp out bullying.

As a support page that has given people a voice, followers have started turning to SBIES to look at ways to address the cause of the bullying culture and offer practical solutions, beyond the ‘pledge’ program.

Let’s face it, you know you have a problem on your hands when you are the only Olympic sport to have a grievance support page on Facebook and Instagram (try Googling it, there is no ‘Stop Bullying…’ campaign for netball, hockey, swimming, etc).

The situation appears to have gone unnoticed or undetected by the Australian Sports Commission, which provides major funding and governance leadership to Equestrian Australia.

In addition, Equestrian Australia was only one of five Olympic sports under the spotlight by Centre Alliance Senator, Rex Patrick, in a series of questions on notice about bullying in elite sports.

With the growing discontent among participants of equestrian sports, the #metoo style stories shared privately with SBIES are also getting more specific and reflect some very worrying trends about governance issues and poor management.

SBIES is often asked what do we mean by the term governance?

To put it simply, governance is how an organisation is structured, managed and responds to issues.

Official documentation presented to SBIES by followers reveals that the current and former federal Minister for Sport have both been made aware of significant long-term governance issues within EA, as has the ASC and several State ministers.

Recently the state EA branches (except Equestrian New South Wales) released a public statement criticising the national body’s lack of transparency, financial management and member representation.

But while the states may be blaming at EA for the current crisis – the organisational structure as it currently stands means it is the states that have the responsibility and authority to enforce policy at a functional level.

When it comes to the issue of bullying – it is the states who appear to be failing the members by choosing not to effectively enforce the EA Code of Conduct, the Members Protection Policy and the Social Media Policy.

The problem does not appear to be a lack of qualified and skilled personnel to steer the sport into a modern era, there has been a revolving door of quality executives who have come and gone at both state and national level.

The spotlight is beginning to shine on the Board of Directors and their unwillingness to embrace change, using hard-handed and increasingly desperate tactics to keep the status-quo.

One SBIES follower emailed outgoing Chief Executive Officer Paula Ward this sympathetic farewell message on the last days on the job:

I have always believed you did the best job that your governance allowed. I am sure it has not been easy at times, thank you for the difference you tried to make…and did make.”

It would be easy for those not directly impacted to shrug their shoulders and get back to horse-riding, – or take up fly-fishing – but as a community, there is a moral obligation to do better when you know better. Equestrian sports are one of the highest-risk activities in the country. Not only that, the national membership comprises thousands of children.

Speaking of which, in the past few weeks there have been several articles in The Advertiser (South Australia) regarding an investigation into the bullying of junior members. Equestrian South Australia subsequently released concurrently ‘reassuring’ public statements, a modus operandi commonly used EA.

Case in point, a Child Safety Commitment statement was released by EA earlier this week, an evolution of the 2015 ASC/Australian Childhood Foundation report titled: “Safeguarding Children In Sport.” : http://www.equestrian.org.au/sites/default/files/EA_Child_Safety_Commitment_Statement_01072018.pdf

For those of us who have experienced issues with EA policy being enforced (or, rather, not enforced) at ground level, this is a chilling situation. From the outside, it looks like EA has caught up with the times and we can all relax because our kids are safe.

Unfortunately, the ‘federation’ style of EA’s governance makes enforcement of any national initiative or policy complicated, difficult to implement and a legal nightmare. And, logistically, does EA really have the resources and structure to liaise with its many coaches, clubs and events to educate and to ensure compliance?

SBIES has been vocal about wanting an end to lip-service and to push for real change because it has become painfully clear that bullying and harassment is a symptom of deeper issues that need to be addressed. However, we believe that nothing significant can change under the current legal entity of EA and its state branches.

EA membership numbers are in steady decline across the country, despite the fairly-recent addition of Interschools and the additional numbers who are both pony club and junior members.

Volunteers are also voting with their feet, with cancelled events all-too-common and citing a lack of helpers.

SBIES doesn’t want an end to equestrian sport because we love it, but it is time to stop being fearful of change and embrace it. If we open up the conversation to everyone in equestrian sports, the governance structure is bound to be more effective than what we have now.

Independent inquiries and reform measures have already occurred in the equestrian federations of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

It is high-time that Australia’s peak equestrian body joins the global trend to modernise the sport and say “me too.”


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