AN OPEN LETTER TO EQUESTRIAN AUSTRALIA

AN OPEN LETTER TO EQUESTRIAN AUSTRALIA

On the 12th of March, newly-appointed interim Chair of Equestrian Australia (EA), Alistair MacKinlay issued a letter to members, which has effectively set the tone for his tenure.

Mr MacKinlay declares, “There is much to be gained by volunteering, constructive comment and criticism so that your sport becomes better and more enjoyable for you.”

With this invitation and in good faith we write this letter.

Does Mr Mackinlay’s letter demonstrate a willingness to address the concerns raised by Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports (SBIES) such as a commitment to tackling issues including a safe environment for members throughout the sport, addressing inadequacies of member protection policies and tackling the thorny issue of organisational governance reform?

Or is Mr MacKinlay attempting to ‘muzzle’ constructive comment and criticism by stating the following:

We will probably continue to receive negative publicity from the press and outsiders; it simply goes with the territory these days. I just ask this: when you are next reading a criticism of EA ask yourself if you have all the facts in your possession to make a judgment or whether you are simply assuming a media post is correct. If you don’t, don’t share it. Get the facts first and don’t assume that someone else is correct. There is nothing to be gained by repeating ill-informed criticism of EA or any of the national or state bodies or officials who try so hard to run the sport.”

SBIES promotes open dialogue between all parties as the most constructive way to move forward. It’s concerning to see that the Chair refers to anyone who holds a view contrary to the sport’s administrators as an “outsider”.

There are many benefits to listening to “outsiders”, as they often provide insights that those too close to the problem, fail to see or to choose not to see.

How many EA members support the rising costs of their membership fees?

How many EA members are satisfied with what the sport provides for the fees they pay? (Are you happy with the BANG for your BUCKS?)

What do you want to be done differently?

Mr MacKinlay appears to dismiss SBIES, journalists, the parents of the teenagers who died during competition and the many disenfranchised equestrians who have lost trust in the administration of a sport they love and feel aggrieved that they are unable to express an opinion that will be listened to and acted upon.

It is extraordinary that those who have been traumatised, wronged and rejected by the sport are expected to join up before they are permitted a voice according to Mr MacKinlay’s view of the world.

The creation of an ‘us and them’ divide will do little to heal wounds or address the challenges facing the sport. It is a novel approach to take at a time when trust in the EA brand is at an all-time low.

If Mr MacKinlay’s is targeting SBIES, then we wish to respectfully respond:

We are proud that SBIES has chosen to tackle the tough issues administrators may have preferred to ignore.

We are proud to have become a trusted advocate for equestrians who feel they have been failed and thrown away by EA’s Member Protection Policy.

We are proud to have become a voice for reforming equestrian sports for the better.

SBIES volunteers have provided support and counsel for countless equestrians who have been left high and dry by the very people who should have been protecting their interests.

We have also followed due process and surveyed many of our followers to collect raw data on the subject, using this information to develop resources to help victims to navigate their traumatic experiences of bullying, harassment and abuse.

Most of all, we are proud to have become a social influencer by creating the SBIES ‘pledge’ initiative. This program directly aims to improve the culture of the sport as a 100% positive initiative asking equestrians to examine their own behaviour and officially pledge to be better and do better.

We think we have earned our place at the table and can confidently say our opinions are not ‘ill-informed’. Rather, they are different from EA’s views and come from hours of counselling members and former members, from significant research and careful consultation with administrators, academics, community thought-leaders and government.

We wholeheartedly agree with Mr MacKinlay that the spotlight is now on equestrian sports.

Unfortunately, this is not a situation that can be easily or quickly reined-in, due to mismanagement and missed opportunities, the proverbial horse has already bolted (excuse the many puns, purely coincidental!)

The sport is now under significant external scrutiny and subjected to the modern phenomena of social licensing.

Its fate will not be decided upon by the exclusive views of internal stakeholders, we are now at the mercy of the ‘perceptions’ and expectations of external stakeholders, the general public who through taxes fund the sport.

In this increasingly challenging environment, the stakes are high and the days of issuing “letters” and statements ‘from the boss’ in response to crises facing the sport no longer cowers or silences those with differing opinions.

Now is the time to take positive and definitive action.

EA needs to live, breathe and act upon its own Code of Conduct if it is to restore faith in its brand.

Now is the time for EA to lead by example. If we are to revitalise equestrian sports and positively influence public opinion, then the equestrian community needs to engage in an extensive program of positive reform.

SBIES wants to work with EA and constructively and respectfully offers the following suggestions to assist in this process:

COMMUNICATION

Mr MacKinlay expresses a desire to improve the communication between the EA office and grass-roots equestrians. This is a measure SBIES welcomes.

It’s fair to say that EA has failed to positively engage with the sport’s participants and communicate a clear vision for the sport.

POSITIVE ACTIONS EA COULD TAKE TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUE

  • Actively engage with disenfranchised members, including SBIES
  • Conduct a series of ‘Town Hall’ meetings in each State and listen to the voices of the people
  • Call for submissions from members and discipline committees on how to improve services.

BULLYING

Mr MacKinlay’s letter speaks of the need for the equestrian community to treat each other more respectfully. We couldn’t agree more.

Now is the time to address the toxic culture in our sport and apply the same principles which are standard in the modern workplace.

Bullying has reached epidemic proportions in the equestrian community – with 86% of people who completed the SBIES survey indicating they had experienced bullying.

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • The SBIES survey findings were forwarded to the EA Board. To date, not a single board member has responded
  • Mandatory online bullying training (both EA & state branches) for all staff, officials, committee members, coaches, branch members and volunteers
  • All State bullying complaints to be referred to the newly-appointed EA Business Operations and Integrity Manager for investigation
  • An agreement between the State branches to honour the decisions of these investigations
  • The issuing of sanctions and yellow cards for bullying offenses
  • Adopting ‘three strikes, you’re out’ approach to disciplining bullies in the sport.
  • Educate members on the complaints process

MEMBER PROTECTION POLICY

The SBIES support group would not exist if EA’s Member Protection Policy (MPP) was considered effective. There has been a mass exodus from the organisation also attributed to the failure of the MPP.

Equestrian sports is the only Olympic sport in Australia to have a ‘Stop Bullying…’ support campaign and this is indicative of the extent of the problem.

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • Conduct an immediate and complete review of the MPP
  • Mandatory online MPP training (both EA national and State branches) for all staff, officials, committee members, coaches, branch members and volunteers
  • In several States, the appointed Member Protection Officer (MPIO) doubles as the CEO/Chair. This is in breach of Sports Australia guidelines and clearly acts as a deterrent for members coming forward with complaints
  • All State MPP complaints to be referred to the newly-appointed EA Business Operations and Integrity Manager for investigation
  • A formal agreement between the State branches to honour the decisions of these investigations.
  • Educate members on the complaints process

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

There have been serious allegations of sexual misconduct. EA appears paralysed by focusing on the victims and not on how to implement initiatives to create a safer environment which may encourage the riders to come forward and lodge a complaint with the Police.

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • Mandatory sexual misconduct and sexual harassment training (both EA and State branches) for all staff, officials, committee members, coaches, branch members and volunteers
  • All state sexual harassment complaints to be referred to the newly-appointed EA Business Operations and Integrity Manager for investigation
  • An agreement between the State branches to honour the decisions of these investigations
  • Adopt new protocols in line with established guidelines
  • Educate members on the complaints process

CHILD SAFETY

EA policy is significantly behind the eight ball when benchmarked against comparable sports in relation to child safety measures. EA initiatives focus primarily on coaches. The reality is that children are present in many areas of equestrian sports and anyone who operates in the same space has access to children. Therefore these children need to be fully protected.

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • Compulsory Working With Children accreditation (both EA and State branches) for all staff, officials, committee members, coaches, volunteers, media, contractors and event vendors
  • An EA register of mandated staff, officials, coaches, committee members, volunteers, media, contractors and vendors with WWC accreditation to allow event organisers easy cross-reference
  • Mandatory online child safety training (both EA and State branches) for all staff, officials, committee members, branch members and volunteers
  • Reporting of any incidents or breaches to Sports Australia and relevant government agencies, including the police.
  • Educate members on the complaints process

EVENTING SAFETY

There has been significant criticism of the sport’s approach to eventing safety following the deaths of Olivia Inglis and Caitlyn Fischer in 2016.

When comparing EA’s approach to that of Cricket Australia’s response after the death of Phillip Hughes, the differences are significant.

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • Share the findings of the ENSW investigations into Olivia and Caitlyn’s deaths with the National Eventing Committee, State Discipline Committee and Event Organisers and seek their feedback.
  • Share any public submissions made to the NSW Coroner with the National Eventing Committee, State Discipline Committee and Event Organisers and seek their feedback
  • Set up a Task Force for Eventing Safety which is accessible, open and transparent.
  • Focus and invest on wider initiatives, in addition to the use of frangibles, including rider evaluation and course design training.
  • Establish guidelines for the use of drones at equestrian events.

ORGANISATIONAL CULTURE

If the disenfranchised members and former members are to be re-engaged then EA must enter an era of openness and transparency. This will be key to restoring faith in the organisation.

Traditionally, EA has adopted a ‘legalistic’ approach to managing the sport and communicating with branch members and this attitude has left many in the community deeply wounded. Now is the time for equestrian sport to adopt a compassionate ‘humanistic’ approach and set about healing these wounds.

How about putting people, the real members, first? Now that is a novel approach!

POSITIVE ACTIONS TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE

  • EA must unify the sport and bridge the gap between elite riders and everyday equestrians
  • Publishing the Minutes of all EA and State Board meetings
  • Increased financial transparency and publishing of more detailed accounts.
  • Developing a National Procurement Policy
  • Two recent EA appointments that were not advertised – moving forward, all new appointments should be advertised
  • Transparency in the national selection process.

People seeking reform of equestrian sports are not attempting to ruin the sport, rather they are trying to modernise the collective equestrian brand to ensure its survival.

It’s now time for EA to step up and genuinely lead the charge. That will not be achievable without major and observable reform from the top down.

Mr MacKinlay, we sincerely hope you are a person of action, because that would be a welcome change.

Sincerely,

The Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports Team

One thought on “AN OPEN LETTER TO EQUESTRIAN AUSTRALIA

  1. I have no faith in EA, and even less (if that’s possible) in my state body. Unless you are a favoured member, part of a clique, you aren’t welcome.
    Questioning the legitimacy of incorrect rules that are used to unfairly restrict you ensures you are labeled an upstart and a troublemaker, or a smart alec at best. Judges and officials band together to exclude those who question them, with most of them being none the wiser to the actual facts of the matter.
    Favoured members are given privileges and the benefit of the doubt.
    Whilst human nature will always find a way to infiltrate it’s pettiness and spite into every sport, there could at least be some attempt from those in power to prevent it, rather than condone it.
    I’ve witnessed horrendous bullying from officials and judges – from those who feel they are they are untouchable. These are the very people who should be above this appalling behaviour. The Code of Conduct is conveniently ignored for them. Whilst some judges and officials are amazing and encouraging, find me those who will openly and publicly admit to the behaviour they have witnessed from their colleagues. I did read a comment from a judge on social media about a year ago, in which she spoke of the nasty bullying she had witnessed in the sport over the past six months. Did she do anything about it? No. In fact, she enabled the bullying by staying silent, other than a small comment hidden away anonymously on a low profile thread. In the word of Desmond Tutu “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

    Like

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