Extract from Horse and Hound “It is not OK” by Eleanor Jones – 15th November 2018
Comments by Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Trainer Dr Rosie Jones-McVey
Rosie Jones McVey, who has just completed a PhD in social anthropology, has been studying the ethics of British horse people. She feels some of the positive attributes of equestrians can have a darker underside.
“The good side of the horse world is that it’s very community-based,” she says. “But the other side of the coin can be bullying. You can get tight-knit communities who look out for and support each other – they can be very inclusive – but if you’re not in that clique, you’re not welcome.”
Rosie says issues can arise when people on livery yards spend time with others who do things differently.
“Often that’s where bullying is the worst,” she says. “There’s a huge amount of choice and you can be so different to the next person – they like traditional dress and you’re all about matchy-matchy, or they feed oats and you think they’re poison. It’s unlikely your yard mates will do everything the same, and it’s hard to let it go.
“And while some of these issues are small, most link in our imaginations to deeper moral judgements about whether you ‘deserve’ to be there, or really love your horse and know what you’re doing,” she says. “Are you a spoilt, upper-class person with a horse too good for you, or do you not care about your horse because you don’t put a rug on it?”
Rosie cites equestrians’ hierarchy in terms of riding skill and knowledge, and the way people are judged for whether or not they are “horsey enough” – and, she says, often the tack room chat about “Sarah who doesn’t do it right” can be some people’s way of making themselves feel better.
“It’s, ‘she does it differently, so she must be wrong,’” Rosie says. “People feel threatened so they’re bitchy to make themselves feel more secure. Bullies are the problem, but it often comes from someone feeling vulnerable and trying to control the situation – like an abusive relationship.”
Rosie says that when ethics are involved – people think others are unethical because they do something differently, so horse welfare must be at risk – they can get “evangelical”.
This often comes out on social media, with people taking advantage of the anonymity of the internet to pass judgement on their peers, as well as those criticising top athletes for what they see as ethical or moral issues.
“People feel surer of themselves by putting others down,” she says. “There’s a lot of ethical one up-manship, a kind of virtue in being self-assured and being a critical thinker, rather than someone who just follows the top riders.”
And while Rosie believes a great deal of bullying behaviour may not be intentional, there are many riders who believe a bullying style of instruction is “normal”.
“It’s not normal if you look at other sports but with riding’s military heritage it seems it’s OK if you know what you’re doing to talk down to those who don’t.
“I’ve seen students called fat, berated for being ‘shit’, deaf students mocked – it’s absolutely bullying. And the students are loyal to the instructors, again like an abusive relationship; your confidence is knocked so you latch on to the most confident person.
“I heard one trainer saying, ‘We’re all laughing at you, even the horse is laughing at you because you can’t do it.’ And the student was in tears. I asked afterwards if she was OK and she said, ‘Yes, I needed a kick up the arse.’ But if you heard that in any other context – it’s deeply disturbing that we’ve just got used to it.
“Luckily, times seem to be changing and people realise they should be treated with respect – you shouldn’t have to be mean to be respected.”
The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bullying as “the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face-to-face or online.”
Its effect, Rosie says, can include the victim feeling excluded and “held down”, but it can also mean that if people do not feel able to ask for advice, in fear of ridicule, that horses can suffer, whereas on supportive yards horses and owners both benefit.