So maybe I’m just a little bit pre-irritated all the time with eventing at the moment, or maybe this year has been such a big lesson on how much words really matter, but… I saw something the other day that made me cringe and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It was a post on facebook, by a professional, saying that the horse in the photo was the person’s first “real event horse”. I stumbled over those words, and came to a screeching halt. “Real”? The assumption of course was that they meant first “upper level horse” and I went to the USEA records to confirm. Indeed, that’s what the person meant. Which… bothered me a lot, for a few reasons.
We’ve talked about level-shaming before. Sometimes it’s blatant and obvious, but most of the time it’s in little ways like this. Microagressions, if you will. I have no doubt that the person meant no actual harm by this comment, honestly I doubt they even realize they said it. I’ve probably said something similar plenty of times before and not realized it. But it signals an underlying mindset doesn’t it? One that is all too prevalent in all equestrian sports. Anyone reading gets the “ah, you aren’t a real eventer and/or you don’t have a real event horse until you’re at the upper levels” message, even if subconsciously. Intentional or not, this is what we’re telling people when we use words like that.
I have to admit that it especially bothers me when words like this come from a professional who’s entire business is built upon teaching people and training horses at the lower levels. People who are probably chained to their desks at least 40 hours a week, trying to juggle a life and a family and still enjoy the sport they love. Are they not “real” eventers? I would argue that perhaps they are the most real of all. The sport gives them nothing tangible, it doesn’t pay them or give them a career. They show up and they do the hard work day in and day out and they ride all the highs and lows even though it costs them a lot – mentally, physically, and financially. They don’t deserve to be swept under the rug or automatically dismissed. They do it solely for the love of the horse and the sport, even though the sport doesn’t love them back. That’s the most pure form of “real” that I can think of.
The same goes for horses – are they not “real” event horses until they reach a certain level? Is a horse who can be trusted to carry kid after kid around BN safely not worth it’s weight in gold? Is a horse that can throw down three solid phases at Training level at event after event after event for it’s amateur rider (even if/when said amateur rider makes mistakes) not a “real” event horse? Again, I would argue that perhaps these horses are the most real of them all.
Words matter. What we say is a direct representation of what we think. The fact that someone isn’t legit or doesn’t count or is seen as less committed or less important because they haven’t reached a certain level – that message is very prevalent. It’s natural to want to be taken seriously, and the prevailing message in our sport is that in order to get respect, you have to be “real”, and in order to be “real”, you have to be at the upper levels. Aside from being bullshit, I also think it’s a super dangerous message. It leads people to push themselves and/or their horses too quickly, or to levels they aren’t suited for, or to do things they don’t really want to do at all; something that has also come up many times this year in discussions about rider safety. On one hand, we want people to be aware of their abilities and not overface themselves or their horses. On the other hand, we’re also constantly sending signals that they don’t matter unless they’ve reached X level. At some point you have to admit that the culture we perpetuate, the words we use, are at least partly to blame for some of this. And that trickles down from the very top.
This mindset is so beaten into most of us from so early on that we even degrade ourselves without even thinking about it. How often do you see it? The amateur on facebook posting a show recap from the weekend but saying “it was just BN”? I’ve said it. You’ve probably said it. We say things like that all the time and never even think about it, because it’s so normal, so deeply ingrained. It’s like we’re apologizing in advance for being happy about something or succeeding at something, because it’s not actually considered “real” by anyone’s standards. It’s sad, because 99.9% of the time, the person has worked their ass off for that accomplishment. They shouldn’t feel belittled in advance. It’s not hard to imagine how this could slowly wear away at someone and eventually turn them away from the sport – I’ve seen it happen more times that I can count.
We also have to consider that the lower levels are the lifeblood of our sport. Lower level riders are what pay the vast majority of trainer’s bills, and those lower level horses are the most commonly needed and bought and sold. The membership and starter fees from those riders are what keeps USEA alive and running, which makes a lot of things possible for upper level riders that wouldn’t be happening otherwise. Those low-level entries are the ones making up the numbers, keeping the venues afloat, keeping horse shows available. They are what keep our sport alive. So again, I have to ask… what is “real”?
In a time where we’re being asked to examine the things we say and the impact those words have on other people, maybe we (myself absolutely included) should be applying the same concept in everything we do, including our little horse world as well. What if people felt more welcome, more relevant, less inclined to push themselves into potentially unsafe territory? Would that not be good for the sport as a whole? What do we have to lose? If nothing else, keeping a little more kindness and compassion in our words sure wouldn’t hurt.
Anyone with the balls to leave the start box is a real eventer in my book, whether it’s at Advanced or Intro. I see you, and I think you’re a badass.