I’m sure anyone who has access to the internet/social media has seen the Mark Todd thing by now. Short version – there’s a video from a clinic a couple years ago where a horse didn’t want to just down a small bank into the water, Mark got a thin branch from a tree, pulled some twigs and leaves off, and proceeded to use it like a switch on said horse. This is the full video, but the most problematic part starts around 1:25… there’s a string of quite solid whacks to the horse with the switch.
I think (HOPE?) we can all agree that this was an inappropriate incident. Mark himself admitted as much in his statement, saying “I wholeheartedly apologise to the horse and all involved for my actions in this video clip. One of the main things I preach is about establishing a mutual respect between horse and rider and that patience and kindness is the best way to get results. I am very disappointed in myself that I did not adhere to that in this case.”. It was made even more complicated by the fact that he was a patron for World Horse Welfare, a position he has since stepped down from.
The fact that there was a wrong-doing here is, to me, indisputable. The more interesting thing about all of this (and geez, I feel like every time something like this happens it’s always enlightening in the worst ways) has been the social media response. You get a lot of people lambasting Mark Todd, for sure. But what I have seen a great deal more of, BY FAR, are people jumping to his defense and defending these actions and this behavior. That’s the part that seems almost more problematic than the incident itself, to be honest, or at least indicative of some serious underlying issues in our industry (Matt Brown and Kate Samuels said it way better than I can, I think). These are the main points I’ve been seeing:
- “But he’s Mark Todd. He’s a legend. He wouldn’t be successful if he abused horses.” – I think we all know this is a garbage argument and can name plenty of very successful yet repeatedly abusive riders. What you’ve achieved says nothing about how you got there. Trying to choose a rider for your 5* horse or a chef d’equip for your team – absolutely his resume is valid in those scenarios. But in this particular instance of determining abusive behavior? His resume is completely moot. This is a ridiculous defense.
- “The rider waited this long to come forward? Must not have been that upsetting to her.” – Ok look, this one just has major shades of the George Morris argument to me. It doesn’t matter when or how long or who or why. Again, those are moot points because none of them change what happened on that video.
- “The horse seemed fine” – Horses (and people for that matter) seem fine through a lot of instances of abuse… doesn’t make it any less wrong.
- “He barely tapped him” – I’d hate to see your idea of a wallop, then. If there’s a backswing involved, it’s not a tap. Also, all of us former barn kids that used to hit each other with those long thin whips know EXACTLY how much they hurt, whether you put a lot of force behind them or not, so… let’s just put this argument away eh? There’s a difference between a few encouraging taps and 10 good wallops (which is why the FEI has a black and white definition for how many times you can use a whip and where).
- “I met Mark Todd a few times and he seemed like a nice guy” – This one also has shades of GM. How many times can we say over and over again that behavior and personality do not go hand in hand. Nice people do bad things all the time, the same as bad people do nice things all the time. Just because someone seems otherwise exemplary of character doesn’t mean they are immune from doing bad things, nor does it automatically excuse their bad deeds when they do happen.
- “It was just a moment in time.” – I mean… sure, but… kind of a big moment.
- “I’ve seen way worse” – awesome, isn’t that a great testament to horse sports. And while sadly this is true – there is much worse – it’s still not an exemption. You don’t get to do a bad thing and not be held accountable for it just because someone else does something worse.
- “You can’t even train a horse these days without worrying about someone videoing.” That is a heck of a statement to dissect. I mean, I do get what this person was trying to say (I, uh, think). Sometimes training horses can be ugly. Sometimes horses react in unpredictable ways, and at times things can get a little bit, uh, western, or you have to make a quick and obvious point, or do something drastic to prevent a potentially dangerous situation for horse or human. I think anyone who has spent time training horses knows this to be true. And yes, if you took a clip of something like that out of context then it could certainly look like something it wasn’t. However, I think we also know that getting a tree branch and walloping it repeatedly across the butt of a horse at a clinic when it clearly doesn’t seem to understand the question in the first place is not one of the aforementioned emergency scenarios nor is it particularly helpful or compassionate to the horse. That’s the difference.
- “I’ve done that before and I’d do it again.” This one came from a pro, no less. Isn’t that lovely. Excellent horse training techniques at work in his barn, obviously.
- “Everyone makes mistakes” – now this is finally something I can absolutely agree with, although only as a statement, not as an excuse.
Here’s the thing: I think we’ve all lost our temper with a horse at some point. Probably reacted in a way we aren’t proud of, and would be ashamed to have anyone witness much less record and post online. I’ve done it in the past, and unless you’re a totally perfect person with zero emotions, you’ve probably done it too. To be clear: the fact that we’ve all done it is still not a defense of ANY behavior like that. This is still abusive and it’s still wrong. I’m only saying this because we all probably know what it feels like to realize you’ve fucked up and done the wrong thing by the horse. It feels totally shit. Or at least, it should.
To me the difference is what happens AFTER that moment. Do you fess up to it, admit you were wrong, apologize, feel ashamed, and vow to do better next time? Or do you double down and say that the horse deserved it, you did nothing wrong, and go out and do it again the next day?
It also matters what else happens in ADDITION to that moment. What else is going on behind the scenes? Is this standard behavior and you just finally got caught, or was it a very rare fuck up? How many provable instances of this behavior exist? Is it a pattern or is it an anomaly? In the cases of people like Marilyn Little or Andy Kocher, the absolute biggest part of my issue with them was the fact that the abuses were repeated over and over and over ad nauseum with absolutely no remorse, regret, acknowledgement of wrong-doing, or attempt to prevent a repeat scenario. Their only regret was getting caught. I’m very willing to recognize the fact that people make mistakes – bad ones, indefensible ones – and be able to move on from it. I’m very unwilling to forgive and forget the ones that seem pleased with themselves for their abhorrent behavior, and the people who enable/encourage/defend it.
As it stands now, I have yet to see any other evidence of instances like this from Mark Todd. Do they exist? Possibly. I don’t know the man, and I think there are probably only a handful of people on this earth that have spent enough time with him behind closed doors to know for sure. Is this incident enough to give me pause and make me wary? Absolutely. But I also think that if a genuine lesson has been learned and there is genuine shame and remorse and a genuine effort to do and be better, forgiveness is fair. People definitely have to be allowed to make mistakes… lord knows we all have. Whether or not he earns that grace is up to him IMO, from this point forward, and only time will tell.
What I really hate most is all those excuses I see people making, especially the pros. Let’s call a spade a spade here guys, this was an abusive and ugly and unnecessary incident. The industry is evolving (and MUST evolve if it wants to survive) from “training techniques” like this, and no one should defend this kind of crap, period. Also ridiculous to veer off course and attack the credibility or intentions of the girl who posted the video, or shrug and say that successful riders get a free pass to do what they want, etc. This is the EXACT SAME mindset that allows abuse of both horses and humans to perpetuate in our sport. Hold people accountable. Stop making excuses for bad behavior. If people fuck up, let them know they fucked up, let them deal with their own consequences, and let their own subsequent actions decide whether or not they’re worthy of redemption. Why do we seem to think that a certain subset of people are beyond reproach?
For as bad as it makes equestrians look as a whole, I do think that having stuff like this come to light and have all this drama about it on social media can be a good thing – IF we (collectively) learn from it. How not to behave. How not to handle a training issue. How to handle mistakes with grace. Maybe think twice before we do something similar in a fit of anger and frustration. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make people less hesitant to speak up in defense of their horses if they ever find themselves in a similar situation, even if it means standing up to a big name rider.
How do I personally feel about Mark Todd after this? He’s on a bit of a “probation” period in my mind. I’m definitely not ready to sharpen up my pitchfork and add him to the list of the repeat or most egregious offenders, but there’s no doubt that he’s done a bad thing. I do appreciate that he was horseman enough to admit it and apologize, and I think that’s a positive step. From this point on, my opinion of him rests entirely in his hands. Will he come back from this and prove that he’s worthy of being called a legend? We’ll see. Right now he’s simply a successful rider that has also made a bad mistake, and I would love to see people stop making excuses for it.