These views are mine. Yes, I am a “public figure” and for that reason my words carry additional weight. That is a burden that I bear with both pride and it is also the cudgel that is used to beat me. I am speaking up for the sport that I love and with my vision of where we are and where we should be.
Read Mary Babick’s 2017 column, “We All Need To Make Good Choices For Our Sport.”
It has been a year since I sat in the Lexington airport with some fellow USEF directors. If you remember, my question was, “Why aren’t we embarrassed?” During the passage of 365 days I find that I am no longer embarrassed. I am saddened, disappointed and soul sick with so many parts of our industry. In my mind, that is worse than being angry.
Life is full of people who play by the rules, others who play by the rules only when it is convenient and those special few who think rules are for everyone else. Life is also composed of upstanders and bystanders. Our lives are ruled by the choices we make every day.
So, what is our landscape? Have we changed?
Moral outrage has grown by leaps and bounds. All you have to do is walk near an in-gate or read social media to understand that people are really angry. But, have those words translated into action?
For some, yes.
Others hanker for change but are unable or unwilling to step out of their comfort zone to be part of the process. These people love the idea of being an upstander as long as it is in principle but not in reality. To be frank, being an upstander is not a fun or easy task. The risk/reward ratio probably doesn’t feel like it will be in your favor.
I receive many calls. Here is a typical conversation:
Person X: Hi, I want your help in fixing a problem.
Me: I will give it my best. What can I do to help?
X: Well, I saw a person doing (insert truly heinous action) to a horse/person. I felt sick to my stomach. What can you do to prevent this? Our industry is broken! I want this to be fixed!
Me: Would you be willing to give specifics of who and when?
X: Well, no. I wouldn’t want to get involved. I can’t take the risk.
M: Oh, then how do you want me to solve your problem?
X: I don’t know! Isn’t that your job? Now, since you haven’t fixed it, I will have to copy their actions. Otherwise I can’t beat them in competition—you have created an unlevel playing field for me.
I truly wish that this was a bunch of stuff and nonsense. It isn’t. It is also not just one or two people. Many people in the show world share some part of this opinion. Some of them join the cheaters. In my opinion, that makes you part of the problem. Others quit and leave our industry to take up different sports. Some stay and blame everything on governance.
There are many, many people in our horse world that do things without resorting to doping, cruel training practices or poor treatment of animals. It can be done. I live that life. Perhaps some of you will say, “But, she has never ridden, trained or owned a good horse in her life”. My question to those people is: does a good horse deserve worse treatment?
Yes, a horse is a prey animal. It instinctually wants to flee in certain situations. Some horses, regardless of their athleticism, are not good candidates for our disciplines. They are a square peg in a round hole. Proper selection and training of horses allied with proper training of riders are vitally important factors.
Trainers—select wisely (and, honestly, many of you do).
Riders—perfect your craft and know your limitations.
Parents—ask many questions and, once you trust your trainer, TRUST your trainer. Don’t over-mount or over-face your child. Let your trainer do their job. Understand the journey towards knowing your child’s sport. Be willing to accept the learning curve.
All of us need to remember that, although we live in a win, win culture, blue ribbons and accolades are not the most important thing in our sport. The most important thing is love for and respect of our partner—the horse.
Second, if we want to get better, we need to be better. We have to play by the rules. It is time to stop making rules to address personal situations because, in doing so, we have made our rule book convoluted and overly complicated. We need to accept that there cannot be a rule for every situation. As a friend of mine says, you are a judge—use your judgment.
As competitors, we need to play with honor. We don’t need to comb the rule book for loopholes. We shouldn’t be addicted to breaking the rules or only playing fair if we think that no one is looking. The statement “if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying hard enough” should be an anathema not a gold standard for our sport.
We need to show our integrity in all that we do. Allow me to relate a conversation I had in a meeting. The topic was qualifying classes for the equitation finals. The task force member was advocating for the removal of the 14-show cap for equitation. The person spoke about a desire to return to the prior system where, at times, trainers instructed their students to purposely make mistakes in classes so that riders needing points could win.
I re-stated the comment: As long as no one is hurt, it is OK to cheat and to game the system? I asked if they were willing to publish their comment in the press. The task force member was horrified by the naivety of my comments. Apparently, parental pressure forces trainers into less than ethical actions. Sorry, but I cry foul on all situations of this type. We should not live under a system where we subscribe to the all of the cool kids are doing it theory.
I had an interesting conversation with a horse show dad the other day. His daughter rides and he is also a horse show announcer. His day job is that of a golf pro. He explained the concept of “protect the field.” Golf is a game of honor and the participants are expected to call penalties on themselves. During a tournament, all competitors protect the field by monitoring each other.
I asked him how he felt about the equitation comment. His answer? If that is how things work then there is no need for my daughter to continue to compete. It is a rigged game and I don’t want her to learn those life lessons. We need to be mindful of his comment. Again, it comes back to honor and integrity.
Last but not least, people put most but not all of the finger of blame on the governance of our sport. I guarantee that there are things that can be done differently and better. I refuse to make excuses for any poor performance of any governance organizations. It is time to conduct a thorough examination of all that we do and to fix any problems that we find. It is time to stop stonewalling people and to start giving them access to the facts—no matter how ugly. I will say that change is a monumental task and it is the yoke that I wear.
Should we abandon or destroy the structures that exist and build again? Should we have no governance at all? Should we embrace only the unrecognized world? These are all good questions.
My personal decision is that it is better to work with the structures that we have rather than to knock the whole thing down and start again. This task feels like one of the 10 labors of Hercules. Cleaning up our sport is akin to Hercules and the Augean stables. I, for one, am up for the task but I can’t do it alone. I have to count on you to help. I am there for you. I hope you are there for our sport.
I don’t want to go through another 365 days of disappointment. Please join me in being an upstander and not a bystander.
Mary Babick is the current President of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association. A professional horsewoman for more than 35 years, she has trained many hunter, jumper and equitation winners as well as serving as a USEF judge and as a member of the USHJA Board of Directors.