Had the incident in the Hampton Classic show ring occurred many years ago, before social media and cell phone videos, I would never have known about it. No one I know would be aware of it, either.
Back in the day, if officials had failed to take action, then nothing much would have changed for me or others. And I would have even more distance from the incident as an eventer who doesn’t show hunters anyway (although both disciplines are under the U.S. Equestrian Federation).
But today, under social media’s universal microscope, there is always a good chance that thousands of people will soon be watching a cell phone video of such an inglorious, tantrum-driven assault on a horse in the show ring. Any of my non-horsey friends, family members, co-workers or acquaintances, or even a rider in another discipline, is likely to come across that video and ask me about it. “Have you seen this video?” or “Let me show you this video I found! What about this?”
And then they say something like, “Wow, that’s so awful! That poor horse! I’ll bet that rider really got in trouble for that!”
And then I lie. I say, “I don’t know, but I’ll bet she did!” just to duck any further discussion about it, given the status of things at the moment. And I’m embarrassed for the sport to truthfully say that nothing was done immediately, though USEF officials are looking into the incident.
Because if I say, “Nah, the judge reported it, but the show officials didn’t do anything,” then how does our corner of the horse world look to my friends, family and coworkers? And how do I look in association, even if that association barely exists? Whoever is seen as being even remotely connected with the behavior on that video risks being assumed to be part of a sport that is indifferent to horse abuse.
The viral video, something that can be anticipated for any public incident, is holding all of us accountable. That’s the case even though only a small handful of people were actually part of what happened and what didn’t happen (that is, poor sportsmanship not followed by prompt official consequences). Outsiders (as it were) can see my framed photos of me similarly dressed and jumping a horse in a U.S. Eventing Association/USEF competition, and in their eyes, there is no real difference.
It would be better if I could say, “Yes, I heard about that, and the show disqualified her, and then the national organization sanctioned her for X months.” Or some sort of serious organizational consequences, as are merited for any abuse of an animal occurring at a show in full view of officials, including the judge.
People expect that when someone egregiously messes up, then consequences follow. The inquirer will be satisfied if I can say, “Yes, someone did something about it.” That closes the subject.
But when nothing is done, people generalize. Even though I’m just one of the great mass of lower-level participants, I’m seen as associated with a sport that ignores flagrant horse abuse (it doesn’t matter if it hurt the horse or not; it looks awful). I end up wearing the problem, too, even though it has nothing to do with me, and I have no power to do anything about it. In the eyes of the general public I ride in an English saddle and wear the coat and helmet, so I’m “one of them.” The “them” they saw kicking a horse in the belly while in the show ring, the “them” who didn’t do anything about it.
Anyone who shows does so in a public fishbowl that attracts even more attention because animals are part of the sport. Likewise, show officials and national organizations represent and act on behalf of all of us. No matter how local, how seemingly insignificant, nonetheless a horse abuse incident at a show needs a response from officials who can see beyond their own micro-bubble of people who know each other.
It’s important for officials to realize that a very large audience of riders and their supporters are watching, and that the world is also watching in this day of cell phone videos and interest in animal welfare. Official actions should clearly demonstrate that we aren’t callous, indifferent, horse-abusing louts.
When officials fail to do so, they not only fail the horse, but they also fail the organization and every person who is associated with it. They let all of us down in the eyes of the greater public.
I would like to think that USEF realizes this as they pursue their investigation, even if the show officials at the time did not.
I don’t wish ill on a rider who had a bad moment. I can give her the benefit of the doubt that such behavior isn’t typical. But in the age of public videos and social media, the issue of horse welfare and horse abuse is larger than just one rider and just one show. Fair or not, we are all tagged with the consequences—or the lack of consequences—for such an egregious example of abuse of a horse in a show ring.
Mary Hirsch rode hunters and jumpers as a teenager, graduated Texas A&M University with a degree in accounting and then got a master’s in finance from the University of Texas at Arlington. During a 20-year career as a corporate financial analyst for Fortune 500 companies she didn’t ride, but she returned to the saddle in 2005 and took up eventing. She currently competes a 6-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred.
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