An Open Letter
Dear Equestrian Critics,
Having recently had the Olympics, and now being in the midst of the Paralympics, the sporting worlds are once again being thrust under the spotlight of the global media. Unfortunately not everyone is positive in their reception of Olympic sports, something I cannot comprehend since these games allow us to share moments with the most inspirational people on the planet. Equestrianism in particular, is a sport that has been scrutinized, criticized and primarily misunderstood. The purpose of this letter is not to condemn those who do not understand us, the equestrian community, but simply to defend not only a sport, but also a way of life, from their misguided opinions.
From The Opening Ceremony till the flame was extinguished, the television in our house was constantly showing the weird and wonderful sports we only ever watch once every four years. Throughout all the time I sat glued to the screen, watching athletes pushing themselves to the furthest possible limits, I was in total awe. Irrespective of the sport they participate in, reaching that level of competition takes dedication, determination and talent that most of us can only dream of. HOWEVER, I cannot even pretend to know what was actually going on.
I don’t claim to have any idea about sports that don’t include furry four legged animals – that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate them though. Equally, it means that I am in no position to criticize them. Why is it that others cannot also adopt this policy?
I recently read a piece published by Motherboard titled ‘Why Is Dressage Still an Olympic Sport?’ the writer proceeded to refer to DRESSAGE as ‘horse ballet’ for the remainder of the article. I mean really? How can you possibly write off an entire sport if you only understand it enough to simplify it to the comprehensive level of a toddler?
A. It’s not fair.
B. You not doing your intelligence (or lack there of it) any favours.
And C. You’re making the global community of MILLIONS of horse owners extremely angry.
Yes, you’ve got all the ‘specific jargon’ put carefully in ‘inverted commas’ - Wikipedia really does work wonders. But you see, sport is about DOING, not READING. How can you conclude, from a few Internet articles, that what we do is ‘animal cruelty’? I am sure that your article, like so many others before you, wasn’t written with malicious intentions, but it’s time a person who understand horses sets the record straight.
Equestrianism is a team sport. And I’m not pointing out the obvious, I realize that there are team medals to be won, I’m talking about the ‘individual’ medals. The FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale) have launched the hashtag #TwoHearts for exactly this reason; horse and rider are a team unto themselves, in a league of their own. How many team players can boast performing in perfect harmony with a teammate more than twice their size, who doesn’t even speak their language…actually, make that any language?
Those who aren’t familiar with the horse world often take this as an impossible feat dubbing our partnership ‘the results of a broken spirit’. But do you really think that we could make an animal that weighs nearly 5 times as much as we do to perform to this level if they don’t want to?! Not even us equestrians are crazy enough to try and persuade half a ton of beast to preform, as you so eloquently put it, ‘horse ballet’. We might not speak their language but when a horse doesn’t want to do it, then there’s not a whole lot we can do other than finding them a new job that DOES make them happy…it really is that simple.
I can’t speak for the entire equestrian community with regards to the treatment of their animals, and unfortunately there are cases of abuse. This however is strictly monitored and regulated by the equestrian governing bodies…just as doping is in other sports. As in life, you cannot dismiss the masses by the few.
A word repeatedly thrown around in relation to our sport is ‘elitist’, but frankly, if the people I work with and compete against are anything to go by then it has no place in our sport. Yes, money is necessary in Equestrianism, huge scale money in fact. But do you really think that this isn’t the case across the board when it comes to high level sport? Currently UK Sport is pumping a whopping £347,252,193 into British sport, the biggest portion of which goes to Rowing at £32,622,862, closely followed by Cycling at £30,267,816 (Equestrian receives £17,992,600).
I cannot deny that horses cost money; I’d be the first to vouch for the fact that my bank account would be considerably better off without them. However, when you’re working to put every cent into another being, finishing days with enough straw in your hair to make a birds nest, enough dirt on your face to star in the next production of Oliver Twist and with a smell so potent even the dog gives you a dirty look, the last thing that comes to mind is the word ‘elite’.
Another accusation often thrown our way is that Equestrianism ‘isn’t even a real sport’. Quite how you define a ‘real’ sport I have no idea, and what gives anyone the right to do said defining is also beyond me, but let’s put this in perspective; an Olympic swimmer’s (I assume that swimming is considered ‘real’ enough as sport) training regime consists of 6 hours of swimming and 2 hours of physical training a day. Impressive right? An equestrian athlete will have a minimum of 10 horses to work a day, each horse working for a minimum of 30 minutes. Please note the word MINIMUM…so at the very least they’ll be spending 5 hours on board a horse. The mathematicians out there will now see a missing 3 hours. Well, since horses are basically over-grown, hairy babies their upkeep is lengthy to say the least: they need mucking out, given hay and water and groomed…and that’s not including the 100 other activities that us batty equestrians will try to do to make these horses as happy and healthy as possible.
What is more, I haven’t even scratched the surface of the additional gym time required to maintain sufficient fitness for high-level equestrian competition. Just because we don’t compete in what is basically a glorified bikini, does not mean that we don’t have enough six packs to go around. Painting a picture of ‘total harmony’ takes work…and a hell of a lot of core muscle, so you can take your planking and crunches and scuttle on home, because in all honesty that doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The point that I’m trying to make is this: we work just as hard as any other athlete; we too have aches and pains that the average human would consider life threatening; we too are considered ‘anti-social’ by the those who don't understand that our lives revolve around our sport and our animals; we too suffer the crushing lows of sport gone wrong; we too enjoy the fantastic highs of sport gone right. We bleed, we sweat, we cry, just as any other athlete does. The difference? We are only one half of an inseparable whole. Everything we do is to provide for another animal, our teammate…their performance is intrinsically linked to our own – so if we fail, we’re letting them down.
So please realize that the ‘glamour’ you see on your screen is the product of years of hard work, and if there are any silver spoons around they’re probably covered in horsehair, saliva and various other bodily liquids that I’m sure you won’t care to know about. As far as mistreatment goes, there are some horrendous people in the world, but they certainly do not characterize our sport…even if it does make for a provocative article.
The bottom line: Equestrians are a different breed, a different strain of the average athlete. Unfortunately that isn’t something that everyone will understand or appreciate, but that’s just how our world sadly works sometimes. Misunderstanding is tragic, but also inevitable – it is therefore down to the equestrian community to educate, and help people see that equestrian sport is something of a miracle of nature…bizarre but incredible – the union of two species, working together to perform as one. Please enjoy it, because condemning something that you can’t comprehend is both destructive and deeply unfair.
An athlete (who just happens to ride horses)
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