Equestrian sport can learn a thing or two from Dr Seuss’s sneetches

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There has always been an element of tribalism around horse sport, and this week’s report about the ructions that unfolded within the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) last year provides a stark illustration of how bad it can get.

No-one is naive enough to think that everything about equestrianism is sweetness and light.

Britain, like most countries, has an umbrella group which overseas horse sport in their country, pulling together a diverse group of disciplines. It isn’t always going to be harmonious, this being the nature of many federations.

The account of how ugly things got within the BEF makes for unpleasant reading, with the independent review panel finding elitism at work, along with bullying and self-interest.

I suspect most countries have experienced some degree of this, without their dirty laundry being aired in such a public way.

However, when you have an umbrella group such as the BEF which receives millions of pounds each year from the public purse, it would actually be risky and reckless to try to cover it up.

Bullying can happen anywhere, but I think horse sport generates its own special kind of elitism, and most administrators in the equestrian field will no doubt have seen self-interest at work.

Yes, some disciplines have been around much longer than others. Yes, some have centuries-old traditions. Yes, some have a much higher profile and turn over a lot more cash.

But – and this a very big but – this should never translate into an air of superiority or elitism.

The same goes for those at the pinnacle of each discipline.

Should a professional showjumper who competes over 1.5 metres in a World Cup competition garner any more respect than a brain surgeon who competes over 1 metre in club competitions at the weekend for enjoyment? Or the hard-up teenager who bought a $200 horse and managed to get it successfully competing over 1.2 metres?

The whole sorry saga of the BEF saga reminds me of Dr Seuss’s remarkable story, The Sneetches.

It was a favourite of mine when a child and I still have a soft spot for this tale.

For those unfamiliar with the story, sneetches were yellow birds, some of whom had stars on their bellies, while others were plain-bellied. Star-bellied sneetches considered themselves the coolest and tended to shun the plain-bellied sneetches.

An inventor came to town with a machine that was able to put a star on the belly of plain-bellied sneetches for a small sum. The plain-bellied sneetches leaped at the chance, parting with their cash.

The star-bellied sneetches were not impressed and paid the inventor to remove their stars.

Stars were furiously added and removed until the hapless sneetches ran out of money, by which time they were totally confused over whether they were originally star-bellied or not.

The birds, now relieved of their cash, belatedly realised they were all basically the same and the world of sneetches became a much better place.

Having read the 53-page report by three consultants, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that a few star-bellied sneetches in horse sport have been looking down their beaks at their plain-bellied counterparts.

As the panel noted, in the lead-up to the showdown that led ultimately to the resignation of BEF chief executive Clare Salmon, some in the world of British equestrian sport felt they had no choice but to take the bull by the horns. It was, as one contributor labelled it, a “battle for the heart and soul of equestrianism”.

Well, as they read this week’s ugly headlines and fallout from the events last July, they must be wondering if it was all worth it.

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