Social media can be a force for good in these troubled times, as countries lock down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. However, a virtual chain letter that encourages horse riders to share videos of themselves falling is not helpful. It may have been intended as a bit of well-intentioned online fun, but it runs the risk of increasing anxiety among more nervous riders, and those considering taking up the sport, write Dr Kendra Coulter and Dr Kirrilly Thompson.
People are reacting to this extraordinary time in many different ways, and thankfully examples of altruism, cooperation, and solidarity are everywhere.
Horse people are rising to the challenge, and making sure that animals are receiving the best possible care.
With higher numbers of riders staying home, social media usage has also increased.
As always, horse people have come up with some very funny memes, highlighting things like our years of experience with social distancing when we wear barn clothes to the grocery store or the similar effect of the “mare stare”.
In contrast, a recent trend has re-emerged which sees riders, especially show jumpers, sharing videos of themselves falling, and tagging their friends to do the same.
The rationale behind this virtual chain letter is surely well-intentioned, likely to self-deprecate, “have fun,” and show that everyone falls (including national team members and other top riders).
Falls can cause people to question their identity as a (good) rider, so sharing the evidence is intended to reassert a rider’s sense of belonging in the equestrian community. And many of us were told we’re not “real riders” until we’ve fallen off twenty times (or fifty or …).
However, there is a dangerous line between risk awareness and risk normalization, especially when that normalization takes on a celebratory or competitive element. We see real consequences for individuals and the sport, and question whether this trend is an appropriate or smart use of social media.
Amateurs, parents, young riders, those considering riding, and non-horse people are all seeing this flood of videos. So are people who have been hurt in falls, or had friends seriously injured or killed by accidents.
Anxiety levels are already increased given the global pandemic and providing a visual illustration of falls is hardly calming. Prospective or new riders may not find these videos funny, but rather terrifying (even if the rider didn’t get hurt).
Many already anxious adult amateurs are going to be further spooked and deterred. “If even the best riders fall, this sport is too scary for me.”
There are master classes focused on how to combat fear. There are sports coaches and psychologists who dedicate their careers to helping people overcome the constant re-play of falls in their minds.
Sports of all kinds are learning from medical research, improving safety standards, equipment, and training, and moving towards increased vigilance. We need to be aware of the risks, prepare, prevent, and act with good sense, not glorify or laugh at accidents or seek entertainment in other riders’ misfortunes.
Just because something happens, does not make it ‘normal’, and just because something is normalized does not make it acceptable.
Most alarmingly is that in some of these videos, the horses are also falling. Some of the videos are, quite frankly, appalling. Concern for horse welfare is, rightly, growing, not only within equine circles but in society at large – and there is increased pressure and scrutiny, as there should be. We are troubled by what some professional riders thought was appropriate to highlight.
Participation in equestrian sport is already in decline for various reasons, so it seems misplaced to be purposefully broadcasting the risks at the best of times, let alone right now. It has been mere weeks since Canadian eventer Katherine Morel and her horse Kerry On were both killed in a fall. And glorifying adverse incidents is always in poor taste.
There is so much more to celebrate about horses, riding, and our relationships with other equestrians.
While we would not advocate denial or ignorance of horse-related risks, what if equestrians decide to instead focus on posts that highlight the sport, horses, and human-animal relationships in a positive way.
- The everyday heroes whose work makes equestrian sport possible – from grooms to trainers and coaches to farriers and massage therapists to vets and vet techs;
- Our favourite and first equine partners;
- The cutest non-equine barn animals (those dogs, cats, goats, and pigs);
- The funniest old riding outfits/clothes/accessories;
- Favourite animal rescues and charities (all of which need support right now);
- The thrills and fun that can be obtained without taking an unacceptable risk;
- The ways in which horses enjoy or thrive in their relations with humans;
- All the benefits that humans get from their relations with horses – not just prizes and prestige but comfort, safety, wellbeing, friendships, mental wellness, and increased physical activity;
- Horses being allowed to express their views and have a voice;
- The wonder of horses’ natural behaviors and relationships (not just their work for us).
We especially hope that top riders will take the lead and change the channel so that more positive and constructive social media trends will emerge, and those that already exist will be expanded. At press time, a trend focusing on horses’ and riders’ “game faces” had begun, an undoubtedly preferable option.
If we want to continue to experience the privilege of equestrian sport, we need to take seriously how we are seen by others – and take extra care in how we both portray and treat horses.
Dr Kendra Coulter is a lifelong horsewoman, chair of labour studies at Brock University in Canada, and fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
Dr Kirrilly Thompson has researched human-horse relations and risk for over a decade. She is currently the National Participation Manager of Pony Club Australia and an adjunct senior research fellow at the University of South Australia.
We would like to acknowledge our friend and colleague, Dr Karen Dalke, who died after a fall from a horse. Karen was an animal lover, fellow equine researcher, and defender of Mustangs. She had a robust sense of humour; so do we.