Are you brave in the saddle? If not, you risk being belittled and excluded, study finds

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Horse riders in a study who voiced their fears arising from confidence issues ran the risk of being belittled and excluded, a researcher has found.

Rosalie Jones McVey, who followed the travails of a group of riders and the professionals who supported them for 14 months, provided a worrying assessment of what she termed the British equestrian cultural orientation towards bravery.

Her work lays open the equestrian culture in Britain, warts and all, revealing how readily negative moral judgments can be placed on fearful riders.

“Riders suffering from ‘confidence issues’ could be belittled and excluded,” she said.

Tactics used to boost bravery in riders may harm equine welfare, as well as affect riders struggling with confidence, said McVey, who is with the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Cambridge.

“Instructors’ approaches towards bolstering bravery involved encouraging riders to ‘get tough’ — on both themselves and on their horses,” McVey reported in the open-access journal Animals.

Riders who chose to seek a veterinary diagnosis for their horses also ran the risk of being judged.

“Diagnoses-seeking behaviours could be judged negatively by others and seen as evidence of unresolved fearfulness.”

She said the British equestrian cultural orientation towards bravery can be associated with stressful or painful training techniques, delayed or missed diagnoses of physiological pathologies, and poor training outcomes.

“Programmes that aim to help riders to develop confidence without instilling a sense of ‘battle’ with the horse, and without ridiculing the rider, are likely to have positive implications on equine welfare and human safety.”

McVey’s study centred on a large livery yard, chosen for its “middle of the road” status in terms of pricing, facilities, and the variety of equestrian disciplines and training approaches available.

She kept a horse at this yard for the duration of the 14-month study to have an authentic reason to meet participants daily and follow their relationships with their horses, including when on horseback out on rides.

From this yard, other participants were identified and recruited through networking.

As well as amateur riders, she incorporated service providers into the study, and shadowed riding instructors, farriers and vets on their visits to different properties, recruiting more long-term fieldwork participants among the clients that they visited together.

“I came to know over 200 riders by name during the study, but consider 35 to be long-term participants,” she says.

Of the 35, the average age was 38. A total of 29 were amateur riders (28 female and 1 male) and six were professional instructors, horse trainers and/or yard managers.

McVey also studied towards British Horse Society exams at two different equestrian centres during her research, using it as a further opportunity to observe human-horse interactions.

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Her observations were recorded daily in a field journal.

“Riders’ ethical evaluations of themselves and others could be observed through their pride, guilt, gossip, blame, self-doubt, advice seeking and so on.”

McVey used a dictaphone during some of her work, collecting more than 400 hours of recordings.

She recorded the likes of riding lessons; reports of horse behaviour immediately after rides; plans for how to approach rides when warming up at competitions; and discussions in the tack room about changes of equipment.

Some riders were wary of their language at first, but as trust was built and they got used to the recording device, they were less likely to screen themselves.

Turning to her findings, she noted that Kirrilly Thompson and her colleagues, in a study published in 2015, described the British equestrian cultural relation to risk as more likely to “accept” risks than to “mitigate” them.

“I would go further than that and say that, at times, some of my participants seemed to revel in the physical risk involved in handling and riding horses.”

“This seemed to fit with a general resilience that riders held in relation to their bodies, displayed — at times — through bodily neglect.

“Caring for horses is hard physical work, and my equestrian friends were proud of the effects this labour had on their bodies, showing off blisters, bruises, chilblains, chapped lips and sunburn as evidence of their outside, hard-working lives and dedication to their horses.

“Many smoked, did not eat well, or did not eat during the day at all when with the horses, some snacking on sweets and shop-bought cakes, drinking black coffee or energy drinks to keep them going during their equestrian activities, and remarking on their lack of need for food, warmth, or other comforts, sometimes through reference to those softer types who would not be able to hack it.

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“Among the 35 participants that I got to know especially well during fieldwork, there were six hospital visits as the result of falls during my research, and multiple minor injuries.

“From my observations, many accidents did not receive the hospital treatment they may have warranted, due to rider stoicism.

“Generally, injuries were acknowledged as part of the sport, something which cannot really be wholly avoided, and, furthermore, which one should not allow to delay or prevent one’s equestrian activities in any way.

“I was not at all surprised to find one participant in a thigh-high plaster cast pushing wheelbarrows, handling horses, and teaching riding, whilst limping around on crutches.

“A few weeks later, she was back in the saddle well before the doctor recommended it appropriate. How did I know about her doctor’s ignored advice? Because she made sure that we all knew.

“The doctor’s protective and prohibitive stance gave the ideal counterpoint against which she could demonstrate her own bravery and drive.”

McVey continues: “This is not to suggest that horse riders wanted to take a totally slapdash or care-free approach to managing risks. Far from it, for example, riding without a hat (riding helmet) was considered just as unprofessional, naive and incompetent as was wearing a hat for mundane, ground-based tasks.

“Crucially, even when deciding to avoid or limit danger (“not being completely daft” as one rider put it), the assumption was that fear should not be a feature in the rider’s decision-making practices.

“Instead, riders should demonstrate a proactive initiative to respond to recognised risk with pragmatism and gumption.”

McVey said that, despite the tangible presence of bravery as a virtue, most of the (largely amateur) participants in the study struggled with confidence issues at some level — whether just a flutter of nerves when they wished they could be calm during a particular riding challenge, or for a notable minority, a debilitating, highly emotional, paralysing fear that prevented them from being able to really enjoy riding much at all.

Despite their anxieties, they kept on riding.

File image. © Mike Bain

” ‘Horsiness’ was too deep a part of who they were. It was too painfully wrenching to consider a life without horses in it.”

Particular types of horses were seen as most appropriate for nervous riders. Known as “confidence givers”, they were usually hairy, thicker set types, but crucially, have unreactive, predictable (and some say “dull”) temperaments.

“Many riders found the thought of riding these types of horses embarrassing and associated them with lack of skill or with a less fulfilling equestrian partnership.”

Many riders reported feeling as though they were not quite “horsey” enough to feel that they really belonged within equestrian communities.

“This was especially likely among those who had come to horses late in life or taken a break from riding to have children or for career reasons.

“I witnessed riders being belittled and humiliated as ‘numpties’, ‘townies’, or ‘horse huggers’, if they were considered not properly horsey. I saw riders self-deprecating, apologising for their ineptitude, and submissive towards those who seemed more authentically rooted within equestrian spaces.

“Given the central importance of bravery within the military heritage and traditionalist character of equestrianism, it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘confidence issues’ could play into these dynamics of exclusivity and belittlement, such that those who were nervous when riding often felt embarrassed and ashamed, and were likely to ridicule themselves or be ridiculed by others.”

McVey noted that instructors frequently framed a horse’s defiance in a way to rouse a riders ‘grit’ and bravery — for example, “He is laughing at you! Aren’t you going to do anything?” or “I know that you are nervous, but don’t you dare let him win!”

“Overcoming fear and overcoming the horse’s will are often associated projects in British equestrian culture.

“Riders who do not remount after a fall are seen as both letting their own fear get the better of them and letting the horse get the better of them too.

“The tight association between defiant horses and the virtue of bravery also means that if riders want to demonstrate their own bravery to other riders, a great way to do that is to talk about their horse as though it were defiant.”

McVey discussed the potential horse welfare issues inherent in this, given that diagnoses-seeking can be viewed in a negative light, as an example of somebody who is “overthinking” and who does not have the real grit for riding.

Riders, she says, may be more likely to question their own sense that “something is wrong” and to opt for a story of defiance instead.

“Physiological pathologies may not be recognised, or diagnoses may be delayed, when riders are liable to associate diagnoses-seeking behaviours with ‘making excuses’ and the avoidance of confidence issues.”

MvVey says the findings of her research show that British equestrians’ ethical evaluations of horses on the one hand, and of riders on the other, are tightly associated.

“British horse riders’ attempts to cultivate bravery often involved the belittlement of nervous riders and the interpretation of horses as defiant creatures.

“This was associated with forceful riding methods and rushed training aims.

“The negative moral judgments placed on fearful riders also presented challenges for those riders when seeking knowledge and advice from veterinarians, because riders associated ‘diagnoses-seeking’ behaviours with a lack of bravery, and therefore with a lack of legitimacy.”

She says programmes that aim to improve confidence issues without instilling a “get tough” approach are likely to improve horse welfare and human safety.

“There is good rationale for educating influential equestrian professionals about equestrian culture as well as equine welfare in a bid to improve the latter.

“Those trying to provide accessible knowledge to improve equine welfare would do well to understand the ethical commitments that riders hold within different forms of narrative understanding.

“Stories about horses are not surface layers that are easily discarded, but deeply entwined within riders’ sense of identity and belonging.”

Jones McVey, R. An Ethnographic Account of the British Equestrian Virtue of Bravery, and Its Implications for Equine Welfare. Animals 2021, 11, 188.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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One thought on “Are you brave in the saddle? If not, you risk being belittled and excluded, study finds

  • January 21, 2021 at 7:09 am

    “Riders who chose to seek a veterinary diagnosis for their horses also ran the risk of being judged.”
    This is a displacement tactic too…riders do not want to fail..
    Absolutely no education about learning theory re horse training. How many horses are subjected to this sort of abuse. A huge welfare issue.
    Education is a must.


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