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Editorial: On Shelley Browning & the Court of Public Opinion: How Do We Move Forward?

In the wake of a controversial dressage video and the subsequent internet fallout that blew up social media last week, Morgane Schmidt Gabriel delivers some real talk: how do we move forward productively to improve the sport?

Flickr/Andrew Cavell//CC

Full disclosure, I have no idea who Shelley Browning is, nor do I know who she trains with. Until the recent videos and blog posts surfaced lambasting her rides at the Adequan West Coast Dressage Festival in Del Mar, I was blissfully unaware of this woman, much like I assume most of you were. (If you have not seen the video yet and absolutely need to, it’s not hard to find.)

At least, until now: now the collective interwebz mafia has set upon her in rabid fashion. True, her rides were utterly abysmal. I also can’t say that I saw much in the way of tact or empathy towards her saint of a horse, Vorst D. And truly for me, that’s the worst part. But as much as I agree that those rides were regrettable at best, I can’t quite stomach some of the over-the-top vitriol aimed at a women that I am sure the majority of you don’t know a thing about.

We have no context. Does she have a physical issue? Terminal illness? What are the circumstances of those rides? While she may indeed just be an extremely wealthy Dressage Queen who can afford a top horse to get her to the Grand Prix, most of you don’t know. And that’s where my problem lies — we are so quick to jump in and flame someone even when we have no details and without taking the time to use any sort of critical thinking or problem solving skills.

I have seen people post some truly awful things about this adult amateur (AA) rider. — things I likely wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (and frankly I can be a major a-hole so that says a lot). And I think that’s pretty shady when you have no real context. It’s also not productive.

To throw about the word abuse feels a bit heavy-handed too. The term itself has some pretty grey aspects. Consider what some radical animal rights activists would say about even riding a horse (hint: it’s all abuse unless you just feed them and let them be “free” as nature intended). Is the child bouncing around on her pony bonking him in the mouth while learning to post abuse? What about the older AA trying to learn to sit the trot with stiff hips? Should this AA rider just not ride because she isn’t supple? Or the AA in the hunter ring hanging on for dear life and bonking her horse after every fence? She may not ride that well but Dobbin has the best of care and love otherwise. Is she an abuser? While I don’t think any type of lackluster riding is good, I do recognize it is often part of the learning spectrum.

And the latter is largely why I am taking the risk writing this. Let me be clear: if she were my client I never would have allowed her in that ring and I likely would NOT have condoned the purchase of that horse for her. But while I do think Browning’s riding was subpar and tactless at best (and yes, abusive at its worst) because I do not know her or the situation, I have no way of knowing if she’s actually trying to learn the sport or is just a self-entitled jerk awkwardly wailing on her horse. And I bet most of you don’t either. Which means perhaps we should turn our focus and irritation on the factors that allowed her to get there rather than someone we don’t actually know.

How can we fix this? If the case is that she is actually trying to learn, if she’s just not been taught, then we should be looking to educate and figure out how she was allowed to get that far with so little knowledge (and if she is just a jerk, then we should still be looking for ways to prevent that sort of behavior in the ring going forward). Given that such unskilled riding was allowed to get to that level, there’s clearly a rather glaring hole in our sport that needs to be addressed.

On some level we, as professionals, need to be accountable. I know that’s not always easy – I have had my fair share of clients who have had unrealistic goals, timelines, and just enough capital to get themselves into trouble, but that doesn’t negate my responsibility to inform them and ultimately walk away if the situation warrants.

As dressage riders and USDF and USEF members, we also have a responsibility of speaking up and helping shape these organizations (in an organized fashion, not via incoherent rantings on Facebook). My understanding is that every time the notion of requiring qualifying scores before moving up is brought to the table, the majority has shouted it down. Why? Is there a way we could make this work? I know some fear that those with more average-moving horses would have trouble qualifying, but I would have to say I don’t see that as the case. If the questionably-bred little APHA horse I have can get up to a 63% in I-1, I think we could reasonably ask most horses to hit the 60% mark, and if not that, then what? Maybe it should be different for AA riders. Perhaps we could even come up with a rider competency test that does not take the horse’s gaits into consideration that could be taken before moving up. There are solutions if we look for them.

Ultimately, what this entire frenzy shows is that we need a productive discussion on how to make blatantly unskilled riding a nonissue. I can promise you that torching some AA rider from behind your computer screen will not. Or torching the judges for that matter (judging is a whole other issue we need to tackle…). I’m fairly certain judges cannot, at present, eliminate for poor riding. And if they eliminate for abuse, they darn well better be able to prove it, which can be tricky. So perhaps we need a rule that allows them to ring out based on subpar riding? Again, let’s discuss.

Unfortunately, Shelley Browning is not the only rider out there in way over her head (I bet all of you can think of people you know or show with); she is just the most recent to be caught on film and blasted across the internet. Even if she’s made to feel awful enough that she leaves the sport (and is that what we really want if she is just uneducated but receptive to learning?), that doesn’t fix the others who are doing the same thing.

A constructive dialogue is needed. I’d like to see more brainstorming on how to fix this issue and less useless internet hatred. It isn’t helping anyone, least of all the horses.

Morgane Schmidt Gabriel is a 34-year-old teacher/artist/dressage trainer/show announcer/ who still hasn’t quite decided what she wants to be when she grows up. A native Floridian, she now lives in Reno, NV, where she’s been able to confirm her suspicion that snow is utterly worthless. Though she has run the gamut of equestrian disciplines, her favorite is dressage. She was recently able to complete her USDF bronze and silver medals and is currently working on her gold. Generally speaking her life is largely ruled by Woody, a 14.2 hand beastly quarter horse, Willie, a now beastly 7-year-old Dutch gelding, and Stormy, her friend’s nearly all white paint gelding with a penchant for finding every mud hole and pee spot in existence. Visit her website at www.theideaoforder.com.

Photo (c) Michele Ting

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