#TwoHearts: We Are the Horse People

In response to an inflammatory anti-equestrian Olympics article published recently on a popular sports blog, Kristen Kovatch pauses to reflect on what the equestrian events mean for our community.

Astier Nicolas FRA and Piaf de B'Neville competing in the Cross country phase at the Rio 2016 Olympic games Pic Arnd Bronkhorst

Astier Nicolas FRA and Piaf de B’Neville competing in the Cross country phase at the Rio 2016 Olympic games
Pic Arnd Bronkhorst

Early last week, a few days before the 2016 Opening Ceremonies, a blogger published a piece on the sports website Deadspin deriding equestrian’s place as a recognized Olympic sport. “There are horses (who are not people) in the Olympics (for people) and everyone seems to be fine with this,” claims the author.

He goes on to state the usual arguments: horseback riding isn’t really a sport because the horse is the athlete rather than the rider; horse sports are only for the over-privileged; the Olympics are supposed to showcase human talent rather than equine. Frankly, other than some strong (NSFW) language, the entire article isn’t really anything we haven’t all heard at one time or another before.

I read this article with a grain of salt, assuming that the author was trying intentionally to get a rise out of what he called “the horse people.” When he followed up on his first story with a collection of actual emails he received in response from “horse people” all over the world — clearly selected to make “the horse people” look as unbalanced, uneducated and obsessive as possible —  he was trying to push all of our collective buttons all over again, and it looks like in many cases he succeeded. I read a lot of those letters and shook my head with a smile to myself, both understanding the rage elicited in the sender and wondering why on earth people continued to feed the trolls.

We are the horse people. All of us, on every continent, riding any breed, saddling up (or harnessing up!) in any discipline. We are the horse people.

I’m writing this now just minutes after Michael Jung’s history-making individual gold medal in eventing: the man’s become only the third rider in Olympic eventing history to win back-to-back golds, and he’s also THE only rider in modern eventing history to earn gold on his dressage score — he did it back in London in 2012 and he just did it again in Rio. I’m not an eventer by discipline; I’m not even a competitive rider in any discipline at the moment. Regardless, I’m riding the same high that comes from witnessing great competition, the adrenaline rush that makes me feel like I was really there, as though perhaps I too had jumped a double-clear round.

As an American citizen, naturally a large part of me was rooting for Boyd and Phillip all day (Phillip did take bronze!) and I was crushed to see two of our riders eliminated on yesterday’s grueling cross-country course. But regardless of my nationality, I wished for clear rounds and safe trips for every competitor out there on the track, cheering them all home, commiserating when their hard work, preparation and dreams weren’t enough to see them all the way through this time.

The minuscule fraction of horseback riders that will get to compete in Olympics in their lifetime represent a massive community that stretches around the world. That’s why we are all following these Games — from die-hard eventers, show jumpers and dressage riders, to recreational western trail riders like myself. The messages that these athletes are broadcasting in their performances resonate with all of us: Fitness. Timing. Trust in your horse. These are lessons that all of us as equestrians know well, lessons that translate across the board to anyone’s horse experience.

We all know that our sport is unique — regardless of discipline. No one watches ping-pong, swimming or beach volleyball and thinks “Yeah, so-and-so is my favorite, but I want them all to do well.” The rugby team doesn’t cheer on its opposition during a match. Ingrid Klimke summed it up well when discussing yesterday’s cross-country:

I think it’s more about when all the riders together are sitting in the tent watching and clapping for the Chilean boy, and he took the long way always, and he came home! We know that being out there is a challenge for every horse and every rider and we are all good friends. It’s a big family, the eventing family. I don’t even realize now, who is first second third. We will find out later.

Amidst all of this camaraderie, yes, it’s terribly disheartening to see some sports writer calling out our sport despite his own ignorance, which in his words “is indisputable, because horse sports are dumb and why would I ever want to know anything about them.” Especially in light of reports that it’s possible equestrian events may be dropped completely from future Olympics due to a lack of viewers, it’s such a punch in the gut to see our sport, passion, lifestyle paraded as a folly of the idle rich. I’m not here to tell you not to get mad at this author, or not to send him an email — if you want to do that, go right on ahead.

But in my experience, feeding the trolls — especially ones like this blogger, who seem to really get off on making “the horse people” super mad on the internet — doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t change anyone’s mind and it certainly doesn’t help a troll such as this particular bully consider another point of view with an open mind. Trust me — he’s either too ignorant to change, or he’s just putting on a show with this overly-aggressive stance to see how mad he can make us. It’s time to saddle up and take the high road.

We’ve only just finished the first medal ceremonies of the equestrian portion of the Olympics, and excitement is already high, reaching a fever pitch all over the world. Google published this tweet yesterday during the cross-country phase:

How can this be viewed as anything other than encouraging?

No matter how many trolls might be lurking on the internet to try to bring us down, right now we are riding higher than ever. The FEI, the governing body of our sport, started the #TwoHearts campaign in the buildup to the Olympic games this year to highlight and celebrate that indescribable partnership between horse and rider, that kind of bond that transcends words.

It’s this hard-to-describe relationship that equestrian’s critics can’t and won’t ever understand, and in that respect the battle to show the world just why these events are so special and unique will be a tough one to fight.

But we should never stop fighting: this year, when a new beginner takes their first lesson and experiences that thrill of the horse’s swaying walk, or when a friend tentatively asks if they can come meet your horse or watch you ride, we need to remember that we’re the horse people, we’re the family of equestrian sport, the tribe that lives and breathes horses.

Our battle is not to be fought with the haters and shamers by trying to hate or shame them back — our role in this fight is to open our arms, our hearts and our barns and welcome all to our world however we can. It’s time to show the world what #TwoHearts can do.

We’re the horse people, after all.

Go riding!

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