Best of JN: Dear Mean Girls, I Heard You — Addressing Bullying in Equestrian Sports

In this week’s Best of Jumper Nation, Meagan DeLisle issues a call to action to the equestrian community to put a stop to bullying.

Photo by Alissa King/JN

It was a normal horse show day. I had wrapped up my rounds and was waiting for my teammates to make their way to the ring when I decided to snag a bit of over-priced horse show food from the concession stand. I stood in line, my mind drifting off with thoughts of my rounds, when my attention was snagged by a comment made by one of the two junior riders in front of me.

“I don’t even know why she is here.”

Now, I usually am not one to eavesdrop, but as someone who was bullied in high school, I get a little sensitive when I detect a “mean girl.” As an adult, I don’t let these things get to me at all. My dad taught me this saying, “opinions are like…” Well, I probably shouldn’t finish that quote because it isn’t entirely appropriate, but I’m sure some of you know what I am referring to. Anyway, when people have something to say about me, I brush it off without a care.

But I remember what it was like being that 17-year-old who just wanted to fit in. I remember how bad words can hurt before you have developed thick skin.

So I snapped back to reality and focused on the girls in front of me. They both wore the best show clothes, donned some of the most expensive helmets and finished their outfits out with custom-fitted tall boots that shined so bright you could see your reflection. But what caught my attention the most was their team jackets with their barn logo printed in giant letters down the sleeve for everyone to see.

During the five minutes of their conversation that they were not trying even in the slightest to keep quiet, I heard them tear another girl up one side and down the other, their snide remarks only broken up by occasional giggles. And as I grew more and more frustrated with these two young riders, all I could stare at was the giant barn logo on their sleeves and wonder how any trainer could let their riders talk like that while branded with their logo.

Granted, this trainer may not have known that their riders were some of the cruelest human beings I have ever encountered. I highly doubt it; however, seeing as shortly before my food arrived and I could scurry away before losing my cool, one of their mothers waltzed over in her pristine horse-show-mom attire and joined in on the junior-high-school behavior, her giggles just as loud at another young rider’s expense.

As I walked away filled with disgust, my mind drifted off to playing tennis on my junior-high-school team. As we sat on the bus on our way home from a meet one day, our coach stood up and declared, “Anyone who is heard talking poorly about one of our players or another team’s player will be benched the rest of the season, do you hear me?”

This was before the big anti-bullying pushes were a thing, and I remember sitting in shock at the back of the bus, intertwining my fingers into the wire of my racket and suppressing the overflow of tears in my eyes. Several girls protested; one even said that violated her freedom of speech rights. My coach was undeterred, however. “This is my team. My players will conduct themselves professionally and represent our school in a positive light.” It wasn’t an immediate shift in culture, but after the first girl got benched for laughing when a player messed up her serve, the entire team started to change.

Then it hit me; I have heard similar conversations to the one at the concession stand at almost every horse show. Snide remarks, giggles as a rider has a rail, blatantly rude comments sometimes with the subject merely feet away. And the worst part? Parents, trainers, mentors are typically within earshot and never say anything. Heck, I was guilty of that just now. I listened to those girls, and I didn’t pipe up and address their unsportsmanlike behavior. I didn’t feel as if it was “my place,” but as adults, whether we are trainers or not, it IS our place to make sure this sport is safe for everyone.

Why don’t trainers bench their students or parents ground their kids when they are cruel to other riders? Why do we sit back and listen without addressing the culture? Why is it that every time I sit in the bleachers I hear riders picking one another apart rather than lifting each other up? Is it because we have fostered this environment for so long that it has become the norm? Or is it because the money that is poured into our sport fills some riders with a false sense of entitlement, thus squashing their sense of empathy?

Whatever the issue, I have a challenge for all of us:

  • Trainers: Establish a zero-tolerance bullying policy at your barn and bench any rider found breaking it. Your riders are a representation of your barn, do you really want the first impression that someone has of your business to be a negative one?
  • Parents: Talk with your children about the seriousness of bullying and why there is no excuse for it at the barn or a show.
  • Mentors: Whether you are a groom, a rider, a braider or a spectator, many of us serve as mentors to the youth of our sport. Don’t sit back for fear of bucking the system just because you aren’t wearing a trainer hat. You are a leader, so lead by example and squash bullying behavior right when it starts.
  • Young Riders: Be the example and refuse to participate if you hear your teammates picking on another rider.

You never know who is listening. You never know how your words might impact someone. Be the change we need in our sport.

Go jumping!

The U.S. Center for SafeSport offers a series of free, online courses tailored towards athletes of all ages. Their emphasis on an anti-bullying culture can be extremely beneficial for young riders to learn from.

“The U.S. Center for SafeSport Youth Athlete Training courses are now live! These valuable resources include courses for children of pre-school age, grades K-2, grades 3-5, middle school, and high school. These free online trainings are designed as an introduction for minor athletes and their parents or other caregivers to understand the importance of positive, welcoming environments in sports, where misconduct like bullying or abuse is less likely to happen, and to know where to report abuse, should it occur.”

I encourage all parents, trainers and mentors to have their young riders participate in these courses so we can make a change our young riders desperately need. For more information on the Youth Athlete Training courses click HERE.

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