Elitism in the equestrian industry is all too often swept under the carpet. As someone with lived experience of disadvantage who has spent the last decade trying to help people from diverse backgrounds get a handhold onto- and a leg up- into- the horse industry, my heart soared and then swiftly fell when I read Pammy Hutton's recent opinion piece in Horse and Hound Magazine.
In her recent article, the revered Fellow of the British Horse Society, international Dressage rider and trainer and joint principal of the Talland School of Equitation states:
"Outrage and scandal trickle down, via the grassroots, to the non-riding public. It’s agreed there’s an urgent need to preserve our sport and indeed the right to ride at all."
So far, so good, right? It feels so validating to hear one of the old guard acknowledge that, as an industry, we really need to clean up our act where social licence to operate is concerned. However, she then went on to say:
"The general public, who know less than those at the top, will influence our sport’s future."
And there it is, the 'us' and 'them', the perception that Joe Bloggs on the street knows far less about horses than our top riders and the inference that his opinion is somehow less valid. Even if Joe doesn't know his bradoon from his backside, he is just as qualified to call out cruelty when he sees it as anyone else is. You don't have to know how to ride a perfect piaffe to be able to recognise that covering spur marks with shoe-polish or whipping sentient beings around the head (as per Cesar Parra's training practices) is wholly unacceptable. And Pammy's remedy for rescuing the sullied reputation of horse sport?
"..we must appear less elitist by making riders accessible and inviting the public to stroke the horses. Here at Talland, we open up to locals to eat cake while watching the horses."
And really it doesn't get more tone-deaf than that, does it? Bearing in mind that 'the locals' at Talland, based in the Capital of the Cotswolds, are hardly likely to struggle for access to horses or cake for that matter. There is a belief amongst people who are privileged that combatting elitism in the horse world means allowing those who are not privileged to eat the crumbs at our table. There is a perception that allowing a person to stroke our dressage horse is the same as accessibility in sport or that allowing them to eat cake and watch whilst we sit atop our horses performing fancy movements is tantamount to inclusion.
As author Liz Fosslien has said, “diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice.” It's not enough to give people with lived experience of disadvantage, disability and discrimination a seat at our table. To paraphrase Lilly Singh's words on gender equality, we need to build a better table.
If the equestrian industry is to survive, we need to move past the outdated idea that people who are not horse experts cannot have a say in what is acceptable in equestrianism and what is not. And instead of deigning to let 'the locals' stroke our horses occasionally, we need be looking at ways that we can give a leg-up to those who might never normally get a chance to ride.