We all think that we are doing right by our horses, according to our own individual training philosophies. When we train with an equine professional in a sport that is reputed as having high standards and intense, standardized tests, we feel comforted that we are "on the right track" and that, if and when we make mistakes, we will at the very least be called out on our ways by official judges and set right again. Even trainers and riders who ride without the close supervision of a clinician or coach will nearly always compete, and when it comes down to it competition is just a way of checking in to say "Look at what I can do, correctly and well!" to which a judge can simply reply, through means of scores, either with an affirmative, or a definitive "not so much..."
After seeing Ms. Browning's videoed ride and name being dashed against the rocks of internet criticism this week, I can't help but offer my two cents.
We are all in this for the connection we find with our horses, whether it is in great feats of a string of nine tempis down the centerline that you and your horse complete with harmony, to music, in front of an FEI judge, or in the soft nuzzle of greeting that your muddy horse offers you when you go to their field in the morning. It feels so good to achieve a connection and bond with our horses no matter where it takes us.
When bullying occurs to the level that I witnessed on the internet this week, I have to ask: what are those who are doing the bullying, criticizing and sideline judging actually doing to change the system so that this kind of riding can no longer happen?
How many of them are quietly paying their dues to organizations that don't respond accordingly when a national level event displays a rider in such disharmony? Ms Browning went home with a score of 51.765% and a second place ribbon at Intermediare 2. Her next two rides apparently were eliminated and scratched, for reasons undisclosed. She struggled through her test, as the lovely Axel Steiner provided kindly critical commentary for those watching at home. You could hear the measure in his voice, and the careful choosing of words as he tactfully navigated describing a test that one might have called "choppy waters" at best. There were many moments I found myself scowling, or cringing, but more than anything I felt an overwhelming sadness.
I am sad because we have no one to blame but ourselves for being a part of a sport that glamorizes the upper levels, like they are the be-all and end-all of dressage. I am sad because the horse, and yes the rider, have suffered along - presumably striving for the upper levels, and perhaps dreaming of a USDF gold medal - and along the way her trainers, judges and comrades have obviously supported her in one way or another.
The desire to succeed, and the widely accepted image of a rider or trainer only succeeding if they make it to these FEI levels, is often the downfall of our sport. Should not we be putting emphasis on the development of feel and skill in the correct basics? The term dressage actually translates, in a way, to the training or dressing of the horse. Think about that for a moment; the actual name of our sport refers to training, not competition or exhibition.
Perhaps the bullying witnessed is not just a example of typical internet garbage. Perhaps it highlights that the problem with Ms Browning's ride this past week stems from a fundamental problem within the dressage world, and even the equestrian world.
We should be in this for the deep, trustful connection we form with our horses, and for the joy and harmony that stems from that - for both parties involved. Because we are often competitors in addition to equestrians, we are often faced by our own inadequacies, and, as humans often do, when we are insecure, we lash out. We climb up onto our pedestals as soon as we see an error (or many errors) in another rider, and we exclaim wildly "Well, I never!"
So I challenge you, today, to think on the overall culture of our sport. Are you the kind of rider who would take to the streets to batter and beat upon a woman for which the system has failed? Or are you the kind of rider to look on with recognition - to see a rider who is struggling outwardly in ways that we often struggle inwardly? I am in no way condoning the treatment of Vorst D in his televised ride this past week, but neither am I condoning the apparent desire of half the dressage queens in the country to jump up and down and shake their fists at the rider.
What can we do? We can write to our officials; we can pay attention to judges that you see who are lenient on poor riding and seek competitions who utilize other judges; most of all we can strive to do better, and be better examples ourselves.
Harmony should be the basis of riding, but it should also be the basis for the culture of our sport, and ultimately for life.
Without harmony, all is lost.
(If you have not seen the video of Ms Browning's ride, you don't have to seek it out... Just accept that things need to change in our sport.)