Maintaining good relationships, managing horse welfare and risk, are all important concerns in equestrian communities. A new study, however, reports that a pervasive culture of ‘bravery’, which requires participants to prove themselves tough enough to belong, comes at a costly price.
In a compelling study, Rosalie Jones McVey from the Social Anthropology Department of the University of Cambridge, describes how the drive to demonstrate ‘grit’ and ‘commitment’ motivates riders and coaches to behave in ways that compromise horse welfare as well as their own health and safety. It suggests the pursuit of ‘bravery’ leads people to act against their moral values and reports that riders are being judged, ridiculed, excluded and belittled for being fearful.
This article, which is published in the open access journal Animals, is an important contribution to understanding the causes of welfare and safety problems across the horse sector. While it is focused on the British equestrian culture, the findings will prove useful in other countries that are witnessing declining participation as well as social licence to operate threats.
It helps explain at least one aspect of why horse people are more likely to ‘accept’ rather than ‘mitigate’ risks, a trend that has been described by other researchers, and a topic Horses and People has covered extensively. For example, you can read more on this here, here, and here.
It also sheds much needed light on the pervasiveness of bullying and exclusion among equestrian communities.
While much of the scientific literature has presumed that welfare improvements are made through better access to knowledge and education, other findings show the real problem is a lack of openness to receiving new knowledge and putting it into practice.
The field of Human Behaviour Change is shifting the focus to the barriers that prevent people from changing their practices as a means to drive equine welfare improvements. This is driving researchers, like McVey, to investigate other influences beyond education, such as whether people are capable, have the opportunity and the motivation to adapt their behaviour and practices in favour of improved safety and welfare outcomes. This research suggests that changing the culture to one that could also lead to improved self-confidence and better relationships – with our own horses and fellow enthusiasts.
McVey describes one aspect of the ‘motivations’ that drive horse enthusiasts to behave in ways that may be detrimental. To complete her research, she followed a cohort of 35 amateur riders and professionals who support them over 14 months, observing their day-to-day lives and recording their riding lessons, competitions and ‘yard chatter’ in field notes and by Dictaphone.
She collected and transcribed over 400 hours of recordings. Then, using a technique grounded on ‘narrative theory’, the stories and their structure were carefully analysed to show how riders’ eagerness to demonstrate their own bravery, often led them to describe their horse as defiant. The , instilling a ‘get tough and kick on’ attitude that has wide-ranging and detrimental consequences in terms of self-worth and horse welfare outcomes. She also reveals alternate narratives, including describing the horse as needy patient and the rider as care provider. Riders who sought veterinary diagnoses could also be judged negatively by others and seen as evidence of unresolved fearfulness, playing into the dynamics of exclusion and belittlement. Riders who were nervous when riding often felt embarrassed and ashamed, and were likely to ridicule themselves and be ridiculed by others.
McVey’s article is a must read for anyone who is concerned about the decline in participation and the prospect of losing a social licence to operate, which are partly driven by ongoing and unresolved issues in equine welfare and human safety. The writing, the stories and narratives she describes will resonate with most horse enthusiasts.