Are you brave enough to be kind to your horse, yourself and others?

An article has been published titled ‘An Ethnographic Account of the British Equestrian Virtue of Bravery, and Its Implications for Equine Welfare’, which is available open access1. 

Author Rosalie Jones McVey based the article on data she collected over 14 months whilst conducting ethnographic research. This is the hallmark method of cultural anthropology2 research, and involves a skilled version of cultural immersion or ‘hanging out’ with people ‘in the field’. 

How do we study people?

The field is everything the laboratory is not. The laboratory is a highly controlled environment where variables can be pulled apart and studied independent from other influences, so that causal relationships can be determined. The scientists go to great lengths not to take part, influence or feature in the experiment at all. They are effectively written out of the research account.  On the other hand, the field is a place where things can be studied naturalistically on their own terms, in the full complex and indivisible messiness of life. The aim of anthropology is to try to make sense of the world through the eyes of a particular group of humans, using ethnography.  For a horse-related comparison of these two approaches, read my 2019 article Like Apples and Oranges: There are Different Ways to Research Horses and People. Jones McVey wanted to understand the world through the eyes of equestrians in the United Kingdom. She spent 14 months in a large livery yard hanging out with horse riders, watching, helping, joining in, talking, and recording those conversations for analysis. She knew over 200 people in her research field by first name, of which 35 were ‘long-term participants’. Anthropologists are trained to identify the ways in which people make sense of and judge their world, as well as how they identify as belonging to this group and not that. These ways are expressed by researchers as themes or narratives.  For example, in an article titled ‘The Horse’s Tale: Narratives of Caring for/about Horses’, the authors document a theme of ‘life stories’ and a narrative of ‘rescue’ in the way that horse owners talk about their horse’s care and wellbeing. You may already be aware of a theme of dominance or hierarchy in the ways in which some people talk about their relations with horses, whilst other people might emphasise concepts of partnership and equality.  In this instance, Jones McVey identified a common theme which she expresses in terms of a virtue; the British Equestrian virtue of bravery. 

A bravery virtue

Virtues are particularly revealing about cultures because they represent aspirations and judgments. To say that there is a virtue of bravery is to suggest that horse riders within that culture should be brave and can be judged as good or bad depending on how brave they act or are perceived by others.  In her article, Jones McVey describes how good riders were spoken about as brave, authoritative, unyielding, tough, adventurous, committed, resilient, stoic. They had grit. They didn’t shy away from a difficult or defiant horse, and they won those battles. Jones McVey found ways in which she saw the virtue of bravery having real-world implications for horse welfare because;  First, the virtue of bravery could deter riders from seeking veterinary advice or alternative explanations for ‘naughty’ horses. Riders who did so were described as ‘wimping out’, ‘going soft’, or being fearful, etc.  Second, the virtue of bravery deterred riders from adopting more stress-free riding approaches or training techniques for their horses. Jones McVey recorded instances where people seemed to be deliberately explaining their horse’s behaviour by describing it as wilful, defiant, unruly, naughty, disobedient, etc., which legitimated the rider’s use of force and excessive pressure. Jones McVey’s documentation of the real ways in which the virtue of bravery can have poor welfare outcomes is a warning to all of us, despite the fact that her findings may not be generalisable.  The virtue of bravery that Jones McVey identified in her fieldsite in the UK could be much stronger in other equestrian circles, places, barns, states, countries or cultures. It could also be weaker.  Certainly, my own research with eventers5 suggests that Australian riders do not consider that bravery is incompatible with fear. Whatever the ‘strength’ of bravery across various equestrian cultures, I think anyone who has ridden horses probably knows that a virtue of bravery applies to some degree in most if not all equestrian pursuits. In fact, how could any Australian not be proud of Gillian Rolton’s Olympic ride with a broken collar bone and ribs at Atlanta in 1996, or Bill Roycroft completing his cross-country round at Rome in 1960 with a broken shoulder, a dislocated collarbone, and concussion? Under the current rules, those riders would never have been allowed to remount, but they did what they had to for their team.  Their actions appeal to some of our strongest Australian virtues – mateship, hard work, having guts, defying the odds and being a battler. These virtues, together with bravery, do some great things for humans.  Being brave, whatever that means to someone, can have important outcomes for personal development, professional gain, self-esteem, confidence, innovation and progress. After all, how many self-help messages tell us daily how life begins outside of our comfort zone and that fortune favours the brave?  For some of us, bravery is riding up to a 5-foot oxer on a cross country course with total commitment. For others, it is simply getting on. In both examples, bravery does us an enormous favour but in extreme, any virtue can be problematic. Bravery is no exception.  Jones McVey clearly describes how horse welfare is compromised when the virtue of bravery discourages riders from seeking veterinary attention, or encourages them to engage in a battle of wills with their horse.  In Australia, we can consider some other behaviours that could similarly be explained through a virtue of bravery. These include riders not wearing helmets, complaints that people are ‘soft’ if they follow a hot weather policy or suggest that track riders’ working hours should be made later in the day.  The question to be asked is, if we didn’t judge riders as brave or not-brave (where we consider bravery to be virtuous and ‘good’), would they be more likely to wear a helmet, retire from competition on a hot day, reinvent working conditions or even evacuate early on a catastrophic bushfire day? Would the Facebook group ‘shiteventersunite’ be so popular?  The answer is maybe. My personal opinion is that the likelihood of these changes occurring relies on more than a challenge to the virtue of bravery; it relies on the gender politics which have underpinned ideas of bravery for as long as humans have been riding horses. This is where I think gender can help us make more sense of Jones McVey’s findings. Her research occurred in the United Kingdom, where equestrianism has a much longer history than in Australia. Equestrianism, especially the Olympic disciplines, comes from military riding, which has historically been the domain of men. Thirty-three out of 35 of her research participants were women.  Bravery is traditionally a masculine attribute and the list of adjectives that I included above about being brave, are also things that have been traditionally applied to men and the male virtue of masculinity (unyielding, tough, stoic, etc.). Wearing a helmet, withdrawing from a competition due to heat, seeking a veterinary explanation for a horse’s undesirable behaviour, ‘letting the horse win’, giving up a battle of the rope, bit or spur, etc., have all, at one time or another, been judged as ‘soft’ of ‘cop outs’.  In fact, seeking peace and acquiescing to others, have traditionally been applied to women and the female virtue of femininity. In this way, we can see that the same actions that are unacceptable for horse riders within an equestrian virtue of bravery are the same that have traditionally been unacceptable for women. That is, a virtue of bravery makes it most appropriate for horse riders (of both sexes) to adopt a masculine virtue of bravery in the role they take in their interactions with horses.  At the same time, the horses who are thought to require a masculine stance of being ‘shown who’s boss’ or being ‘put in their place’, are described in similar terms to women who have been accused of challenging feminine virtues (wilful, disobedient, etc).  What I am describing here is a simplistic generalisation, but it does serve as a reminder that virtues are not free of gender politics. In most so-called western equestrian cultures, women are amongst the majority of participants. This is considered a great thing for female participation, at least at the amateur levels6. But has women’s overwhelmingly successful participation in what has traditionally been a male sport, relied on women adopting male gender norms? Have women had to assume more masculine ways of thinking about, interacting with and explaining problems, like ‘naughty’ horses?  The implications of these questions for women in horse sport – and the welfare of their horses – are profound. But there are implications for men as well, who may feel the weight of the masculine virtue of bravery in all areas of their lives and be even less likely than women, to seek veterinary advice, or more likely to turn to force when dealing with a ‘naughty’ or difficult horse.  At this point, I do not believe improving horse welfare and wellbeing depends on feminising horse riding, challenging bravery or creating a feminine form of bravery. All of those are short-sighted suggestions that ignore the incredible complexity of human society and culture. I certainly am not an advocate of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.  Horse riding gives women the opportunity to experience and demonstrate things which they had historically been denied – freedom, independence, autonomy, speed, strength and competing against men – and bravery is absolutely one of those things.  But to return to a framework of gender and draw from the concept of toxic masculinity, at what point does a virtue of bravery become a culture of toxic bravery? How many women and men have not taken up horse riding, or have given it up, because they have more or less intentionally been made to question their own bravery and whether they belong in this weird and wonderful world of horse riding? 

Avoiding bad consequences

It is not bravery that is essentially good or bad. It is the effects of how we employ the virtue of bravery in everyday life that can have good or bad consequences. We need to change how we talk about ourselves and how we talk about others.  This can be as simple as refusing to engage in the casual shaming of yourself by saying things like “I’m only riding at novice’, ‘thanks but I was the only one in the class’, ‘I only jump 60cm’, etc.  We also need to stop the casual shaming of others with statements like “she’s wearing a vest so she can’t be much of a rider”, “I don’t’ know why he doesn’t just show that horse who’s boss”, “she’s letting that horse pull one over her” or “he’s probably just looking for an excuse not to get on”. We all practice casual shaming in one way or another, more or less consciously, but we don’t need to. We can be brave by championing ourselves and others.  We can also be disruptive by noticing how brave it was for someone to pull their horse out of an event when competing was so important to them, for getting a veterinary investigation done when it might confirm a dreaded prognosis, or for being the only person on the agistment property who evacuated prior to a catastrophic day. You never know who may be listening or who may follow your lead. I invite you to be your own anthropologist and do some ‘auto-ethnography’. How do you describe yourself and others, and how does that change (if at all) when you feel good or bad about yourself and others? What words do you use? What kinds of virtues can you see in the stories you tell about yourself and others? Importantly, what kinds of things do those virtues make easy/hard, possible/impossible, right/wrong or good/bad?  This kind self-reflection will take some bravery on your part. 


  1. An Ethnographic Account of the British Equestrian Virtue of Bravery, and Its Implications for Equine Welfare:
  5. or available upon request