Disinformation, suspicion and scepticism… Distrust. It spans centuries and cultures.
Our timeless obsession for murder mysteries, outsmarting imposters and calling out sabotage has made the Sherlock Holmes series, the boardgame Cluedo and the latest online game Among Us, best-selling household names. Our craving to find the pieces that solve a puzzle hooks us and can hold our attention for hours.
The newest and very popular social deduction game Among Us is a jigsaw puzzle where ‘crewmembers’ of a spaceship have to identify the randomly assigned ‘impostor’ among them.
Among Us is about distrusting everyone until they are proven innocent and uses terms like ‘most not sus’ and ‘scanning for innocence’. Players can interact with anyone in the world, at any time of day. Young people are practicing both, how to smell a fraud and how to lie, and get away with it. It’s young people navigating distrust for hours, every day.
Maintaining the legitimacy of horse sports relies on all of us doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way; and it also requires us to demonstrate we are not impostors and we can be trusted to safeguard horse welfare.
Just like some equestrians expect our horses to have to earn their carrots, we all must prove our trustworthiness. So, what is trust?
Let’s start with what trust is not. Managing horses in a way that is ‘fit for a king’ rather than horse-centred, or regurgitating politically correct terms in the hope that (by repetition alone), they will be absorbed by equestrians and the public alike, dismantles trust, and even raises suspicion. Trust is not even a cute #twohearts.
Maintaining legitimacy (proof) with transparency (as everyone ‘scans for innocence’) and communication (fostering connection over disconnection), explains why the sport’s social licence to operate is on trial in the court of public justice. So far, to a public that is scanning for impostors, we look ‘sus’!
Research shows that words really matter. The link between dehumanising language and violent behaviour is well-studied. Just as dehumanising terms are not OK to use on humans, ‘dehorseanising’ terms are eroding our social licence. Choosing to label our four-legged partners as ‘less than horses’ communicates to the animal-loving public that we are not trustworthy.
By the end of 2020, over 250,000 equestrians had joined the Facebook group ‘Shiteventersunite’. The attempt to provide a space for equestrians to show their mistakes is now overrun with videos and images of distressed horses who are coupled to labels like #twatface, #patchytwat or “pompous pussy.” A group that was set up to entertain equestrians has now become a hub for growing the public’s distrust.
Just because we can doesn’t mean we should
The public expect us to prove we can be trusted to provide good welfare. How? By showing evidence that our horses are living a good life, by demonstrating we provide quality of life for each individual horse in our care.
In a proactive move, horseracing has shifted its focus to The Five Domains Model as a tool to prove the sport can be trusted to give a racehorse a good life. They prioritise welfare over care and are embracing positive welfare measures.
Positive welfare research is advancing as researchers dig into measuring the feel-good hormones oxytocin and dopamine. French scientists, for example, identified the forms of touch that causes horses to release oxytocin. These findings have overturned traditional grooming practices such as strapping and show that just because the book says so, does not mean we should do it. Demonstrating we can change our practices – one at a time – when this matters to the horse, is how we earn the trust of the public.
Embrace the genius of the ‘and’
Both human-horse relationships and human-human relationships matter. When I explain that the public needs horse lovers to care for horses andeach other, there is always push-back; “I love my horse more than people!” I know this is true and everyone is doing their best with the ‘tools’ they have at that time, but it is also true that we can love horses and love people, and it is just as important to cultivate psychological safety with people as it is with horses. We can also recognise that we make mistakes with horses and with people.
My invitation to you is to practice holding two opposing ideas at the same time, such as recognising that you value self-carriage and (despite your best intentions) deliver clashing aids. That horses experience harmful pressures from nosebands and from bridles. That you are capable of being brave and of being vulnerable. That you can love horses and still harm them. This is acknowledging your vulnerability.
Building circles of safety
Can you admit your mistakes to your equestrian communities? Is it safe to express your vulnerability? If you were honest about your flaws and shortfalls when either managing, competing, training or hacking, would you feel safe exposing your vulnerability to your fellow equestrians? Trust is a safe feeling. To build trust we have to feel safe-enough to expose our true selves rather than the version you think others want to see.
When we are not among trusting communities, we cannot express any kind of vulnerability. We are forced to lie, hide and fake. We hide our mistakes, act as if we know what we are doing even when we don’t, and delay asking others to help for fear of feeling humiliated and shamed.
A culture renovation
Without trust within equestrian communities, the cracks in our horse relationships remain hidden or ignored. When there is distrust from the top-down in horse sports these cracks compound and spread, until relationships start to break and the public notices we are ‘sus’.
Building a culture of trust takes work. I invite us to start by creating safe spaces where you and your fellow horse lovers feel comfortable enough to be yourselves.
Connections that are forged by judging and mocking others are not real, but the pain this causes is real pain. Learning that the gossip at the yard is about you will trigger a feeling of shame and distrust.
We need to change how we choose to show up for our fellow equestrians if we are aiming to advocate for horse justice. We must reject the role of ‘Supreme Justice’. Judging and shaming others never leads to a behaviour change that improves horse welfare. Shaming disconnects us from each other, from education and the opportunities to solve problems for horses.
Our lens should focus on solving the problem, rather than exposing the problem, and the impact of our solutions should focus on our value – to advance all lives to live a good life.
Instead of naming and shaming, let’s recognise and reward organisations and individuals whose vulnerability and courage empowers others to advance horse justice. Equestrians need the safety to be vulnerable around and with each other, and our leaders need to reward trust among equestrians that are giving horses, one-by-one, a good life.
We can advance all lives to live a good life; one day at a time, one horse at a time, and one horse lover at a time. One-by-one is our behaviour. When our values are added to our behaviour, we renovate the culture.
Take a seat at the trust table
According to Dr Brené Brown, trust is the tool that allows us to stand together in the midst of difference. To learn how to trust ourselves and trust others enough to make real change for horses, we are all going to have to take a seat at the trust table and practice B.R.A.V.I.N.G. skills.
Dr Brown’s research identified seven elements to trust and to the practice of self-trust. The data led her to create the acronym – B.R.A.V.I.N.G. – a real fit for equestrians as discussed in the paper ‘An Ethnographic Account of the British Equestrian Virtue of Bravery, and Its Implications for Equine Welfare’.
- Boundaries: Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not ok?
- Reliability: Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do?
- Accountability: Did I hold myself accountable?
- Vault: I don’t share information or experiences that are not mine to share. I need to know you are not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential. Do I respect the vault?
- Integrity: I choose courage over comfort. I choose what is right over what is easy or a quick-fix. Being in our own emotional moment and saying “you know what, I’m not sure this conversation is productive” or “I need to learn more about this issue? Say more”
- Non-judgement: I can make decisions without judging myself or others. Choosing to be non-judgemental is choosing horse justice. How do we stay out of judgement toward ourselves when the right thing to do say “I actually don’t know much about this. Tell me what you know and why it’s important to you?” How do we not go into winner/loser mode and instead see an opportunity for connection when someone says to us “I don’t know anything about that issue.”
- Generosity: Was I generous towards myself? I extend the most generous interpretation possible to the words and actions of others. What’s the most generous assumption we can make about people around us? What boundaries need to be in place for us to be kinder and more tolerant?
The journey of earning public trust and self-trust is the practice of true belonging. Dr Brown defines true belonging as ‘believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you share your most authentic self with the world. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.’
We can do hard things
There will be many times during our quest for horse justice when our practice of B.R.A.V.I.N.G. skills won’t just be necessary to live a good life, but essential for safeguarding horse welfare.
Let’s all embark on this Self-Trust Challenge for Equestrians:
- Share your boundaries with others at your yard – what is and is not ok. Notice what happens.
- Show up for yourself. Action your words. Walk your own talk. Notice what happens.
- Listen out for your own BS. Hold yourself accountable, just as you hold others, like your vet.
- Respect the vault. Live into a zero gossip policy, especially at the yard, stables or barn.
Vulnerability is being brave and afraid at the same time. Doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way is advancing all lives towards living a good life. Being alone and being with others is the practice of self-trust and how, together and alone, we can all advance horses and horse people towards living a good life.
We can do hard things.
This article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of Horses and People magazine.