We All Need to Be Nicer: An Open Letter to My Young Rider Peers

Area II Young Riders show support for a teammate at the 2018 North American Youth Championships. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Dear Young Riders,

We all need to be a lot nicer.

It seems simple doesn’t it? It seems like something we should already be. But kindness is not a practice embraced by everyone in our community.

I’m talking about the way we as young riders treat each other. While there are always murmurs of teenage drama and bullying in our sport, I haven’t seen a serious attempt to address a problem that is turning so many talented riders away from riding and competing. The recent push from SafeSport to end bullying is definitely movement in the right direction, but many of the situations we encounter don’t qualify as reportable offences. Rather, we experience them as small moments — riders engaging in mean gossip behind one another’s backs, or passive-aggressive interactions, or cruel social media comments —  that add up to a big problem that needs to be addressed.

This is where I want to say something. Because there are individuals that need to hear this. Honestly, I needed to hear this. 

Firstly, we are blessed to participate in the sport that we do. We are incredibly lucky to sit on the animals that we do and compete in the shows that we can. We are lucky to have dedicated trainers, supportive friends and families. Many young riders are aware of exactly how fortunate we are; however, so many of us don’t behave consistently with this acknowledgment.

We are so fortunate, so why do we complain and compete with one another? Why are constantly judging and critiquing? The number of times I have heard other young riders make comments such as “that’s what SHE’S wearing?” “she picked THAT horse?” “what IS that ugly saddle pad?” is appalling. Even more frightening is the number of times I’ve found myself making the same judgmental comments. It’s unhealthy, mean behavior. It benefits no one and hurts everyone. It degrades the character of those making the comments and hurts the esteem of those commented on.

The reality is that our sport is on shaky footing: we’ve narrowly held our spot in the Olympic Games and events are closing from lack of entries. How can we expect it to survive into our future if we are forcing more and more riders out with our lack of support and acceptance? We need more people to compete because they love it and want to be advocates for eventing. Driving riders to avoid competitions simply from fear of their peers is a tragedy, and detrimental to the future of our sport. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what horse you’re sitting on, what show coat you’re wearing or what level you’re riding. We are all riding because we love our sport, our horses and our community. I think it is of the utmost importance that we make sure to return to these values when interacting with each other. 

Secondly, I propose that we should strive to ride for the love of the sport, not the popularity or attention is grants us. We, as the upcoming generation, owe it to the industry to prioritize our sport, not our social lives. We should be focusing less on our Instagram followers, and more on our genuine love of riding horses.

Our generational obsession with social acceptance and gratification has drawn us away from our “reason to ride” and towards a social game much resembling the plot of a bad high school movie. The neglect of the sport gets even worse when two riders “stop being friends.” I have seen riders intentionally try to sabotage each other over arguments, as well as saying or posting petty things via social media just to “get back at” their peer. This behavior is both unsportsmanlike and unprofessional.

Despite being kids, we have a responsibility as riders to behave graciously and professionally. This means respecting our individual rights to a good ride and leaving drama at home. For so many of us, our barns are an escape from other social settings; it is not fair to turn barns into mini “high school cliques” as well. But the blame does not fall solely on young riders — it is also trainers’ responsibility to call out students who are forgetting the impact their behavior has. I implore adults to stick up for the future of our sport by culling nasty comments and petty behavior when it presents itself. The events and barn environments should be places of comradery, safety, and ultimately, happiness. 

Finally, we all just need to be more accepting. More accepting of each other’s ambitions, aspirations and commitments. Not all of us want to compete at every show and ride every day, but that doesn’t mean we can’t participate as a hobby. Some of us want to ride professionally and compete as a career: we can still be friends with those who prefer to stay amateurs. It really doesn’t matter why any of us ride, what matters is that we all do. We love our horses and we should love being around each other.

I would also like to add this for any young rider that needs to hear it: going to NAYC won’t make or break you. It isn’t the end-all-be-all, and you’ll be OK if you pursue other opportunities instead. I see so many kids treating each other badly out of competitiveness to make an NAYC team. It might not seem like it, but the friendships you are ruining will mean more to you in the long-term than the theoretical medal you’re fighting so hard for. 

We all can be friends; we all should be friends. If we don’t make changes now, we’ll grow up to be adults that are just as divided as we are as teenagers. It pains me to see even trainers — the mentors we look up to — competing with one another, outside of a business or competitive aspect. It hurts to see adults mimicking the same behaviors of my less mature peers, and negative attitudes are contagious. We as young riders have a chance to change this — all we must do is be kinder.

Young riders, we are the future. If we can be nicer to each other now, we will be nicer to each other as adults. If we can be kinder adults, we will make the greater industry a more cooperative and positive place. We owe it to the riders younger than us now and to the young riders we will influence as adults, to be better people. We can change the way we behave to generate real comradery and genuine friendships. There is no need for us to be focusing on anything other than improving ourselves as riders and doing right by our horses. I really believe that if we can get back to riding for the pure love of the sport, we will influence a more positive and empowered community. 

Sincerely, 

A Concerned Friend

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