Free Access – The Silent Bystander

This article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Heels Down Magazine. For more stories worth reading, subscribe now.

By Caroline Culbertson

I used to drive past this farm that worried me. It was a small property so you could see the arena from the road, and the riding looked quarrelsome and heavy-handed.

I remember being a teenager at a horse show and seeing a group of people forcing a shut-down horse onto the trailer in a way that still gives me a pit in my stomach.

It comes in many forms, but when witnessing unsettling moments or situations, it feels like time slows down to allow you to ask yourself, “Do I do something?”

Is this any of my business? Am I qualified to speak up? If I don’t say something, someone else will, right?

The thing about this sport is that so many people are here for the horses. They’re not here for the accolades, or to win, or for money and even if they are (God help them), it doesn’t necessarily mean that their horses got the short end of the stick. Sometimes, quite the contrary.

When the pressure is on and pride is on the line, however, even well-intentioned people make mistakes. They can lose their composure after an embarrassing refusal and raise the whip one too many times. Or “help the horse out” with a substance. And it’s anyone’s place to ask, “What’s going on and how can I help?” if the safety or wellbeing of a horse or rider might be in jeopardy, even if it’s not clear one way or another.

Unethical or illegal behavior isn’t one person’s business. It’s everyone’s business. The problem with this, however, is that it feels easy to say, “Someone else will catch this. I shouldn’t get involved.” The bystander effect threatens to leave the horse or rider behind, without an advocate, to bear the consequences alone.

I’m not suggesting that everyone goes around policing the sport and in fact, that’s a counterproductive and isolating thing to do as an athlete, unless you are an official. Alienating yourself in this way is the opposite of the team mentality that is required for us as riders to hold one another accountable in a way that isn’t divisive and personal.

But if you see something blatantly problematic, or even if it’s a gray area and you’re not sure, you are right to do something. Especially if you are one of the younger athletes in this sport, it is completely acceptable to approach someone who has had more time in the game to say, “I’m not sure if this is okay. What do you think?” Having mentors in our sport is so important, but if you don’t have that kind of relationship, an official or a member of a governing body will always be a great resource with whom you can consult.

You can apologize later. If you raise an eyebrow, or a hand, or a question, and you find out that the truth isn’t what you thought it was, it was still worth raising because it’s our responsibility to ourselves, to each other, and to the animals that allow us the opportunity to have a sport at all.


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