Holding one's tongue
“If you want things to change, you have to stop being so aggressive.” “Be more polite if you want people to listen to you.” “I see what you're trying to do but you're doing it totally wrong.” “There are better ways.” These are examples of what is sometimes called tone policing. Someone is saying – usually from a position of power – that others – typically a minority – should ask more nicely to have their views taken seriously in order for that to happen. The statements imply that the reason the people in power won't listen is that the people in the minority are using the wrong words or the wrong tone of voice to speak their minds. This strategy allows the people in power to silence the people in the minority without actually saying out loud that they disagree with their message. In the equestrian debate, such tone policing is rife.
Everyone in equestrian sport professes to love horses and to want to protect them. When documentation appears which indicates that horses are being systematically treated in upsetting ways in the name of the sport, a self described horse lover can either turn their back on the sport in disgust or they can find an excuse to disregard the evidence. “This has been taken out of context” is a time honoured favourite. Usually, it is not accompanied by any suggestions as to what possible context could validate such riding. It's like the old cartoon with the wife who walks in on her husband who is naked in bed with another woman, and the husband shouts: "Darling, I can explain.” The punchline is that we all know he can't possibly explain that scenario.
Another common strategy, however, is to accuse the person who took the pictures of approaching the matter in the wrong way. “Why didn't you confront the rider”. “You should have gone to the stewards.” “You don't know how to create change. You're just putting photos on facebook because you're mean.”
If you are one of the people who would say that to a photographer, you either know absolutely nothing about how equestrian sport is governed or you are complicit in the mess we are trying to unravel. You are also - deliberately or by accident - missing the entire point. The entire point of publishing these photos is to call out those same federations and stewards for failing to protect the horses. It is not about individual riders. What you propose is analogous to taking a photo of a bleeding bull and presenting it to the Presidente of the bullfight as evidence that the rules of the sport have been broken by a particular participant.
Equestrian show stewards are not there to protect the horses. They are there to protect the sport. If they ever tell a rider to ease up on a horse, it will most likely be because they have spotted an independent photographer by the rail. The only way the federations ever even pretend to address questionable riding is when photos or video on social media - not seldom published by a private citizen facing incredible hostility from horse punching apologists – force their hand.
Enough with that “posting photos on social media doesn't change anything”nonsense. Posting photos and video on the internet is the only thing that does actually lead to change in the equestrian world. Because of those photos, federations know that people are becoming aware of what equestrian sport really looks like. Because of those photos, the sport will either have to change or it will finally get done with dying.
If you happen to be a meek, polite type of activist who is making progress bringing baskets of muffins to your local equestrian federation and asking them nicely for change, we congratulate you. But rest assured that the way has been paved for you by videographers and photographers who have published their incriminating, often horrific, photos on the internet for over 20 years. Think about that the next time you feel like lecturing someone like that on being “more positive” and “catching more flies with honey”. That only works for you because they did your dirty work and because they continue to do it.
If you are a professional photographer and you've never actually done anything about abuse in horse sport, except profit from pretending it doesn't happen, please keep shooting off your mouth in horse media about how you would never publish a photo that didn't flatter the rider. Such admissions really help people from outside the sport to understand how serious the problems are and how unlikely the solutions are to come from within.
Main photo courtesy of Crispin Parelius Johannesssen