Scandal avoidance 101
They say you should never give advice because fools won't heed it and wise men don't need it. That is in itself a piece of advice and as I am not about to heed it, I guess I must be a fool. But here goes. I am going to offer my advice on one of the very rare topics of which I am an expert. This is the fool proof guide to avoiding social media shit storms by not attracting the attention of the wrong sort of photographer while you're warming up your horse before a show. I'm not even joking. This is it, so pay attention.
There is a lot of discussion in the industry as to the damage caused by ugly and disturbing photos of horses being prepared for competition. It seems that there are a number of people who think that such photos are inevitable as long as amateur photographers are allowed near the warm up. This assumption is based on the premise that the people who take the photos are somehow out to get the riders. These members of the public are there to ruin the careers of perfectly nice people who did nothing to deserve it. They have no real interest in horse welfare and so they prey on the unfortunates whose horses momentarily duck a tiny little bit behind the vertical or accidentally spook a bit, in no way due to any fault of the rider.
Now, I have some insider knowledge about this topic. I am going to ask you to do something. Suspend your disbelief for a moment and consider a different scenario. Consider that every photo you ever see in a regular, well behaved, mainstream horse magazine has been carefully selected to mess with your head. To make you think that top level riding mostly looks nice and reasonable, when in fact, the truth is otherwise gruesome.
As is my habit, I have prepared an anecdote: Once upon a time, Luise Thomsen and I used to work together on a really mainstream, glossy horse magazine. Back in those days, we had a budget to use photographers from the big agencies. These photographers were awesome, but they didn't know the first thing about horses or riding, so they needed a lot of guidance from us. I recall a spring day when I was out doing an interview with a Grand Prix dressage rider about her interesting arena design. To illustrate the story, we had her ride her horse around the arena and the photographer started snapping shots of her doing her stuff. I noticed that her horse was rather a lot behind the vertical and had its mouth open and I knew she would not be happy to see pictures of this in our magazine. So I told the photographer to shoot the horse from the front to make it less obvious. I explained to him very briefly about nasal plane and mouth tension and asked him to try to avoid angles which would make these things too obvious.
He did a good job. Back at the office, we looked through the thousand or so photos he had taken and as with most riders we interviewed, most of the photos were embarrassing, despite the photographer's efforts. Luckily, there were a couple of shots which would fool most people, so we chose those for the story. Our readers didn't get to see the rest of the photos which were more representative of how the riding really looked. We lied to them. More importantly, the rider never saw the discarded photos either. We lied to her too. This is how we did things for every story. And this is almost certainly what your local horsey glossy does too. Not because the people who work there are bad people. They are just doing their job, like we were. Nobody wants to see themselves look bad in a magazine. So whether you are a punter or a celebrity rider, you are not being told the truth.
That's why the people who break the taboo and publish the ugly images are often accused of having taken them out of context or even photoshopped them. It seems so unlikely that these images could tell the truth when all the other carefully hand picked images paint a different picture.
Now, I know what you're thinking. ”Everyone has bad moments when they ride.” And you'd be right. But it is a complete lie that every ”unfortunate moment in time” can be turned into an internet shit storm. Horse people in general are a lot more intelligent than you must think. They can mostly tell a teachable moment from an act of cruelty. They might not agree with you as to where the line is drawn but they do actually discern.
At the FEI Ecco European Dressage Championships in Denmark in 2013, there was a bit of mainstream television focus on the rollkur controversy. Swedish TV was doing a news feature about it and while they were filming, Patrik Kittel was warming up. His horse was behind the vertical and it looked a bit put out and also tried to open its mouth. But guess what: Despite his history, every photographer on the warm up ignored Patrik Kittel, because he was clearly trying hard not to ride like a douchebag. I have no idea whether Kittel has really changed his riding after the blue tongue video or the rollkur shots from the Olympics. But on the day of the Europeans, he was left alone because he didn't do anything shocking. His warm up was a non-story. Yours can be a non-story too.
Did you know we have photos of Monica Theodorescu warming her horse up behind the vertical? No? Well, we do. We even shared a couple on Facebook in our album called CHIO Aachen 2010. The reason you have never heard about these photos is that they clearly do not show Theodorescu abusing her horse. They weren't news either.
Photos of people coldly and constantly hauling as hard as they can on the mouths of their horses while pretending that the horse's welfare is paramount... that's news.
This is what you need to know if you're a competitive rider worried about photograhers. Your riding, not the photographer's dislike of you or your horse's mood swings on the day, determines whether you end up on the front page. Without the horror, there is no horror story. And you are the only one with the power to supply the horror.
So here's what you need to do if you want to never, ever find yourself at the center of social media outrage.
Get your hands on a decent camera which has a good zoom and can take multiple shots per second. Get someone you trust to take pictures of you riding at home. Don't try to do things differently to normal. Just do your thing. Get your assistant to take lots of close ups of your horse's face and mouth. Does your horse have worried eyes in the photos? Is his mouth constantly trying to open? Are you happy with the colour of his tongue? Does your noseband look uncomfortably tight?
Also, make sure you have shots of your heels and spurs. Are you constantly digging in your spurs for every stride, making marks in your horse's coat? Then perhaps you need to lose the spurs for a while to end your reliance on them for keeping your horse going.
You'll need your assistant to take some video footage as well. Get them to shoot ”investigative angles” instead of the usual beauty shots. Get them to zoom in on your hands, then your heels. Get them to zoom in on your horse's face and follow it for several minutes.
Most home computers come with a consumer video editing software. Get your footage in there and have a go at slowing it down and pausing it to really, really take a look at your own riding from a new perspective. Does the footage show you to be the soft, elegant rider you know you are? Or are you coming across as a more of a ham fisted brute on a terrified, suffering horse?
Then ask yourself: would I be happy if someone shared this footage on YouTube? If the answer is no, stay at home and work on your basics before going to another international horse show. If the answer is yes, have your assistant film and photograph you at a few shows as well to see if you are also happy with this footage to go on YouTube.
If the answer is ”no, I don't like how I look in the footage but I still want to compete”, talk to your national federation and the FEI about banning photographers from the warm up. Of course, this will only serve to further incriminate the sport you claim to love in the eyes of the mainstram media and general public. It will also mean that you are ignoring the suffering you inflict on your horse. But hey, you'll still be famous and your sponsors will be happy.