‘Once a horsey girl, always a horsey girl!’ says Hannah Brooks. After a long absence from her sport, Brooks decided to reignite her passion for equestrian sports by volunteering. The path that followed reunited her with a sport she loved, but also put her on a collision course with harsh realities and challenges she had not expected. In our February 2020 edition, we hear from Hannah Brooks in her own words, as She Speaks of bullying, gender equality and her top tips for reform in sport.
Bullying in sport and how I countered it
When I went back to the sport I loved, it appeared to be a good fit. Equestrian was struggling in certain areas, and I had relevant industry experience that allowed me to give back to the sport. For several years I volunteered my skills, promoting international eventing and dressage events and since then, I have got back in the saddle myself.
Equestrian presents an interesting paradox; it is steeped in tradition and yet, at the same time, in need of modernisation in order to maintain its relevance and address declining participation rates.
After a while, I found I was being bullied repeatedly. Bullying is a huge issue in sport but unfortunately particularly prevalent in equestrian, where 86% of participants have experienced bullying as per some reports. Rampant bullying had been quietly tolerated by riders, officials and by the sports administration for years.
After I received zero support from the governing bodies, I founded ‘Stop Bullying in Equestrian Sports’ (SBEIS) with a Facebook page to raise awareness on the impact of bullying in equestrian sports and to act as a support group for other victims. The response was overwhelming, as countless equestrians of every discipline shared their often-painful stories of bullying, harassment and abuse.
My experience with SBIES has turned me into a passionate advocate for the modernisation and reform of equestrian. I can honestly say; before setting up SBIES I was the world’s least likely activist but as the saying goes…’sometimes your cause finds you’.
To tackle this cultural issue SBIES launched a pledge campaign asking riders to pledge to refuse to tolerate bullying in equestrian sport. The response has been phenomenal and SBIES has since grown into a global movement of over 8000 supporters calling for the reform in equestrian.
For women with a passion for sport, particularly reforming sports, my 3 tops tips are:
“Equestrian presents an interesting paradox; it is steeped in tradition and yet, at the same time, in need of modernisation in order to maintain its relevance and address declining participation rates.”
1. It’s a marathon not a sprint
Whatever barriers you’re trying to break down for women in your sport please don’t become disillusioned when your progress is slow. What appears to be a small gain right now can often result in huge gains in the future.
National and international sporting federations tend to be male dominated and quite reactionary. Change is a hard-won process and progress often proceeds at a glacial pace. If you’re passionate about your mission, it’s easy to become frustrated and disillusioned.
When we at SBIES released our first research paper, The Prevalence of Bullying in Equestrian Sports to a lacklustre response from Equestrian Australia and the international governing body FEI – it felt like a major setback for our cause. However, in redirecting our focus to grass-roots clubs, coaches and individual equestrians we were able to achieve many small wins and raise awareness.
As a rule, grass-roots sporting clubs tend to be nimbler and more dynamic. Although it was a longer process, engaging grass-roots participants offered SBIES a far more receptive platform to grow the movement.
“Young participants are demanding empathetic administrators who manage with kindness, compassion and emotional intelligence. My advice to you is to cultivate these three attributes, as they will be in demand in the future.”
2. Value your feminine attributes
I recognise that referring to any traits as ‘feminine attributes’ can be controversial, so please bear with me as I explain.
At the elite level, women and men have competed alongside each other ever since women were first included in equestrian at the 1952 Olympics. Given this legacy, you might expect equestrian organisations to be leading the way in terms of gender inclusion.
Historically, equestrian folklore has celebrated attributes like ‘bravery’ and ‘toughness’. Don’t get me wrong; the women and men who compete in equestrian need to possess both these qualities in spades, as does any elite athlete.
However, I feel that the celebration of these type of attributes in equestrian appears to have led to the devaluation of feminine qualities in the management of the sport. This toxic chauvinistic culture is one of the reasons bullying, harassment and abuse has been able to flourish in equestrian.
With participation rates for equestrian sport in decline globally, it’s time to rethink the characteristics we value in our leaders. Young participants are demanding empathetic administrators who manage with kindness, compassion and emotional intelligence. My advice to you is to cultivate these three attributes, as they will be in demand in the future.
“I’m grateful to have created an online community where these riders can come for support and gain strength from sharing their stories with people who have had similar experiences.”
3. Find your people.
Women are leading the charge when it comes to tackling the issue of bullying in sport. This is something to be proud of but it’s not without a downside.
Most people fear change and sports organisations are naturally conservative institutions – so if you want to be a change-maker you can expect to lose a few friends.
I have been widely criticised by people I considered friends and colleagues for shining a light on mismanagement in equestrian sport. This came as a huge shock to me; I was heavily invested in many of those relationships and had incorrectly assumed that everyone would welcome reforms to modernise and improve the culture of the sport.
Eventually I found my people and ultimately it was hugely rewarding to become a part of something bigger than myself and my own experiences of being bullied.
SBIES has become a shoulder to cry on for many equestrians whose National Federations have failed to protect them in cases of bullying, harassment and abuse. I’m grateful to have created an online community where these riders can come for support and gain strength from sharing their stories with people who have had similar experiences.
I’m based in Sydney Australia and through the power of social media SBIES has been able to build a global movement of over 8000 riders calling for reform. So, your people are out there!
Being a part of this attitudinal change was an enormously satisfying experience and if I had been too scared to tread on a few toes – I would have missed out on this opportunity.
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