Is Equestrian Sport Ready to be Disrupted?

When my daughters expressed an interest in ponies I couldn’t believe my luck. Ah wonderful, a way to live my dreams vicariously through my children!

You see I have always been fascinated by horses & the relationship some humans have with them. As a child I had riding lessons once a week, but my brother’s serious chronic heart condition and consequent death rendered any dreams of being one of those “horsey girls” defunct. Life kind of fell apart.

Anyway, despite some difficult times, my love for horses continued and I took great solace in those darker days spending time in the fields behind my house, confiding in the ponies. And of course, playing cowboys & indians on said ponies with the neighbour’s children (I was always the indian, so much more enigmatic!).

So now I am lucky enough to have two daughters who love riding. One competitive and ballsy, the other sensitive and totally animal orientated. They have two very different ponies for very different needs, which means they also need very different approaches to their learning. I am lucky to have found an instructor that works well with them both but I have found as a mum and now someone working “in the industry”, that equestrian has a real problem, it is struggling with being stale and complacent.

I have met instructors who have few qualifications and are happy to conduct a lesson whilst checking their phone every two minutes, presumably in case they miss an entertaining post on social media. There’s a “well done, very good” at the end of the lesson but god forbid that you ask a question! Now don’t get me wrong, there are many talented, innovative people in this industry but unfortunately there are many that are not.

Parents take on a significant financial commitment even if their child is never going to ride at a high level; it’s not as simple as buying the right racket or pair of boots. Horse sport is a minefield!

If you buy a horse for £10,000 + and then pay the same again per year to house & feed it (not to mention shoes, physio, tack, lessons…) there’s an expectation for it to perform! I have seen parents devastated because their “investment” isn’t returning dividends. But there’s a problem; it’s an animal, not a machine.
And of course children… are children!

Even if you buy a wonderful animal, who is the perfect match and doesn’t get injured, there is still the issue of risk.

Horse sport is inherently risky. As a parent we accept that there is the potential for things to go catastrophically wrong but we also assume that the people we interact with have the skills to reduce that risk. Having viewed it from both the perspective of a parent and the elite end of the sport, I see that that is not always the case. Even some of the most experienced and coveted riders have no idea how or why they do what they do. Obviously there is innate skill but how does that translate to the young child and his/her pony wanting to have fun with their friends? And how do we teach the thousands of people who call themselves “instructors”?

As an ex-nurse I know that equestrian isn’t alone. I clearly remember having my head bitten off by one very officious, large busted Matron who was horrified because I’d asked “but why?” She was “instructing” me on how to carry out a clinical procedure and I’d asked her why she was doing it in a certain way. Not good. It was a question that resulted in an afternoon cleaning bedpans…

Looking back, I can see that Matron, bless her, had no idea “why” it was just what you did. Well, I’m, sorry but that’s just not good enough anymore.

Now, in a totally different role, I am privileged to work with a human performance coach and consultant who has a special interest in equestrian (you can imagine how cool my daughters think I am now!).

Jon Pitts is on a mission to make equestrian and those that teach it, better and safer. He is ALWAYS asking “but why?” It drives people mad and many people take the question as a threat, not as an opportunity to explore and learn; the classic threat versus challenge scenario.
You see, Jon is a “disruptor”.

Disruption is defined as “an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances” (C Christensen).

It is both destructive and creative. Turning current thinking on its head but also creating something positive to fill the vacuum. At JPHP it is an eternal frustration that so many instructors/teachers/coaches in the equestrian industry solely focus on the performance of the horse. Our cognition, biases, perceived threats/ challenges, all play an enormous part in the relationship with the horse but it is often overlooked.

In my nursing days I worked largely in the neurosciences. When meeting Jon for the first time I really understood why his focus in equestrian sport was on biomechanics and neuroscience. It totally made sense that he wanted to focus on the impact of the rider on the horse and not purely on the horse itself. But I am constantly astounded about how difficult a concept that is for some people.
If equestrian is to develop and harness innovation for the advancement of this amazing sport then it needs more disruptors like Jon. The risks in the sport need to be tackled head on & standards need to be addressed. It needs to open up the “club” to people from outside the sport and it needs to learn lessons from other High Performance environments. It is not good enough anymore to say “I have ridden / taught for X many years so therefore I am right”. It needs to come from the top and it needs more of us asking the question, “but why?”

You can find out more about Jon Pitts’ RideSmart program here, and visit his website here.


All opinions are my own & do not necessarily reflect the views of Jon Pitts or any company in the Jon Pitts Limited group.

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