Thrown off Course: Social Media’s Influence on the Equestrian World

BY Piper Benjamin

As an equestrian myself, I often worry about the impact of social media in our sport. When I was a junior, social media was just beginning, and there was little to no pressure to post “perfect” images of a successful show. Now, it seems that many people go to horse shows hoping to do well just so they can post on their Instagram about their success. 

The Research 

Research says that self esteem decreases as kids age (starting at age 10 until adulthood), and that self esteem is even lower in those who use social media (Steinsbekk et al., 2021). Although comparison can be beneficial in certain situations (ex: learning social “norms”, finding motivation), it can become detrimental when social media is used as a comparison tool. If adolescents are comparing themselves to a peer in real life, it is based off legitimate perception (viewing a flat class, seeing scores of each round you watch, comparing one’s round to others in their division), whereas online, adolescents are comparing themselves to something that may not even be real (filtered photos, incorrect information, clipped videos where mistakes have been omitted). 

Although limited, there have been some studies focused on the impact of social media on young female equestrians. One study showed that the general portrayal of equestrians on social media is quite “glitzy”, and fails to show the “behind the scenes” of the hard work, set backs, or problem solving that comes with the sport (Broms et al., 2020). This portrayal has led young female equestrians to strive for perfection in their riding, and set unrealistic expectations for themselves in competition. This study showed that people are unlikely to post from a competition in which they didn’t have their desired results, or choose a part of the competition they want to highlight that intentionally leaves out the “bad” part (Broms et al., 2020). Research also found that people who post clips from unsuccessful competitions are more likely to receive negative feedback. This has led to the term, “super equestrian”. This persona is an attractive, thin, fashionable, young female equestrian that rarely makes mistakes, and appears extremely professional and perfect on her social media. 

I imagine that this “super equestrian” persona is amplified even more for teens competing in the equitation ring, a division that already demands, perhaps unfairly, precision and perfection out of their competitors. Those who can’t attain the “super” status, often lose confidence in their ability 

and they are less likely to stay in the sport (Broms et al., 2020). Competing at high level competitions, such as Wellington International, is already stressful enough, but now young equestrians are comparing themselves daily to riders in Wellington, California, Ocala, Ohio, and all over the world through social media. 

So What’s the Solution? 

So, what do we do? As I reflect on this research, one thing I know is that social media is not going away. It is part of our modern world, and there are a few benefits to it if used

appropriately. I think our solution here is to limit and monitor how adolescents are using these platforms. 

I recently listened to a podcast that interviewed Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who has dedicated his career to researching the impact of social media on teens. He has several recommendations for how to improve social media use, but these two I liked the most: Kids don’t get smartphones until high school (they can use flip phones before then), and no social media accounts until 16 years old. 

If we translate this to the equestrian world, I think it is imperative that adolescents avoid using social media during a show weekend. Parents and trainers could encourage deleting the apps for the weekend, and re-downloading on a Sunday afternoon when they are headed home. This way, adolescents are focused on the show, and aren’t second guessing themselves after seeing a post of a “perfect” round from their peer right before they walk in the ring. I also think that waiting to have social media accounts until 16 is crucial for young equestrians. This allows young riders to develop their skills in the junior hunters and equitation, before comparing themselves to others. Once they turn 16, the hope would be that they feel more confident in their riding, and can enjoy social media during the last two years of their junior career. 

Another idea is to encourage top riders, who have many followers, to post multiple photos of their entire weekend, rather than the “perfect” highlights. This would mean posting the prep before the show (ex: cleaning stalls, prepping their horse, photos back at the barn with an unbraided horse, and riders in their casual attire), the show itself, and after the show (ex: night check, video of riders wrapping their horse’s legs, etc.). By showing the various parts of a show, it can break the idea of the “super” equestrian, to provide the relatability piece we seem to be missing. 

Lastly, I recently had a conversation with my trainer about encouraging “in the moment” recognition at a show. I think it’s so rewarding to win a class, and get to have a presentation in the ring, or place top ten in a derby/classic and ride the victory gallop. If we encourage and praise these “in the moment” times, those experiences would become way more rewarding than posting the results on Instagram. 

I want to emphasize that these changes won’t work unless the majority of the equestrian population adopts these practices. Haidt found that people were unwilling to delete social media on their own, but if they knew their peer group/community was deleting social media, they were happy to delete the apps (Newton & Roose, 2024). Therefore, I think if trainers, parents, and riders can encourage each other to implement these practices, then everyone is much more likely to benefit.

References 

Broms, L., Hodenborg, S., & Radmann, A. (2020, December). Super equestrians – the construction of identity/ies and impression management among young equestrians in upper secondary school settings on social media. Sport, Education, and Society, Volume 27(4), 462-474. Taylor and Francis Online. 10.1080/13573322.2020.1859472 

Newton, C., & Roose, K., (Hosts). (2024, March 22). Justice Dept. Sues Apple + Smartphones and Children with Jonathan Haidt + Reddit’s IPO [Audio podcast episode]. In Hard fork. The new york times. 

https://open.spotify.com/episode/7pKdF6ef3bSFeIglOKoFEp?si=578d88531443446b Steinsbekk, S., Wichstrøm, L., Stenseng, F., Nesi, J., Hygen, B. W., & Skalická, V. (2021, January). The impact of social media use on appearance self-esteem from childhood to adolescence – A 3-wave community study. Computers in Human Behavior, 114(106528), 1-7. Science Direct. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106528