Level-shaming

Last week I was nerding out (as one does when one is a nerd) over the USEA Convention live stream. One of these days I’ll actually make it to a convention in person, but until then I greatly appreciate that I can watch everything on the live stream. They cover lots of really good topics, from nutrition to fitness to course design. And almost without fail, every year I come away with a few really good little juicy tidbits to have a think about.

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This time, the first one that really commanded my full attention was the “Having and Instilling Rider Responsibility” talk. A lot of it was the usual stuff – know your horse, be prepared, work with a trainer, know when to call it a day, etc. But the part that really got me thinking was when someone mentioned level-shaming. He talked about a woman who had been incredibly successful with her horse at Beginner Novice for years, winning a lot. She was very comfortable at that level and had fun with it, and never really wanted to go higher despite everyone else pressuring her about it. Eventually she got tired of all the comments and pressure and quit eventing entirely, electing to do dressage instead.

That made me sad.

There is a lot of truth in that though, there IS this constant feeling of “what’s next” and “move-ups” in the whole equestrian world, and eventing is certainly not immune. We have this tendency to say “it’s just beginner novice” or “it’s just novice” or “it’s just training”… on and on and on. I think that’s particularly true at BN and N, where it’s easy to feel discounted altogether. But the truth is that (according to a statistic in another presentation) 75% of the starters in the US are at Training level or below. The vast majority is at the lower levels. I’m not sure why there’s this particular lack of worth associated with competing at those levels… we wouldn’t exist as a sport without it.

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was there anything cuter than BN Henry? No there was not.

Not to mention that, for non-pro’s, riding isn’t the only thing in people’s lives. It’s their fun thing, their outlet, their escape from the stresses of the real world. If someone wants to show up all season for the rest of their life and run BN – why not? If they’re happy at that level, and they’re safe and having fun, what difference does it make if they never move up? Some people genuinely want to move up the levels as high as they can make it. Other people want to challenge themselves to be the best they can at a level they feel comfortable at and have fun with. There’s nothing wrong with either approach.

Which got me thinking about the things we say to people, and the culture, and the power of our words and attitudes. I know, without a doubt, that I have absolutely level-shamed people before, albeit unintentionally. It’s somehow natural to say “so when are you planning that Novice move up?” in conversation and then if the person acts hesitant we tend to offer things like “oh but it’s just a few more inches, no big deal! Horses can still just trot over that!”. But that’s not fair at all, is it? First of all, some people don’t have a desire to move up, and it’s not our place to make them feel like they should. Why even ask? They’re allowed to enjoy the sport however they like.

Second of all, it’s rude AF to be dismissive about what to someone else is a big deal. If they bring it up and seem worried about it, why not elevate the person instead of demeaning the task. To me it might be a speed bump, but to someone else it might be a mountain (or vice versa). Words have so much power… we, myself very much included, have to be more thoughtful about how we use them, both to others and to ourselves. I never want to make anyone feel less than, or like they don’t belong. Truth be told, I think every single person brave enough to put themselves out here in this sport is an utter badass, no matter what level they’re running. This shit is hard.

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jumps got bigger but horse is still cute

During this discussion they mentioned that the entire point of this sport (for us non-professionals anyway) is to enjoy the time with our horses. The fact is, we’re not going to the Olympics, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, if you’re enjoying your horse and you’re happy with what you’re doing, nothing else really matters. If you like the level you’re at, you shouldn’t have to feel any pressure to move up. And you definitely shouldn’t have to feel inferior.

It’s funny because I think there’s something about moving up another level that makes us think we’ll suddenly be taken more seriously or seen as more competent. It doesn’t. I don’t think I’m any more of a “legit” rider now that I have a few Prelims under my belt than I was when we were first starting out at BN. I’ve learned more yes, and have more experience, but… the level I show at has had no bearing on making me a better or more valid person. And truth be told, all I’ve really learned throughout all of this is that I have so much more respect for the person who can say “I’m comfortable at X level with this horse, I’m happy there, the horse is happy there, I feel safer there, and that’s what I’m going to do, so fuck anyone who doesn’t like it” than I do for the person who says “If I only we can make it to X level, it will mean I’m a good rider or people will think I’m worthy”.

One quote that stuck out to me in particular was “knowing what you and your horse are comfortable with, no matter what level it is, doesn’t make you a terrible rider, it makes you a good horseman”.

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That really could not be more true. When I think of the people I admire most, it’s not because they’re successful high level riders, its because they’re great horsemen. They put the horse first, and they know themselves, and they own who they and their horses are. When I think of these people, they range anywhere from low level dressage riders juggling a business and a family to advanced level eventers that do this full time. What level they compete at has absolutely nothing to do with how much I respect them. So why is that “move up” mentality such a deeply embedded part of our culture? How many people ever stop to actually have a hard think about whether they’re doing something because they genuinely want to, rather than because it’s what’s they’ve been made to feel is expected?

The subject gives me a lot to think about anyway. It certainly makes me consider what I say, and how it might be perceived, which in turn has made me reflect on things I know I’ve said in the past. It’s never my place to make someone feel like what they’re currently doing isn’t good enough, and I certainly never want to do that. If I ever have, I apologize sincerely. No one should ever feel like they have to say “Oh I’m just running BN” (um yeah hi, y’all are literally the lifeblood of our sport) nor should they have to explain to anyone why they are or aren’t moving up or when. It’s entirely possible to just… let people be, and support them no matter what, and let them enjoy their horse and do what makes them happy. The pushing and the pressure and the discussions about moving up or not – that’s something that should be between a rider and their trainer, certainly not their peers.

What do you think? Have you witnessed level-shaming, or been on the receiving or (perhaps unintentionally) the giving end?

30 thoughts on “Level-shaming

  1. Ugh yeah. IMO, USEA gave us all a big fat level shame when they allowed EEI to only livestream the upper levels of AECs… Like hey, this event is ONLY POSSIBLE because of lower level riders, so show a little respect…

    One thing I love about my trainer is that she asks everyone what “their Rolex” is. Maybe its just ACTUALLY DOING 3 phases at baby starter, maybe its a BN3DE, and maybe its a 2*. No matter what your goals are, she supports them equally. A lot of trainers, I have now found, aren’t really even interested in you if Training isn’t a part of the 3 year plan, which IMO, is short-sighted and really sad.

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  2. The older I get (nearing 40 now) the more of a “you do you” mentality I have. As long as it isn’t abusive or harmful, then go do whatever is fun because at the end of the day horses are supposed to be fun. Hard work, yes. Demoralizing at times, for sure. But, for me at least, this better be enjoyable or I’m doing things horribly wrong. If that means staying at BN (a level I may never even reach myself) for 30 years, then great. If that means moving up the levels and seeing how far you can go, then great too. I don’t think I’ve ever shamed anyone except for myself though I have gotten a lot better at treating myself with the respect I show others.

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  3. I’ve definitely had different approaches at different times – for a while I was focused on climbing the levels with Frankie and was pretty aggressive about that, and nowadays we’re sticking at levels we’re super confident at so we can focus on being the best we can be at that. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support and positive reinforcement for moving down a level with Frankie, which did surprise me a bit. Because of exactly what you talk about, I expected to have people push back or ask “when are you moving back up?” I would’ve stuck with that decision anyway since it was the right one for me and my horse, but having that kind of positivity certainly makes it a more pleasant decision. Big kudos to trainers who want the best for their students, whatever that looks like for them.

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  4. Level shaming is what lead to me falling out of my love of horses tbh. I had a bad accident and now I’m pretty terrified of everything. When I was learning to jump again my trainer at the time set up a crossrail and said something along the lines of “this can’t even really be considered a real jump” and I felt so stupid and small. I still haven’t got back into jumping, and every time I look at a crossrail I feel stupid all over again. Level shaming is such a spirit killer.

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    1. I am right there with you Kay, I had a bad accident that kept me out of the saddle for months. Now the thought of cantering over a single ground pole makes me completely tense up. I’ve lost count of the number of people that have said to me “When are you jumping again? Why don’t you like it?? You need to do it again, it’s so fun.”

      Yes, it is fun for a lot of folks. But not for me. Riding is my stress relief, my reward for dealing with my high pressure job. I don’t need to pile additional stress on myself by forcing myself to do something I don’t want to do. Maybe I’ll jump again someday, maybe I won’t. And that’s totally OK.

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  5. I see it a lot in hunter/jumpers — it seems like you should be moving up a division each year and if you aren’t, you’re “behind.” I’ve worked REALLY HARD in the last few years to be okay with where I’m at personally, but to also recognize the accomplishments of others… no matter how small. At the big boarding barn, there was a lovely lady with a paint mare who was working up to cantering. I made it a point to ask her how it was going and be super supportive. For her, cantering was my 3′ fence.

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  6. Moving up for its own sake has probably caused a lot of problems for horses and humans. When someone says “I’m going to ride X level by [date]” and tries to stick to that no matter what, bad things can happen. I also think the USEA needs to take its own advice and not treat the lower level (Training and below) as the proverbial kids table of eventing. Focusing so much on the upper levels at the destination events at the expense of the grassroots will kill the sport eventually, or at least it’ll kill it outside of the southeast where people congregate in the winter. Area IV has been losing events left and right, and no one seems to care. But I would say 80-90% of starts at our recognized events are at Training or below, so no one with actual clout in the leadership thinks we’re important.

    I don’t know. I’m glad they’re finally starting to acknowledge that not everyone is trying to get to 5* level, but talk is cheap. Even the AECs are unobtainable for the vast majority of amateurs, which they were supposedly created for. It shouldn’t be a struggle for an organization to cater to its core base, but here we are.

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  7. Beautiful post! Especially this: “If I only we can make it to X level, it will mean I’m a good rider or people will think I’m worthy”
    I see this everyday with students, colleagues and professionals. Even CEOs! This is a human dysfunction to believe that some external event / award / prize / salary / family status will automatically make us valuable in the eyes of others.
    Truth is, the eyes of others has no value. And it can take a lifetime to understand that.
    I love that horses don’t give a shit about any of that. They value the interaction, the connection, the present moment. No horse ever aspired to a ribbon.

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  8. Preach. I think the thing I’ve learned over the course of the last few years is that thing I love the MOST about eventing is the community. And, there are many ways to feel included in that community as a rider, trainer, owner… whatever. My goals are very, very small… and I love seeing my horse blasting around T with my trainer. She never pressures me about getting to a certain level and always allows me to really enjoy my horse in whatever capacity I want to. Truth be told, she champions me for even the smallest accomplishments as she knows I am someone who would be destroyed by the judgement of others and wants to build me up rather than make me feel small or not brave. To add to Nat D’s comment above about the ribbons…. my horse competed against professionals and upper levels horses all year long and was beat out of the ribbons time and time again… but the look on his face when he sees XC, and the smile on my trainers face after every show makes it all worth it.

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    1. Honestly, it does. I mean how often do we find ourselves saying “Oh, we’re just running Novice” or “Oh well the course was pretty soft”… trying to beat other people to the punch. Like a big HEY LOOK I KNOW I’M NOT IMPORTANT thing. Or when we’re freaked out about something and the internal monologue of “seriously you big baby, it’s just a few inches bigger why are you so pathetic?” starts up. We’re totally programmed that way.

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  9. Oh yeah I’ve been level-shamed. I know when I was younger I’m sure I did that to others totally unintentionally, but I definitely was level-shamed a few years ago when Amber and I started showing locally. I get very anxious at shows, Amber was never “campaigned” for a show season, and so we entered the walk/trot division. A good start for us both. People got so pissy at me because god forbid I wanted to ease us into showing. Then people STILL got pissy when I went into the canter division for working western horse. Rules say you can’t braid the mane, you should be disqualified. You should be disqualified for this and this. I could totally feel that people did not like it when me and Amber showed up. Go figure why I am not a member there anymore. It’s why I’ve been drawn to lower level eventing, since we’re all just happy to be there, happy to finish, happy to cheer others on. Granted, as you’ve said there’s still people at lower levels that do that, trainers included, but I’m hoping that with talking about it on a large scale got people thinking. Words do have power, and I was lucky at the time I competed to have a “I’m doing me” mentality when they level-shamed me or told me I should’ve been disqualified. Those same people were also so discouraging that a wonderful rider I knew quit horses because of it, and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was so terrible to watch, and I tried to be as encouraging as I could when I talked to her, but these were her trainers and it just made me so incredibly sad.

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    1. I am not competitive so no level-shaming from me. It’s so easy to phrase things just a little different to be less forceful or assumptive.

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  10. Preach. I always throw a “just” in and follow it up by what a muppet my horse and I are and we’re just out there to have a good time…totally downplay it. At my yard there are people who don’t want to leave the ground, but feel obligated to do some jumping. I always say it’s a hobby- it has to make you happy. What I don’t like to see is a person lowering their level in pursuit of the rosettes though…

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  11. This happens in Endurance as well. There is so much shaming of LD riders (25-35 mile rides) on social media that it amazes me that anyone would want to venture into the discipline. And yet those riders and their entry fees are the reason why we are able to host many of the 50 & 100 mile rides. I’ve often wondered why anyone cares what someone else is doing – especially when it has no affect on their ride or goals. Live and let live. Go enjoy yourself on your pony and quit obsessing over what someone else has decided to do. I was fortunate to start Endurance before social media was a thing, so I never was subject to the ugliness that can happen when someone feels safe belittling others from their keyboard. It’s sad the damage that those words can do. I personally have never witnessed that level of shaming in person, but I have heard plenty of people ask when someone was going to move up a distance. Honestly, even then it often sounds like encouragement and not shaming. Perhaps it’s the difference between a face to face discussion vs. an email or blog. Or the difference of those who are in the same boat vs. those competing at a more “elite” level. I’m just always happy and supportive of those who come out and play instead of sitting on the couch. Life is too short to mot be having fun!

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    1. Yes. I felt this too. And you know, my horse and I were good at lD – 25/30 miles is a good and comfortable ride and it always bothered me that it was considered a kindergarten distance. I’m trying to go back to Eventing now, but if I’m the only fat, old lady in a class with a bunch of 9 year olds over logs on the ground? I’m here for it! 😂

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      1. I’ll ride a LD with you any time! Here in the NE we refer to them as the Luxury Distance!!! Done by One 🍺
        I agree that makes for a lovely ride – not too long, usually not terribly stressful for horse or rider and just a fun day. I do a little bit of everything with my horse – LD, 50’s, multi days, CTR’s -and will pick and choose according to what our schedule is like, what the weather is like (he is a Morgan), what the trail is like. I’m pretty risk adverse, so my priority is setting my horse up for success and trying to make our rides positive experiences. I have nothing to prove and neither does he. Tevis? No thank you. OD 100. Nope. I admire the athletes who attempt those rides (whether they complete or not), but that type of extreme riding simply isn’t my cup of tea.
        Show those 9 year olds what you are made of 🐴

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  12. This is a great article and subject I have been thinking on a while since something was said to me by someone about not needing or wanting to move up. I do think this is a natural conversation to strike up with someone, especially if they are doing well. Hell, if you are regularly beating me, I want you out of my division. I agree though, if you enjoy a level, keep doing it

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    1. I think it’s a natural conversation too, but maybe instead of asking someone when they’re moving up, we could instead be asking them what their goals are for the next season. I think there’s a way to word things that doesn’t sound as pre-judgmental or make someone feel like they’re expected to give a particular answer or do a particular thing. Something I always need to keep in mind before I open my mouth!

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  13. This is a great article and subject I have been thinking on a while since something was said to me by someone about not needing or wanting to move up. I do think this is a natural conversation to strike up with someone, especially if they are doing well. Hell, if you are regularly beating me, I want you out of my division. I agree though, if you enjoy a level, keep doing it

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  14. I have level-shamed myself to be honest. It was always my goal to move up. Do the 3 foot hunters, the 3’3″ medal, win something. Those were my goals umpteen years ago and I still haven’t achieved them. I bought a barely broke horse and it was my goal to get him broke, show him and prove I could train a green horse. Spoiler: I didn’t show him, I was scared to canter him and I kept him probably way longer than I should have. It hurt my pride to feel like I had failed, when in reality my goals shifted and the horse and I ended up not being a great match. I did much less with him than my peers who had similar horses. Up until recently, I felt like a complete failure. But then I started riding a different horse, it’s been going well and I’m setting my sights on hopefully showing next year. Maybe at 2’6″, maybe at 2 foot. Either way, I will have made progress from where I started from and I’ll have fun doing it. I don’t care if other people feel like I could be doing more.

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  15. I feel like it all has to do with how/why someone is asking.

    “Why do you want to be in the baby group still” – shaming, and man I used to hear it a lot when I was jumping

    Why would I want to move up when my horse can’t figure out where its legs go all the time? What is the point in moving her up when I am not comfortable because we’ve had some issues?

    But if someone else were to be like “what are the plans, where are you hoping to go with current ?”. Not shaming.

    I like my little corner of not showing at all really (probably has been 3 years now), but still training and learning and growing. It’s the rest of the shaming I have heard at dressage shows that I don’t want to be a part of.

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  16. Yep, definitely see it a lot in the hunter jumper world. ESPECIALLY among the juniors. And I think maybe it’s the responsibility of us… ahem… more mature riders to try and do something about it. I think professionals don’t always grasp why us ammy’s are out there. I’m not saying I don’t want to be pushed to be better. I very much do. But we’re not showing to get to the Olympics. We’re not showing to get famous. We’re showing to be better than we were yesterday and to have fun with our horses. Many pros just can’t grasp that. The pro at my barn gets frustrated with the amateurs because they can’t train like the juniors do and go to shows all the time. I tried explaining it to her one day, nicely. But she honestly just couldn’t wrap her head around the idea of just showing to have a good time without a drive to move up and jump higher.
    I noticed something interesting this weekend. We had a clinic with Nona Garson at the barn. My group was comprised of three of us ammy’s and one junior. We’ve all been there done that but for different reasons are kind of hitting reset. (One has a very green, not super confident horse, one just started riding again after several years off, you all know my story, and the junior is moving up from a pony.) Our group was great and we jumped around 2’6″. The group after us was the 3’3″ group and none of them were as experienced nor as educated as us smaller jumping folk. Do I think they should be jumping smaller? No, they’re learning and while they make mistakes they seem to have enough education to be safely learning at that level. Does that mean my group should be jumping higher? No I don’t think so. Not at this point anyway. While not entirely in line with your discussion about level shaming, your post just made me think a bit more about it. Sorry for the novel!

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  17. I first experienced level-shaming my first season with my current horse. He is a lovely hunter and we won a lot in our bronze (local) circuit that first year at 2’3”. I was strongly given the vibe that it wasn’t fair to be entering that division and “steal” ribbons from others. My horse was 4 at the time and I had never shown hunter’s before, and hadn’t shown at all since I was a kid, so I felt justified to be taking it slow. I also simply didn’t want my 4yo jumping higher (save for the very occasional height increase to remind him to put some effort in).

    I believe there is the perspective that if you’re doing very well at a level you’ve been showing at for a few seasons, or consistently at the top even if first season, it isn’t fair to other competitors who have maybe just moved up to that level. Perhaps this particular take is more prevalent when the judging is more subjective (be it perceived or reality), such as in hunters. Just thought this was another important reason level-shaming occurs.

    On the flip side, I’m pretty sure I’ve done this myself. Partly because it’s so ingrained in our culture that it is what people do. But I’m ashamed to say I’ve probably done it subtly as an ego boost (or, more accurately, a “self-esteem correction”) for myself in response to people that were formerly looking down their nose at me. I think I’ve matured enough that I no longer would need the subtle “dig” but not sure I’ve matured enough not to defend my choice if I do the 3’ AA/AO again! I’ve toyed w the idea of asking my hunter to dabble in the jumpers if I get bored enough and can’t afford to travel the Gold/A circuit, though fortunately we do have a couple Gold shows locally now.

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  18. The names of the eventing Lower Level divisions assume that people *will* move on beyond them: “Beginner Novice”, “Novice” and “Training”. I always thought that “Novice” was a terrible name for a division that features many adults who have ridden 20+ years and have years of solid LL eventing mileage behind them, and are enjoying competing at Novice. As well as juniors who are great riders at the level and are on horses that don’t have the scope or speed for more.

    At times the USEA leadership has been politely forward about trying to promote an environment that assumes riders will move up the levels. I think that has confused the in-barn discussions about who is thinking in terms of what goals. Some time ago, there were a few years when the leaders expressed carefully-phrased frustration about the mass of rank-and-file eventers clustered in the Novice division, most never moving beyond it.

    But the realities of US LL eventing are what they are. Not only are riders already stretching to accommodate riding around work and family, but the decrease in open country available to ride casually for experience, and the lack of local hunts available to most US riders, have definitely affected the eventing levels.

    I completely agree that riders should ride where they are comfortable, and enjoy a delightful weekend, whatever challenges and achievements come their way. 🙂

    As a volunteer, one of the most special things about the lower levels is when riders from different disciplines and traditions make up their minds to give eventing a try at some very low level of unrecognized, maybe Green As Grass. In borrowed tack after a few jumping lessons, with their saddlebred or cutting horse or Andalusian, or whatever is their heart horse. And come off the course with a brilliant grin exclaiming “that is the coolest thing I’ve ever done!”. They’ve discovered a whole other level of connection with their horse, and their horse discovered a marvelous bravery and confidence. That is what eventing is all about, to me. 🙂

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    1. Oh man the names of the levels kill me! I don’t think I appreciated the absurdity until I was explaining them to a past SO who stopped me and went, “Wait, you’re jumping big [to me/him/us] solid objects that take years to get to and the name is NOVICE?” He thought that was just the craziest thing and when I took a step back it gave me a laugh too.

      I don’t have anything else to say except to just “amen” everyone else.

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      1. An all-into-dressage friend who had never seen a horse trials decided to volunteer to jump-judge one weekend, just for the adventure of it. She told me afterward that she was assigned to Beginner Novice, and was standing out in the XC field looking around for the “Beginner” type jumps. She was thinking low crossrails for walk-trot-canter lesson kids. She said she about fainted as they showed her the DITCH and the UP-BANK and the TABLE and all. She was squeaking when she exclaimed “This is BEGINNER Novice? BEGINNER ??? ” LOL She’s staying ground-bound with dressage. But you know, the USEA chose those names for a reason. They really thought (think) that riders will move on to Preliminary, just as riders are said to do in the UK.

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  19. I do this to myself FOR SURE. But I’ve found a little perspective from talking to people who are outside of the horse world. I explain to them that I compete but “just” at the low levels…but that means nothing to them. I (and every single eventer, really) is getting on a 1,000 pound animal and running at obstacles. Or going as fast as you can over a course of brightly colored sticks, or racing around barrels, or whatever it is. It’s so badass. Mostly, people just want to get excited with you.

    I also think some of that mentality of asking others when they’re moving up might come from an inherent quality in competitive riders, especially amateurs. There’s something in us that drives us to put in all the time and money and work to go out and compete. We’re a driven group of people. We’re strivers. We’re going out to measure our progress, be better, get a lower score, conquer that ditch – always getting better. And moving up a level is an easy way to mark that progress. Easier anyway than explaining why you’re so happy with a show even though you came last because you finally didn’t stop at the water/got the best halt score ever/made it under time/had no faults in show jumping/whatever. Those micro-goals are what we mostly what it’s all about (for me at least) – but the bigger ones of moving up or winning or qualifying for a bigger show are so much easier to explain and mark progress, I think.

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  20. 100% all of this. I mean … just … is it just equestrians? It seems like other communities are supportive and don’t do this – ie the running and triathlon people? they cheer you on no matter what. Little 5K or Olympic distance. People should ride/compete at whatever level they are happy at. is it the people who are getting their asses kicked the ones who are shaming people to “move up?” Additionally, showing at the “upper levels” does not make you an expert at the lower ones. That i know for sure!

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