The Lost Art of Equestrian Etiquette

Horse Riders on Trail


  1. conventional requirements as to social behavior; proprieties of conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion.
  2. a prescribed or accepted code of usage in matters of ceremony, as at a court or in official or other formal observances.
  3. the code of ethical behavior regarding professional practice or action among the members of a profession in their dealings with each other

Calling Ourselves to Task

In this world that I love – spending our days with our horses, earning our living with our horses and amidst all that goes with them – I feel like this world, always a dream world to me, is becoming more of a mirror to the real world than I would like to admit.

I don’t know why I thought the equestrian community would be removed from the demise of common etiquette.  I guess because, for the most part, our traditions are steeped in privilege, royalty and richness, and let’s not forget, the military.  And while many of us are not rich and we don’t ride our mounts into battle, the tradition laid down for us is something I think we need to honor.

Perhaps it is time – as horse owners, riders, competitors, trainers, judges, journalists, bloggers, and business owners – that we take a moment and call ourselves to task.  To look at our industry, our hobby, our lives, and see how we can improve.

It’s a Journey

First, I always try to remember, it is a journey.  Anyone out there riding, whether for fun or competition, has probably put a lot of time and effort into it.  No one wants to do it wrong.

Biggest pet peeve? Walking past the rail at an event and listening to the armchair experts pick apart everyone who is competing.  Ok, I get it. We all have opinions, right? I will spare you the, “Ask 10 horse trainers how to change a light bulb” joke. And I do realize that part of going to watch events is for your own learning curve and to socialize with your friends. But thinking before we speak is something we all need to remember to do.

You may want to remember the old, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” line I know all of your mothers have given you.  Or if you can’t abide that, please at least do it quietly.  Not everyone around you is impressed that you can pick out all the things going wrong.

I read a quote from a very illustrious trainer once who said that anyone can pick apart the negatives of a horse; it takes a horseman to recognize the qualities. What trumps all of this? Of course abuse, losing your temper on your horse, losing your temper at your groom, your mom, your friend. Do this, and I hope someone does call you out. You breach this kind of etiquette, you suffer the consequences.

Equestrian Event Lineup

Just Because You Can

This brings me to my next point.  In our Twittering, tweeting, Facebook, blogging frenzy where suddenly everyone has an opinion worth meriting a thousand views (I am not immune to the irony of writing about this on a blog!) it seems that calling people out for everything from fashion faux pas to using illegal tack to criticizing a rider’s style to highlighting outright abuse is everywhere.  Word of caution here. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

For example, at a recent show I was competing at there was a photographer. Not a hired show photographer, just someone shooting pictures of the riders. One of these photos ended up on their blog, a well respected equestrian blog that is meant for support and education of a particular discipline. However, this photo was of a junior rider showing a snapshot moment in time of an aid being given in a, debatable, incorrect way.  Not abusive, mind you.  It was posted and meant for discussion, but this junior rider’s face was shown, the venue was recognizable, and the horse’s number was clear.

The rider’s parents, when they got news of this, were horrified, not to mention the junior.  We all know kids have access to social media and are probably more savvy that most adults.  I, for one, have to be taught constantly about my smartphone by some of my junior riders. When the poster was approached the response was public domain. Basically, “I have the right to photograph who and what I please, and use where and how I want.” Really? Does this sit well with you?  If not then maybe you get to skip out on the etiquette lessons.

Is anyone else just really, really tired of photos that show a moment in time being blown way out of proportion by social media?  Watching an entire video to get the full picture is one thing, but taking a clip of a moment in time as a total representation of what is going on with a horse and rider seems to be a whole new sport in and of itself.  And I am not referring to the photos people send into the magazines and get a critique on – totally different. They asked for it.  And by the way, that junior? Overall high point of the show.

Public and Private Trails

And let us just graze the topic of riding on public lands, trails and private properties, because that could be an entire article of its own.  The area I live in is filled with wide open spaces and beautiful ranches and countryside.  But too bad.  You can’t ride anywhere.  Perhaps 15 years ago you could, but now that so many “city folk” have moved here, most of the big ranches and private properties have fenced off access and that is that.

So it would be nice to sit back and say, oh those rich city folks, they don’t know how it works out here in the country. But, truthfully, yes, yes they do.  This is how it works.  People ask to ride through your property and you agree.  You ask that if they find a gate closed, close it.  If it is open, leave it open.  They even put a sign up for you to remember.  But one day you are out riding, on someone else’s property, gossiping with your friends, taking your pictures and posting them to Facebook and you forget to shut the gate all the way.  Or you don’t shut it at all.  And the yearlings from the pasture come through about an hour later and get up against the fence with the ranch’s breeding stallion and all heck breaks loose.  Or perhaps the herd of mama cows and their calves get out onto the road.  Or, or, or.

Every single ranch owner I have spoken to in my area has a really good reason they have had to ban people from riding on their properties.  Typically, it’s a complete lack of respect or common sense.  Hmm, I am hearing that word again, etiquette?

The public trails dilemma can be even worse.  Non-horse people and horses sharing the same trails can be really dangerous.  With ATVs, motorbikes, bicycles, baby strollers, off leash dogs coming around the bend or down a hill at a horse and rider can make for some pretty interesting eight-second imitations.  (If you remember to start timing yourself, usually I am trying to hold the expletives in check, because, you know, etiquette.)

In this situation, it is important to remember that you are an ambassador for your horse and for equestrians everywhere and that these people usually just have no idea about horses. So, if you can, after you have dusted yourself off, be polite and try to nicely explain how that umbrella attached to the off-road baby jogging contraption is a really cool idea, and while it seems odd that a 1,200-pound animal would be afraid of it, ha ha, they really do think they are going to be eaten by it, so, umm, yeah, please, next time you are running up to a horse and see the horse doing it’s best imitation of “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” please slow down. Of course, you can’t get anywhere with the off-road motorcycles, because, dang, they were going so fast they thought you were a hallucination.

Man’s Best Friend

And now we tackle the subject of man’s best friend.  I dare you to go anywhere there are horses and not find dogs.  In fact, this is a subject so near and dear to me it is actually going to be its own blog.  But for the purpose of this discussion, let us just leave at this. Horses are prey animals, and dogs are predators.  Be aware of how your dog’s behavior affects the people and horses around you.  Be considerate.  Be watchful. Be careful.

You never want to be the one that is being called over the loud speaker at the horse show asking to please claim your delinquent dog.  Worse, you don’t want to get the show premium in the mail that says “NO DOGS ALLOWED,” or be called into to the barn manager’s office with a list of boarder complaints against your dog. Remember, any trouble your dog get’s into is completely, 100% your responsibility.  No matter what.

Be Kind. Be the Change.

My last parting comment about equestrian etiquette: be kind.  An encouraging word, a smile, or a hello can go a long way. This is especially true when you are competing, but just as much when you’re happening along on someone riding the trail.  I cannot tell you what it means to have a really influential trainer, someone you may have spent years reading about or watching, just say “Hello,” or, “Have a nice ride.” Or even, “What a pretty tail!” (Which we all know that is code for what you say when you can say nothing else at all, but hey, I will take it!)

And not even from a trainer, from a fellow competitor, from a show volunteer, from a show mom.  I have to say, that in all of the years that I have been riding, and lucky enough to be making my living in this incredible world of horses, the inspirational stories, the nice people, the good examples far outweigh the bad.  But I guess that is why I feel so protective of this culture and why I hope we remember to hold it in the highest esteem. It seems so easy – Do Unto Others, and all.

Act accordingly.  Be the change.

The other option is Charm School.