Who You Follow in the New Year

There’s not a lot of times that I feel old. Yes, I’m almost always in bed before 10PM, and honestly, after a conversation the other day when a young friend of mine where she mentioned that Panic! At The Disco’s big hit was NOT “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” I died a little.  However, when I go through my Instagram, that’s when I realize just how much age has particularized who I want to see on my feed.

                You see, during my years of teenage rebellion and barn girl drama, social media didn’t feed into it. It was hard enough managing the usual unrest that comes with horses + teenage girls WITHOUT Instagram or Tumblr. At least when someone said needlessly crass things about you, they either said it in front of you, or you heard it through the grapevine of people who liked to encourage the general uprising. When people bought new horses or tack or riding clothes, you had to interact with it face to face. Maybe I was willfully ignorant, but it feels like girls might have been more civil about rubbing their $$$ in your face 10-12 years ago. Even with that, I remember most times when I had to cry in a stall or a pasture because I felt I wasn’t good enough, that no one liked me or recognized my hard work, that I wouldn’t amount to anything because I had hand-me-down show pants and other girls had brand new outfits every competition.

To be honest, I can’t imagine the pressure of interacting with social media as a young rider these days. I try to tell that to every single person I am lucky enough to interact with in my minuscule position within the IG EQ community. The cruel anonymity and pressure to fulfill predetermined roles online seem like a crushing weight. Even non-horsey teenagers feel that pressure, but when you add horses, it duplicated emotional involvement. Our horses are an extension of ourselves, our goals, our dreams, and our love. On top of that, equestrian sports are incredibly competitive and money-driven. We all know that. Social media allows an outlet for self-expression and community, while also being a way to bully, just because being online disproportionately inflates the deeply misguided sense of self-importance some feel. Most of the time, it’s on very material, petty things. Specifically? Brands and the “equestrian lifestyle.”

Instagram is full of “equestrian lifestyle” influencers, with what feels like a million followers. Girls (and boys!) follow because those photos, those videos, that barn, the “aesthetic” are what they believe a dream come true looks like. I understand that. My Pinterest from when I was younger had all these boards full of the ideal home and property, decoration and my barn. Even though getting married wasn’t a dream of mine, I still had a board for it and what I hoped it would look like if it was to happen, with no idea of how much things truly cost or how unimportant these ideas would become. My wedding ended up being more fantastic than teenage Bailey could have ever dreamed of, without a single Pinterest idea.

                Pinterest tangent aside, I have deep, powerful feelings about who people follow and the ties that creates to their personality. You see, there’s this thing in news media called a “media echo,” sometimes also known as an “echo chamber.” This is where a system of beliefs, ideas, or, in our modern world, “fake news” is put out from a certain person into a closed system, such as your Facebook feed, and those ideas, beliefs, fake news, and most importantly, morals, are reinforced and amplified because we as humans tend to seek out those who will reinforce. The media echo is a fascinating trickle-down effect of confirmation bias, which is the human tendency to search for and favor information in such a way that it reconfirms or fulfills one’s pre-existing beliefs. As a communication major in college, this wildly fascinated me, but how does it tie into our relationships with those we follow on Instagram?

                Well, it’s as simple as who you follow impacts how you see yourself, your horse, your sport, and the world around you.

    Think about it this way. The people you follow, the small accounts AND the big accounts, all are presenting a certain standard outwardly. A majority of the time, not always, this standard seems relatively unattainable, whether it’s the facility they ride at or the horses they ride and compete or who they train with. Now, I think this is a phenomenon in all disciplines. However, by following people who represent, in real life, a relatively small portion of the population, you subscribe to their ideas, what’s important to them, and most importantly, their ethics.

    The power of a follow is not something overlooked by companies or “influencers” but might be overlooked by the average social media user. Not only do some larger accounts actually make money off of social media, but their reach to influence followers also goes far beyond just a number of likes or impressions. Yes, social media is not transparent. That’s why so many people use it because they can create a life online that might otherwise seem relatively mundane and average. I understand that. It feels like a way to control the way the world sees you.

However, as a girl, I don’t follow accounts, personally, that make me feel bad about myself, like I’m not enough, because of the way I live my life, the way I dress, the way I look. That’s primarily why I’ve stopped using my personal Instagram – I was tired of comparing myself to my peers, particularly in study habits. What a weight lifted off my shoulders. I also do not follow accounts that post and spread training doctrine or create false expectations of what riding success should look like. Particularly, ones that are unrealistic, unattainable, and “lifestyle” based. Poor Erin has to listen to me talk about this a lot (love you, Bug), but it’s unfair to those who follow larger accounts to only see the picture-perfect moments. Sure, people will share fails occasionally (and usually with massive disclaimers), a picture that isn’t crystal clear with a caption of “what Instagram sees v. reality,” or a mismatched ROOTD, like everyone, is in a place to even be able to put together a riding outfit financially.

The point is, the accounts you follow set your expectations for where you should be and what you should ride like. Inspirational role models are amazing, and those who inspire you with their conduct, their honesty, their riding, and transparency are worth following. But… simply because you don’t conform to self-imposed ideals from others does not mean your successes or riding career is less worthy of pride. People who follow larger accounts, especially of young professionals, should be discerning about horsemanship practices and training ethics that come with those accounts, including unattainability of being dressed head to toe in brands to tag for a possible feature, who mentors them, and about their financial background.

Riding and equestrian sports are so incredibly more than just buying/selling imported warmbloods, competing at a certain level within a certain time frame, fitting the ideal rider’s body standard, wearing only “in” brands, and someone to photograph/video your every move. You all know that. I know that. Nevertheless, our expectations begin to change subconsciously and doubts creep in.

Have you ever thought any of these things? “My horse doesn’t move like that… I’ll never be successful above First Level with my current horse… Maybe I need a new one.” “I can’t clinic without a matching LeMeuix/Eskadron/Equestrian Stockholm set… I’ll be the only one not matching.” “My equitation isn’t perfect… I can’t post that video.” “Oh, well (insert a professional here) is schooling half steps on a 4-year-old or is taking a very young horse through upper-level eventing without any issues… It must be okay.”

Those thoughts are the ones that develop as a result of following accounts who stress success and appearance over the things that matter. The early mornings, the riding in breeches with holes in them because spending money on feed and training means no extra to spend on new riding clothes, the hand-me-down tack and trailer, the struggle to get to work and study and go to class with enough time to get home in the fading light, and all of the tears and self-doubt that with self-producing a horse. These kinds of accounts might not be toxic per se, but they certainly create a visible divide in the equestrian community and in people’s expectations, especially to the target audience of Instagram: teenagers to young 20 somethings.

So, think about this. Your horsemanship and your goals are not defined by other rider’s achievements. You are not limited just because you don’t come from an affluent horsey family or because you work a 40 hour a week non-horsey job. Your schooling show record is just as important as someone else’s CDI record. Your body type will not govern success. Your horse couldn’t care less what you wear or dress him/her up in, why should you? I say this a lot, but your journey does not follow anyone else’s trajectory. Why even try to parallel someone else and take away the uniqueness from a path you’re on?

With the new year coming up, I hope you go through who you’re following and remove anyone who makes you feel “other” from your feed. Purge those that make you jealous or insecure or question if the horse is the main focus of riding. I hope you realize that by following people with a focus on riding as a “lifestyle” or fashion statement instead of as a sport, you’re subscribing to a mindset of misconception. I hope you recognize integrity and ethics when you see them, and you reward it by following those instead of accounts you feel might use or believe in shortcuts. I hope the expectations you set for yourself and your horse are based upon your personal goals and you pursue them with conviction and passion, no matter what they are or how hard they might be to attain. Finally, I hope that you share generously, because you and your horse deserve to be proud of each and every step.