The funny thing about bias is that it’s the necessary basis of any opinion. And now that we’ve all had our quadrennial opportunity to reinvest in mildly-biased opinions on oft-ignored athletics, it’s time to talk about horse sports, and opinions about horse sports.
When Deadspin readers accused Patrick Redford recently of disliking horse sports because he has little to no experience riding, they accurately identified the likely root of his implicit bias against them. And if you don’t read beyond this sentence because in it I admit that part or much of the reason why I defend the appeal of equestrian events is that I rode seriously for much of my life and once owned a horse, you have a fair point, too. You don’t have to have participated in a particular activity to appreciate it—I lasted less than a full season in Little League—but having dedicated so many hours to being on and around horses is undeniably tied to my overall respect for the sport.
The thing here is that you should respect the sport, even if you don’t like it (which, sure, you are entitled to not). Truth be told, for the 14 years that riding singularly dominated my life I avoided dressage, which you may know as “horse dancing,” because I didn’t particularly like it. I thought it was boring and insufficiently flashy. Maybe you do, too.
But you should respect the athletes who compete at an Olympic level in an objectively difficult and physically demanding task. You should respect that stereotypes about equestrians—like many stereotypes—are based in some truths, but that these truths, to whatever degree they apply, don’t make people who ride horses in an extremely impressive way less impressive than anyone else who does extremely impressive sports things.
This post is supposed to be a defense of “horse sports,” but I don’t know what I’m defending them against. The fact that some people don’t like them? That seems like a thankless, Sisyphean task that will almost certainly backfire. The fact that some people don’t consider them sports? This used to offend me, because people—typically red-blooded American men who assumed the baseball-themed onesies they wore as a baby or the plush footballs they received as birthday presents long before they had any hand-eye coordination to speak of made them uniquely suited to expound on the worthiness of activities they didn’t care to understand—mocked my commitment to what they considered a lazy, prissy, let’s-just-say-it girly non-sport. Attempts to refute this, though (“Try riding!” “Try doing precise rhythmic squats for an extended period of time!”), are embarrassing and blustery.
You should respect these sports for all the reasons above; because of the simple, undeniable reality that the people who like them are not harming you through their enjoyment; because if you gave it a few minutes of attention you would realize that they aren’t opaquely subjective (if that’s what bothers you) or even demonstrably elitist relative to other sports; and because it’s possible that the many biased people who already know them may have a point. From a certain perspective, all sports are stupid; if you accept that, the ones you’re not into are ones you just haven’t gotten into yet.
Equestrian events aren’t more worthwhile if or because sailing is more expensive, or luge more insular, or shooting less athletic, and they aren’t less so because there are sports with more mass appeal like basketball and soccer. They exist on their own terms, and don’t need to be written down as better or worse than anything at all. In fact, rankings of sports, biased or otherwise, are not only unnecessary, but deeply antithetical to the Olympic spirit. The sports you happen to like don’t form the outer limits of a spectrum on which to place all other pursuits. The Olympics are not a logic problem. They don’t ask us to find the common denominator between a series of events and then expel those that fail to fit this pattern. They exist to allow for demonstrations of excellence and the appreciation of them.
Equestrian events in the Olympics don’t need my defense. I’ve missed more Olympics than I’ve watched, skipped sports I don’t care for, and won’t vilify anyone else for doing the same. But four years from now, I’ll be over here holding my breath during the medal jump-off with all the other horse-sport fanatics, and we’ll be happy to have you.