The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media

June 1, 2018

We can peek into the barns of top show jumpers, see riders we idolize in candid moments, and get to know famous horses outside of the ring. It’s unprecedented access to the sport’s stars—all on our phones and computers. Social media has become a powerful tool in the equine industry, with riders and companies using it to create unique and powerful connections with fans and customers.

For riders, social media can help build a fan base, as the public can get to know their favorite human and equine stars much more intimately than they can from traditional media coverage of the sport. We get to see Olympic horses rolling in turn-out and begging for treats, and behind-the-scenes moments like Kent Farrington sharing his intense work-out and rehabilitation process. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provide a direct conduit from athletes to fans, and savvy use of social media can exponentially increase a rider’s popularity with the public regardless of their results resume. And a rider with a strong social media presence can reap the rewards when it comes to sponsors. It’s a fantastic tool to use in connecting the audience with the top athletes and marketing products.

But there’s a flip side to this cornucopia of access. The broader the audience, the more intense the scrutiny. Mistakes or problems that might have slipped by without notice in the pre-social media era now can be amplified into major incidents with worrisome side effects. Witness the furor over blood appearing in the mouth of Marilyn Little’s mount during the cross-country phase of the Land Rover Kentucky CCI**** and the outcry over Oliver Townend’s overuse of the whip during the Mitsubishi Badminton CCI**** this spring.

Internet and social media commenters were fervent and outspoken in their dismay at what they perceived as mistreatment of the horses, commenting on Facebook and discussion boards with anger. They collected contact information for the riders’ sponsors and wrote impassioned arguments to those companies encouraging them to stop supporting Little and Townend. And despite statements released by Little and Townend defending themselves, several of those sponsors ended their relationships with the riders.

That’s why it’s so essential for riders to consider the worst-case scenarios as well as the benefits of opening themselves up to their audience when they venture into social media. Riders should prepare themselves for the possibility of criticism from their fans and others online; they need to have a well thought-out plan for how to handle such comments if they should ever happen. Taking to the keyboard when emotional and defensive is never a good strategy.

Harnessing the power of social media can be an enormously valuable tool for riders, but they also need to know how to react when that power gets a bit out of their control. Letting fans get up close and personal can backfire, but having a coherent and smart strategy for how to respond when things aren’t just about cute begging for treats videos and Instagrammable photos is essential.

Molly Sorge, the managing editor of Jump Media's content, grew up eventing and achieved her A rating in Pony Club. She spent a few years grooming on the A circuit before starting a 20-year career at the magazine The Chronicle of the Horse. She joined Jump Media in March 2018.