This is a tough subject.

As a trainer, I have a really hard time with social media and the time it takes our kids away from “real time” with their horses—the hours and hours wasted on screen time that could be spent in the barn.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard “I just didn’t have time,” or “I didn’t get to it,” or “I forgot” from students. The practice and grooming and loving comes second to the screen, and the other things they have to do—homework, chores, jobs—become more important than just being quiet with their horse. I’m not sure kids even enjoy the little moments anymore—the inviting smell of the barn, the butterfly that their horse is watching, the loving look from their horse.

And then there are the posts. The endless “no thought behind what is real, what is appropriate, what is hurtful, and what is just not necessary” posts filling up their social media feeds are devastating to our sport.

Take the posts about horses. Why should everyone know something about someone else’s horse? Why would anyone want to make fun of another person’s horse? Why is it okay to bend the truth about things and for others to read those fabrications as if they are facts?

This sport is so special because of what it can teach a young person—the responsibility, the love, the grit, the hard work, the list goes on and on. As a trainer you need it all to go hand in hand so the rider can be the best of the best. And in real time, not on a screen or in a post.

I’m not sure it’s even possible anymore with the time crunch of this increasingly digital world. Time spent at the barn was once freely given and is near impossible to duplicate. The lessons in patience and observation athletes would learn from watching their horse play with a butterfly or while driving across the country to a show cannot be taught. It’s acquired through experience and is what fuels the passion, the drive, the desire to be the best.

You simply cannot replace the real time required, nor can you take back the images and the posts that they consume online.

As a trainer, I know there has to be a balance. I know social media isn’t going away. But I feel the balance is too hard for a kid to grasp on their own and that less screen time can only mean more when it comes to riding.

As a judge, I can’t help but think that screens are holding up the ring. I spend many minutes and hours in the judge’s box waiting for a competitor in the ring, but when I look up to see what everyone is doing ringside, they’re inevitably on their phones.

What would they be doing if their phone wasn’t there to distract them? Would they be helping others? Would they be working and seeing others work, pushing our young ones to do as they see?

I wonder how we keep our sport alive and thriving in the digital age. The job of a judge is to rate and review the class the best you can—and, in turn, you hope to inspire riders and the sport to grow. When you walk into the ring and the judge verifies where you are compared to the competition that day, it drives you to work and get better, to move to another division, etc.

But when you are distracted by a constant stream of social posts that are maybe not entirely correct or don’t show the whole picture, what toll does that take, particularly on the mental health of children?  

If phones weren’t within reach of every fingertip, would kids watch each other’s trips more? Would they learn from sitting at the ring? Would they actually see the judge’s perspective? Would there be less negativity about the judging if they watched all the trips in a class and understood what mistakes were made and why the ribbons went way they did? That is the piece that you can’t always teach, but you get when you’re in “real time”!

As a mom, the worst hat I wear is my social media police hat. You want your kid to be social and have friends and not be “weird.” You also want your kid to be their own person and to do what they love and contribute positively to society.

I know, as a mom, that working with a live animal and all that comes with that teaches our kids more, I’d argue, than any other sport. Beyond the grit and determination and strategy of competition, horses teach empathy and resilience, failure and sacrifice, patience and perseverance. Horses teach ALL life lessons. But I’m not sure kids learn from it now like we did when we had literally nothing else to do.

I have always pushed my kids to not have any screen time at all and, I can tell you, that doesn’t work. So then you try to understand their side and get involved—and you experience the feeling it gives you and you don’t want a kid to feel that way.

You hear that social media can help kids make connections they may not have otherwise. It can give them an identity in the horse world and help promote them. Networking is not only word of mouth anymore. It’s social media spreading the word.

And, at the same time, it means they now have to grow up so fast! They have to understand how not to compare themselves to others, how not to get hurt by posts that aren’t truly directed at them—how to stay real in a virtual world.

As a parent, you have to teach them all of it before they go down a bad path of rage and devastation that social media can lead to. Kids don’t get to live and learn anymore. They have to learn first. And as parents, we have to give them the tools to navigate that. 

I know social media isn’t going away. I also know it’d be better for everyone—our kids, our horses, our sport—if less time was lost to screens and if we we used social media more as a tool than a crutch.

Horses teach the same life lessons—and in a better way—all by themselves.

Dana Hart Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A level sport.