Lovers of equestrian sport enjoy nothing more than watching a top rider, atop a magnificent steed, competing at the highest levels.
It matters not whether the combination is thundering around an eventing cross country or executing the precision moves of dressage.
Avid equestrian fans are always eager to turn on, tune in, and, where possible, even drop by to watch the action.
It will therefore come as a surprise to many fans that equestrian sport doesn’t always feel the love.
We can all fully understand why an American football fan who sits down with a few cans of Budweiser to watch his favorite team might not find an afternoon of dressage entirely to his liking.
However, there are some who walk among us who see equestrian sport in an entirely different light – and perhaps it is time we took notice.
SportAccord is the global union for both Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations, as well as organisers of international sports events. It has 93 full members, of which the FEI is one, and 16 associate members.
Its goal is to unite and support its members in co-ordinating and protecting their common sporting aims and interests.
While there is much that draws international sports federations together, not all are created equal. Top of the heap are the Olympic disciplines. If there is room for rivalry, I’m picking you’ll find most of it around the lower tier Olympic sports and the up-and-coming disciplines that might see the future prospects of a spot at the Games – especially so with the Olympic programme being reviewed this year.
SportAccord’s annual international convention, held this year in Turkey early in April, attracted about 1500 delegates in what I imagine is a pretty useful networking exercise for all those concerned.
My attention was drawn to a survey among delegates on how they viewed the future of sports, and it revealed some very worrying perceptions of equestrian sport.
The March survey, the findings of which were presented to delegates, involved a 5-10 minute computer-aided web interview of 216 of the delegates – about 14 percent of all who attended.
Overall, these sports leaders, perhaps not surprisingly, saw much that was positive in the development of sport over the next five years, predicting not only growth, but for sport to taking on greater importance in society and enjoy even more growth in fan engagement.
They saw sports as engaging more and more with young people, and identifying doping and corruption as the main challenges to a bright future.
However, when asked about which sports they saw as increasing in relevance in the future, equestrian sport did very badly. We can perhaps comfort ourselves that some of these these respondents may have been delegates from sports determined to climb the international ladder, but the message is nonetheless sobering.
Equestrian sport was among the six sports most frequently mentioned by delegates as expected to decrease in relevance. In all, 37 percent of respondents mentioned it in this context.
The only sports to fare worse were wrestling (46 percent) and boxing (48 percent). Motorsport, hockey and handball rounded off the six sports.
In contrast, the delegates named beach volleyball, mountain biking, snowboarding, women’s football and disability sports as the top five most likely to increase in relevance.
The news got no better for horse sports when it came to sponsorship. The movers and shakers were asked to identify sports they expected to increase and decrease in relevance for sponsors.
Equestrian sport again ranked among the six sports most often mentioned as expected to decrease in relevance. It was mentioned by 27 percent of respondents – on a par with handball and gymnastics. Only hockey, wrestling and boxing fared worse.
That, in any language, is an unpalatable message.
Many of these respondents are not people with horse interests, of course, but we must not forget that those who judge us are not all fans of equestrian sport.
That said, we ignore the survey findings at our peril. They may not be horse people, but they are individuals engaged on a daily basis in the running of sporting enterprises around the world. Many know only too well about the importance of sponsorship and funding. They know about getting bums on seats at sporting events and the need to grow participation and the viewing audience.
For many such individuals, their measure of success centres around the growing popularity of sport in general and reaching new audiences.
The survey findings got me thinking.
What possible factors might have come into play that made these conference delegates list equestrian sport near the bottom of the heap?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. After all, we would be naive in thinking that sports wanting to move up the global ladder might not, in promoting their own cause, argue why their competitors should move down.
So, are there weak parts in equestrian sport’s armour? Let’s consider a few questions in this context.
Is equestrian sport too complicated for watchers?
In short, almost certainly yes. This is a problem in many sports, of course. I’ve watched rugby for years but still cannot work out the rules around rucks and mauls. I’ve tried to watch ice hockey but I’m not sharp enough to follow the puck. American football is totally unfathomable in my view. I think we all marvel at the simplicity of some sports – the drama of a foot race or a swimming final, for example.
But even many of the complicated sports have a certain lure. Anyone who doesn’t understand rugby cannot help but marvel at a great line break and a 60 metre run past half a dozen tacklers, or a dazzling long-range shot at goal from a football striker which finds the back of the net. Who can fail to be impressed by the skills of a top-level table tennis player or gymnast?
But I’m afraid your average member of the public couldn’t see any meaningful difference between one top-level dressage test and another, although all seem to adore the musical freestyle. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the grace and discipline of it all, but I can’t see a potential new fan still glued to a television set once the 12th dressage horse enters the arena, especially if they are unfamiliar with the heroes.
Among the Olympic disciplines, jumping and eventing are certainly easier for the public to follow and have a structure to their competition which can build suspense. That is all good. However, a casual observer might be somewhat perplexed by a rider being disqualified for crossing their tracks; and if too many riders are completing clear rounds, would-be fans might be asking themselves: What is the point?
Now, don’t get me wrong here. The world is full of obscure regional sporting pursuits that would be entirely unfathomable to outsiders and they rightly do not care. However, none of them lay claim to having a global reach and international appeal. Many sports are in a continual, usually subtle, state of evolution to make them more appealing to wider fan base. How is equestrian sport doing in that regard?
Has equestrian sport taken enough measures to make it safer?
No-on can deny the danger inherent in horse sport. There is no need to run through the statistics. However, it has to be acknowledged that steps have been made in recent years to reduce the risks. And, let’s face it, there are dozens of risky sports. Skiing, snowboarding and rugby immediately spring to mind. Motorsport involves real risk, which is managed, on the whole, extremely well by governing bodies. However, the horse presents a unique situation in sport. Members of the public have a greater acceptance of human injury and death in sport for the simple reason that participants are all taking part willingly. Few will be unaware of the risks involved in participating. We cannot say the same of horse sports. Most riders would put the welfare of their horses above their own, but there comes a tipping point in equestrian sport where the wider public might start questioning the merits of it all. Equestrian bodies commit great amounts of energy to managing that risk – but the public do not like seeing horses getting hurt, or dying. Period. There is no room for complacency.
Is the sport too elitist at the top level?
Well, it would be fair to say that money helps, both to buy the kind of horsepower required and to mount a decent campaign. All sports have their rags to riches stories – in equestrian sports this can involve not only people, but horses who have risen from humble backgrounds to take on the world. The ability of both the horse and rider count for an enormous amount, of course, but let’s face it: There’s nothing like plenty of cash to keep a campaign on track. Many sports are the domain of the rich at the highest levels. Sponsors no doubt take that into account when deciding where to spend their cash. That said, there are many skilled horse people who have funded top-level campaigns through the sale of quality horses they have trained.
Is equestrian sport not global enough?
Horse sports are global, but in many disciplines there remain frustratingly few countries capable of producing world-class competitors. The FEI has programmes in place to build skill levels across the globe, but there is a long way to go. Again, equestrian sport is not alone in this global imbalance, but it does mean that growing a sport’s profile – and sponsorship dollars – in these nations is that much harder. This is a sensitive issue when it comes to the Olympic movement, which demands that sports within its fold demonstrate global reach and appeal. It’s one thing to demonstrate global reach, but when a handful of nations continue to dominate at the highest level, it’s not ideal.
Have doping infractions done irreparable harm?
What sports has ever been helped by doping infractions? Some sports have found it is a long road back from doping scandals and have had long-term issues with credibility as a result. I certainly wouldn’t put horse sports in that category. Yes, there have been doping issues, but followers of horse sports would focus on them far more than the general public.
The doping infractions that arose from the Beijing Olympics were probably the most damaging of all, which is ironic, because the offending – the topical use of capsaicin on horses – would certainly be at the lower end of the scale.
However, it just goes to show that sports don’t want to be airing their doping indiscretions at widely watched international events. It has to be acknowledged, too, that doping infractions in horse sport carry a double-whammy of sorts. It’s one thing to cheat by injecting yourself with a chemical cocktail, quite another thing to do the same thing to an unsuspecting horse.
The FEI’s Clean Sport initiative has been a major platform in tidying up drugs in horse sport, but every sport should be especially nervous at major events – the Olympic Games, the World Equestrian Games, and other events followed by a big media contingent. People don’t like drugs in sport. They especially don’t like them in horses.
Do welfare issues dog the sport?
The welfare controversy that has swirled around Middle Eastern endurance is running close to the wind in this regard. It needs to be cleaned up fast. The big test will be the start of the new endurance season in the Middle East later this year. Endurance has faced a string of controversies, but the long-term one with the most potential to do harm is horse attrition. If too many endurance races see too many horses eliminated through lameness issues, it would not be long until animal welfare groups start publicly voicing legitimate concerns. Other disciplines have had their controversies, too – rollkur and rotational falls come to mind. However, the most damaging controversies are those that simply won’t go away.
Is the format we use in the three Olympic disciplines modern enough to excite a first-time viewer?
Equestrian purists will be uncomfortable with this question, but it’s incredibly important. For countless millions of people, the Olympics represent a four-yearly sportsfest where they watch sports that normally would not cross their radar. Views will inevitably vary on this question, but I think equestrian sport is middle of the road at best. Showjumping can build suspense and isn’t too hard to follow, and the cross-country phase of eventing can be spectacular if the course is well designed and the whole package is well produced for television. The rest, I suspect, is very much the domain of the equestrian purist.
Does equestrian sport have an image problem?
What do you think? Equestrians disciplines have demonstrated growth, but image is very much about public perception. Some members of the public undoubtedly view some equine disciplines as elitist at a top level; some will consider the disciplines too complicated to follow; some will be uneasy over doping and welfare controversies; perhaps they can’t watch in case there’s a tumble. What we can say for certain is that a survey of a group of sporting movers and shakers at the recent SportAccord gathering certainly felt there were issues ahead for equestrian sport – so much so that they lumped the disciplines among the bottom six in terms of future prospects.
Perhaps they made their decisions based on other factors, but I suspect these eight broad questions probably covered it.
The problems faced by equestrian sport are hardly unique, but it seems clear that some caution is required. Commercial imperatives are crucial drivers among top-level sports these days.
Sports need bums on seats, television companies willing to pay for broadcasting rights, and followers prepared to pay for cable subscriptions. Wide exposure adds up to happy sponsors, and happy sponsors mean more revenue for the sport.
These are timely questions to be asking as the International Olympic Committee ponders the future of its sporting programme. The IOC is conducting a wide-ranging review this year, with clear signs that it is looking closely at introducing more flexibility in the Olympic programme, which potentially spells trouble long-term for sports outside the top tier.
The cost to hosts of staging the Games is clearly another concern, and the IOC, with a raft of committees in place, is looking at pretty much everything.
I have voiced the view that the equestrian world must not be complacent about its place within the Olympic movement. What if member nations of the IOC held the same view as those surveyed at the SportAccord?
Some who doubt this threat have pointed to the success of equestrian sports at the London Olympics in 2012, saying that the future must surely be bright.
It is certainly far brighter than it was after the Beijing Games, but there is evidence that suggests complacency would be dangerous. We’ll take a look at that in a further report later this week.
Most of the problems faced by equestrian sports are issues confronted by many sports trying to address the challenges of promoting sport in the modern age.
However, horse sports manage to pull more of them together than pretty much any other sport I can think of to create a “perfect storm” of factors capable of being used against it.
At best, we can conclude there is no room for complacency. At worst, horse sports may need to evolve to broaden their appeal.
Many sports are not afraid to adapt to meet challenges . These can be driven by a raft of factors, from commercial issues, such as creating a better television spectacle or making the cost of staging events cheaper, to safety. There is no shame in this constant evolution.
International sport is a high-stakes game – and not just in the competition arena.