Equestrian sport is in crisis. If not currently, it, like the climate, is in a nearly irreversible downward spiral. There have been changes in the rules, the layout and the presentation of all disciplines over the years. Some of these are for the good of our sport, covering horse welfare and rider safety as well as our commercial viability. Many, unfortunately, will have an ongoing negative impact that, while immediately affecting the upper levels, will have a trickle down impact to all participants.
I’m not sure how many of you have taken much notice of the format of the different disciplines at next year’s Olympics, but the changes there are huge. The issue is that the IOC has put pressure on the FEI to include more nations so the numbers in each team have been reduced and the qualifications broadened. The alterations in showjumping are potentially very scary. In Tokyo there will potentially be combinations that have racked up massive penalties in qualifying competitions who are going to be competing at the Olympics because they are the best of a bad bunch. Therefore, unless the course designer wants blood on their hands, the first rounds will have to be ‘soft’. That means we won’t get the best of the best in the individual final which is now before the team event. And how many riders will really push their horses in an individual final when they’ve got the team competition still to come? Finally, do NOT get me started on the horse welfare issues surrounding not having a drop score.
The dressage format is a little less problematic but does require a degree in statistics to figure out the path from starting to medal contention, and with a very heavily seeded element to the competition, there will be even more pressure on the judges to make unbiased decisions with all competitions now run in reverse order of merit. I don’t really have an opinion on the fact that some horses will only compete two classes en route to an individual medal, but I’m sure that the riders will, depending on whatever they think suits their particular partner the most. I’m not even going to start trying to analyse the eventing scoring system as even the most simple of explanations seems to require PhD level algebra, but again the lack of a discard score is extremely concerning on a horse welfare front. My personal prediction is that the Olympics will no longer be considered a pinnacle event by the riders, even if it does manage to cling on to its status as an Olympic event after this debacle.
Of course, these changes are only the tip of the iceberg. We’ve already got WEG disbanding its one venue format. We’re facing unprecedented public scrutiny at all levels. Five years ago we’d never even heard the term ‘social licence’ and now we are having to defend our sport and our right to participate, to even own and ride horses, on multiple fronts. Hunting and racing have long been on the general publics’ radar and I honestly think that those who do not participate in these sports personally have abandoned them at their peril. I do not know a single person who goes hunting to see a fox killed, nor do I know a single person who participates in the racing industry to see a horse hurt. Yet that is how we’ve allowed the general public to label these people. They’re seen as blood thirsty or driven by the mighty pound. The latter is laughable. Everyone knows that a horse needs to be happy and healthy to run and there have been multiple studies that show a horse actually runs slower if hit by a whip, but somehow this is never publicised. As for the former – it’s come to the point that people who have categorical proof of how a drag hunt is run and how a fox is never in danger, won’t publish it, for fear of putting their head above the parapet.
One thing we cannot defend is the fact that our sport is elitist. To participate, much less compete, requires a disposable income that most have every right to envy. We cannot deny this, and to do so is disingenuous. Our own household’s income is, according to the latest statistics, just outside the top 5% in the UK. Still, I cannot afford to run a horse at the moment, much less purchase one. It is time we stopped pretending that our sport is a right for all and acknowledge that it is a true privilege to be involved at any level. We need to be active politically – turning up or making submissions to local councils to keep bridleways open and making land and zoning available for our facilities and competitions. We need to actively seek to support the small to medium sized businesses providing the products and services we need. It’s not up to ‘them’ to provide the financial support we need – or rather it is up to ‘them’ – and we are they! We need to band together across all interest groups and support each other. We also need to stop being protectionist of those within our own groups that are using practices that are questionable and who bring the sport into disrepute. We need to call out our own problems while raising up and endorsing those that have the integrity and genuine love for the horses that has gotten us all involved in the first place.
The economic gain to our society of a flourishing equestrian community is huge. The latest estimates have that figure at £8 billion per annum in the U.K. alone. That’s a lot of opportunity for us to vote with our wallet. We can use this to our advantage by supporting those businesses and individuals that will continue to operate with our best interests at heart. Your local vet practice over a global corporation, your independent saddler over an online discounter, your ethical and systematic trainer over the most flashily marketed quick fix. Choose wisely.
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