BY BRIDIE HAMILTON
As a former working student, FEI Groom and EAP National Finalist turned collegiate equestrian, riding horses sometimes feels like Hotel California: you can check out but you can never leave.
Recent discussions surrounding privilege, opportunity and accessibility in equestrian sports have made me wonder what the purpose of horse showing as we know it today is. Is it to create an environment that allows the most amount of people to enjoy the sport of show jumping? Is it to elevate the most gifted athletes so they can cultivate a better and more desirable level of sport for us to aspire to? Is it to elevate the wealthiest athletes? Or is it to make money? Should USEF have a say in the means to which private horse show organizations achieve their primary purpose, whatever it might be? Is showing as we know it even the best way to achieve elevation of equestrian industries across the board or is it the only way that we know?
I won’t pretend to have answers to all these questions but I still think they are important to consider. It’s also important to point out, as I think Karl Cook did, horse show organizations have not advanced their business model since the 1980s. Our sport is so rooted in tradition that in many ways it holds us back. I agree that this sport does need to be more mainstream. However, I disagree with the idea that increasing the amount of prize money offered or sponsorships created by USEF will trickle down in a way that makes it a more viable career path for most.
Accessibility cannot be understood as narrowly as lowering costs associated with competing on the ‘A’ circuit or increasing sponsorship revenues and Grand Prix purses. While those are important components of the conversation, I think we do our industry a number of disservices by limiting the context of these debates to the constraints of the horse show industry we have created. The demand for highly competitive show venues and training programs that cater to all ages, levels, and heights has increased exponentially over the years but the supply, or how many ways we offer people the chance to meet their goals in the arena has not.
It’s difficult to increase spectatorship when we can barely find a way to increase participation. Why should we expect people to continue to invest in a sport that wants to be widely palatable but not widely accessible? The question then becomes: how can the equestrian world motivate casual spectators who attend or watch occasionally but feel no allegiance to a rider or horse, to become lifelong fans who travel for shows, pay for live streams and demonstrate continuous vocal support for our sport? It probably won’t matter how phenomenal your spectator experience is, it becomes irrelevant for most looking to participate when they get a taste of the extreme barrier to entry. I firmly believe that every level of our sport is broken when the only way to circumnavigate the fact you lack monetary resources is to climb the well-established hierarchy of suffering until you connect with someone who has enough money to make up for what you lack.
It’s undeniable that success in this sport is possible if you can find a door, shove your Parlantis in it and refuse to let it break your toes. However, we need to refrain from using infrequent success stories to justify the structural inequalities that exist in our sport today. It has created an environment where success in riding does not necessarily favour the best athletes—it favours those who can afford to be the best athletes.
Most top riders are not achieving success simply because they are wealthy (I would not want to negate the talent many of our favourite Grand Prix pilots possess) but they are competitive because their money has afforded them countless advantages that enable them to be outstanding. In riding, I think we look up to opportunity. Finding someone you identify with who looks like you or who comes from your same background can inform the goals you set for yourself. When young riders look around at the top of this sport and see primarily a catalogue of wealth and privilege it leaves little room to be inspired.
Imagine approaching accessibility from a perspective not tied to the setup of our existing competitive infrastructure. A possible solution is re-imagining show jumping as a team sport before you reach a Nation’s Cup level. We could invest in creating a league format that pulls players from a draft. Club franchise owners would own the physical infrastructure, as well as the horses which relieves the often insurmountable cost of competing consistently on privately owned horses. It would allow for a different path that leads to an end goal other than that of competing in an equitation final, a Grand Prix, or pursuing fleeting individual success at FEI levels. If executed well it has the potential to address several gaps that equestrians are all too familiar with while capitalizing on several opportunities unique to equestrian sports.
There is already widespread proof that equestrian disciplines translate well as team sports. For collegiate organizations such as the IHSA or NCEA, you don’t need your own horse to ride. If you can follow that line of reasoning, competing in an IEA or catch-riding type program throughout grade school, pursuing an NCEA or IHSA program at the collegiate level, and allowing riders to enter a draft becomes a legitimate pathway to be a competitive equestrian athlete without ever setting foot on a USEF sanctioned showground. If riding for a club and competing in a league became a desirable opportunity it would inevitably boost the popularity of IHSA and NCEA. This would allow them to create a higher quality product that has genuine trickle-down potential by increasing public perception of equestrian athletic programs, lesson programs and the sport as more than just an exhibition of elitism.
One of the most unique aspects of equestrian sports is that men and women compete equally. In 2019 the USWNT gained incredible exposure for their Equal Pay Lawsuit against the USSF (their national federation) during the FIFA Women’s World Cup. While watching them compete I learned a lot about soccer and about the obstacles that women in other professional sports face. Since then I have invested a lot of time and money into deciding which teams and players to support by paying for live streams, buying merchandise, and watching affiliated leagues.
As I watched all this soccer, it occurred to me that if I am heavily invested in spectating sports I’ve never played, how much more likely am I to invest in a league format for a sport I did play? Especially one that could completely forego a gender pay discrepancy. The mainstream sports world is more invested than ever in equal opportunity sports programming.
For example, the NWSL recently announced Angel City FC, an expansion team in Los Angeles whose owners include: Natalie Portman, Abby Wambach, America Ferrera, Olympia Ohanian (Serena William’s 2-year-old daughter), Casey Neistat, Eva Longoria, Jessica Chastain and Lilly Singh. Showjumping already has massive celebrity level visibility that goes largely underutilized. Funding could be achieved similarly to the way that the NBA, WNBA, MLS or NWSL teams establish adequate training and competition facilities. People are already willing to purchase 6-7 figure risk-ridden farm animals for individual athletes with a widely variable return on investment, which leads me to believe syndicating clubs that support more people at all levels of this industry is not an outlandish suggestion. Shaping a league allows the success of a local team to drive the appeal of spectatorship in ways we have not explored before. This could theoretically generate profits in a new and exciting way for sponsors and investors. While I can’t pretend to be an expert in economics, if there is one sport that cannot afford (no pun intended) to use lack of capital as an excuse not to advance the game, it’s this one.
Another flaw that I have not seen addressed is the general tendency to hyper-fixate on expanding the maximum level of what can be achieved in this sport. Riding well is only one component of what we unrealistically expect professionals in this industry to be masters of. I cannot imagine a scenario in which you tell an aspiring professional basketball player that in addition to playing in the NBA, they should also be prepared to run and maintain a gym, coach other athletes, maintain sponsorships and sell or manufacture handcrafted basketballs on the side?
Meanwhile, there is no established minimum level of compensation for equestrian professional industries. A club based system could elevate competitive riding from angles across all industries that intersect horses shows. Opportunities to be paid a salary as the employee of a club create more legitimate contractual obligations, learning and predictable income opportunities for: vets, farriers, grooms, barn managers, braiders, announcers, photographers, broadcasters, journalists, course designers, judges, stewards, coaches and athletes. Finally, it gives athletes in this sport the opportunity to train as….athletes? In the equestrian training pyramid time and energy become luxuries reserved for those who can afford to pass off time-consuming responsibilities associated with the care and keeping of horses. As a result, so do the ability to cross-train, fuel and recover as athletes should.
Exploring multiple pathways for professional development should not feel like a threat to riders or trainers who have found the existing infrastructure works well for them. Creating another option, in my mind, does not take away from the circuit based horse show world because success in that setting does not guarantee you success in a team environment and vice versa. If we can increase widespread interest, chances are you’re going to see more people who want to take lessons, learn about the sport, and compete at the horse shows already available to them.
I still feel tied to the success of this industry. I want to leave this sport better than I found it for the next generation of aspiring athletes no matter what socioeconomic background they come from. Instead of our gates opening primarily to those who can afford to purchase a key, the wealthiest professional riders and show venues should prioritize building bridges that allow everyone a fair look. Creating a professional club industry with a thriving league format is a less subjective alternative that the handful of the world’s most elite equestrian athletes have the means to enact. But ultimately, self-aggrandizing pontification is easy. Putting your mouth where your money is often proves to be more difficult.
Bridie Hamilton is a former working student, FEI Groom and EAP National Finalist turned collegiate equestrian. She is currently in her third year of an Honours B.A. in Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Ottawa where she competes as part of the Gee-Gees Equestrian Team and serves as the team’s Communications & Events Coordinator.