How to Fix Our Horse Shows: An Opinion From the Other Side

Karl Cook & Caillou 24. Photo © Natalie Suto Photography


Karl Cook has big opinions about increasing the visibility of show jumping and with it the prize money of Grand Prix events. As a horse show employee, I’d like to respond with some insight from the other side.

Let’s start with something incredibly basic. I have seen financial statements from shows I’ve worked for—most operate on a 10% – 15% profit margin. In America, you can make that on passive investments like the stock market, so I often wonder why we do this at all? 

One particular show I work for has $400k in sales, meaning we make $50,000 at the end of the week. This particular show has a $25k Grand Prix. Even if that profit went straight into prize money, we would not meet Cook’s inflation adjustment of $83,000. The recent addition of oversized events like WEC has hurt the rest of the horse show industry. We simply cannot compete with organizers who have other multimillion-dollar businesses underwriting their equestrian events.

This is not to say I disagree with him. It’s quite the opposite. I want what Cook wants, and I think massive sponsorship is the only way to get from here to there. But the horse show organizers are tired of beating our heads against the wall. I spend countless hours calling and writing letters to potential sponsors begging for $500 at a time. I get hung up on a lot. One corporation was ready to write me a large check to underwrite a local show year-end finals. All they wanted in exchange was the entire email and mailing list of our membership. Due to the privacy laws in the state where that show operates, I was unable to oblige. That check would have been the difference between profit and loss for the show.

Us show organizers are out here fighting for sponsors we cannot get because the world at large does not understand why we do what we do or even how it works. Table II,2(a) and FEI Article 238.2.2 is a foreign language to outsiders. Having worked in corporate America let me try and make this crystal clear; our only value to a sponsor is the audience we can provide to create additional sales for their company. If we ask them for $50,000, I guarantee you they will want double that in sales coming directly from our audience. If we fail to provide that for them, there will be no additional investment.

I was working at the Split Rock Jumping Tour Lexington a few weeks ago and was stopped by a wonderful couple adjacent to the Walnut Ring at KHP who asked me, “Where is the horse show?”

I wanted to say, “Look around, man! It’s literally everywhere. There are seven rings of horses jumping, how can you not see this?”

However, it occurred to me they most likely only cared about seeing their relative compete—not Karl Cook or the millions of dollars of horseflesh jumping huge obstacles for more than the average American annual salary in prize money in the Claiborne. I asked who they were there to watch, radioed the office to find out what division their granddaughter was in. Then drove them to the covered ring to watch her compete in the Children’s Hunters.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

As of today—outside of Devon, WIHS, and maybe a few other shows—this is your audience, the people who have relatives competing in regional hunter divisions. You might get this group to spend $5 on admission to watch an event, but the outside world would rather watch the National Cornhole Finals they randomly found on ESPN channel flipping. And you know, Tahoe Jerky reportedly paid six-figures to have their logo on the boards that were in every shot this year. 

No one wants to give us thousands of dollars to give back to the competitors when they don’t know what they’re watching. It is not a sponsorship problem. It is an outreach and education problem. We cannot sell corporate sponsors an audience we don’t have.

Can USEF help us with this? I think they’re the only ones who can. I think they need to buy billboard space in every town where there is a large event or Grand Prix and promote the hell out of it. If you check the level 4 jumper box on your show application, it should come with a USEF provided local highway sign or TV advertisement. Maybe we push free admission to the general public to get them interested and call on local governments to help since an influx of people to a region for a circuit usually helps increase their tax revenue. Maybe we ask the professional announcers and commentators who are the historians of this sport, like Doubleday and Pollard and Melanie Smith Taylor, to give guest lectures and make videos detailing tour events trying to educate the public and obtain a cult following like Cornhole and Curling. 

Maybe if we can get enough people to care about horses jumping over sticks for money, we can then sell that to TV networks and get the sponsorship money to the shows that so desperately need it. Maybe then we can keep up with inflation.

I absolutely love watching Karl Cook run racehorse fast over car-sized obstacles with Caillou 24, but the general public doesn’t understand why he would risk life and limb for $83,000. Let’s try and help them.

Jack Nash is lifelong equestrian enthusiast and former showjumping competitor. You can find him now at shows across the Southeast and Midwest at the in gate, announcer’s booth, manager’s golf cart, and everywhere in between. He and his wife Kelsey own and operate Pegasus Show Stables in Lexington, KY.