After an injury put his spring season on hiatus, our columnist has seen many of our nation’s top events from a different—and sometimes unpleasant—vantage point.
Over the past weeks, since I broke my collarbone in mid-February, I’ve been a lot of things. I’ve been an owner, a trainer and a spectator at U.S. Eventing Association-sanctioned events.
As some of you know, I’m usually a rider at these competitions. And as riders, we tend to get into our own little world during events, and things just seem to work. But over the past eight weeks I’ve been shocked to discover how hard it is to follow an event when not on the back of a horse.
Granted, I’m not the smartest owner or the best trainer. But one would think I should be a pretty educated spectator at this point. But I felt completely lost at some of the events I attended, and that’s a problem. If our sport is to grow, this needs to be addressed.
I know people say that all upper level riders do is complain, but as someone confined to the ground with a broken collarbone, I don’t exactly fit that category as I write this. And I’m not here to complain. In fact, the competitions I’ve attended this spring deserve praise, because they’ve made great strides.
The welfare of our horses has really come to the forefront and is the biggest concern at these competitions, and a big thank you needs to go out to the organizers for the attention they’re devoting to footing. No matter which of my many hats I’ve worn on a particular weekend, every event I’ve been to has really had people trying to make conditions as good as possible. And I know this is a big expense, but I’m here to let everyone know just how much the riders and horses appreciate it.
In addition, our jump courses are getting so much more elaborate and exciting, not to mention safer. This too is a big expense, but much appreciated by everyone in the sport. The dressage rings are very good, which costs lots of money. Even the warm-ups are taken care of, and as a person looking out for the horses I own, train and care for, I think this is fantastic.
Horses are lasting longer and are able to compete many more times throughout the year because organizers really care about our sport. So a big thank you to anyone who has spent many long, thankless hours driving a tractor for the love of the game.
How To Be A Buzzkill
There are a few things, however, that I didn’t love about our spring competitions, from a non-rider’s point of view. But with a few easy adjustments, I think we can make going to an event much more enjoyable for the vast majority of people on the showgrounds—the ones who aren’t wearing a competitor’s pinny.
The first thing I noticed is that, as anyone other than a rider, you’re far more likely to be yelled at than you are to be given directions or explanations of what you’re watching. This spring I’ve watched so many spectators and owners wander around, totally lost, looking to find out what’s going on. And more often than not, they were yelled at for being in the wrong place.
But let’s be reasonable: How is that their fault? Is there a sign telling anyone where to go or what to do? I, as a spectator, have not seen one. With just a few directional markings and some good paths to benches, I think people would have a totally different experience.
At some of our larger events, I’ve seen descriptions of each phase of the competition, whether in the programs or on signs. This is really key, especially for your retired grandma and grandpa or the mom with two kids who just happened to stop by the horse show on a beautiful Saturday to see what was going on.
We have an exciting sport, and we might think it’s pretty simple, but remember that not everyone in the world inherently “gets it.” And horse sports in general can be intimidating and seem elite or exclusive. So we need to be very careful about not giving off the vibe of, “If you don’t understand what’s going on, you don’t belong.”
I also think our commentators, especially on cross-country, need to be more exciting and graphic in their descriptions. Some events are moving in this direction, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
I want to hear the announcers having fun and showing a little bit of personality. And I want to hear them telling everyone what’s really going on—not just that Buck fell off at fence 2, but why. And at the end of the day, we all want to know who won, so let’s try to keep people up-to-date on standings and projections as our riders go around the course. Tell us some stories about the owner or the rider or the horse. Make me hold my breath. Make me cheer. Make me feel part of it. Make me want to come back!
The more people understand our sport, the more people will come. The more people we can educate and entertain, the more will come. How great would it be if our hardworking organizers were actually able to take a little money home at the end of the weekend?
Get The Snowball Rolling Downhill
As an owner, if the events were more profitable, my horse could be more than just a fun write-off. Prize money is a whole other conversation unto itself, and a very complicated one, at that. But in the meantime, I think we can make a few smaller improvements to take care of our owners at events.
This spring I’ve noticed many owners standing around for long periods of time with no place to go while they waited for their horse to enter the arena. And let me tell you, some of us don’t have enough hair to protect ourselves from the sun.
At our smaller competitions, it would be great if the owners had a place to sit with a cover over their heads, as they do at many major events. This would be a great place for owners to meet and socialize with other owners, and again, it wouldn’t be a great expense.
Plus, this sort of owners’ area could possibly generate income, because more of them would come every weekend, not just to watch their horses, but also to see their friends. If people are enjoying themselves, they’ll bring others, and who knows where it can go from there.
As for my time as an owner, I loved it. I really hope that one day I can support the sport by choosing to be an owner and not be forced to out of necessity, as an owner-rider.
The view from the ground this spring has been pretty eye-opening for me, and with just a few little tweaks here and there, and without spending a lot of money, I think we can make eventing something that even the casual, local fan won’t want to miss.
In the meantime, I also hope I learn to stay on better so I can get back out on those great courses we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying. Next time I leave the start box, it’ll be with a broader perspective on our sport.
Buck Davidson is an event rider based in Riegelsville, Pa., and Ocala, Fla. The son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson Sr., Buck has carried on the family name with major achievements beginning during his young rider career. He was the Chronicle’s 2009 Eventing Horseman of the Year, a member of the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and earned team gold at the 2011 Pan American Games. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2010.