Prize Money Isn't The Answer For The Amateur Eventer

Mar 19, 2014 - 10:28 AM
Should these ribbons have big checks stapled to them? This amateur rider hopes not, because all the competitors will foot the bill for it. Photo by Sara Gonzalez-Rothi

With all due respect (and that’s a lot!) I must disagree with Doug Payne’s recent suggestion that the sport of eventing adopt a stratified competition scheme where the “A-ranked” events offer large cash prizes. In his blog, “Eventing Needs New Bones Under A Facelift,” Payne argues this new model would grow the sport and “produce athletes for the future.”

But I think there are a few reasons this is a flawed argument:

  1. Eventing is fundamentally different from any other equestrian sport. The nature of cross-country competition requires access to traverse—and authority to conduct a business venture on—large swaths of relatively undeveloped land.

    By contrast, hunters, jumpers, breed shows, dressage, saddleseat, rodeo, and western pleasure all take place in a relatively confined space. In addition, these sports do not require permanent modifications to the land that leave it less suitable for other uses. 

    Don’t take my word for it. Think of your local showplace. There’s a different breed, hunter show, pageant, wedding, or social event every single weekend. Now think of your closest event facility. Chances are they run maybe four events in a year’s time.

    Foxhunting? Still different. Most large hunts have easements on private or public lands during hunting season. Property owners agree to having a field of 40 horses and a pack of hounds enter during the fall and winter season when the fields lay fallow. 

    The cross-country phase of a horse trial is a commercial enterprise where semi-permanent obstacles are erected in the spring and fall to be policed by jump judges who set up camp all day while 200-plus competitors and hundreds more spectators enter and a loudspeaker provides a running commentary. I love the sport as much as the next gal, but it is simply very different than every other discipline.

  2.  Much to my chagrin as an amateur eventer, a “cheap horse trial” is the same as a “dry rainstorm.” Neither is possible. This is not to say that the current entry fees cannot be reduced. 

    I agree with Payne: recent sky-high fees are prohibitive—especially for amateurs. My wallet feels the pinch of each added expense. Board, weekly lessons, and the cost of clinics with upper-level riders have all climbed. But offering cash purses to the highest level of competition is certainly not the way to lower them. Higher dollar A-ranked events will only allow the entry fees for B- and C- shows to creep ever higher. Venues that don’t raise fees may simply cease to offer our sport.

    A cross-country course is not a lucrative endeavor when compared to housing subdivisions, strip malls, or golf courses. A wonderful event facility that I frequented as a child—in fact, the home base of our Pony Club camps year after year—sold the majority of its cross-country fields during the housing boom in Florida. I only hope that horse trials remain a sustainable enough venture that others don’t follow suit. With less facilities available to offer an event, those that remain will become exorbitantly pricey. It’s a matter of supply and demand.

    Furthermore, cash prizes will only help the financial situations of the few beautiful dressage test, double clear, impeccably timed riders whose horses never throw a shoe. Because the events that do offer such a prize will pass the added cost onto all entries, not just the winners.

  3.  And finally, the culture of eventing—the very reason so many amateurs stay in the sport their entire lives even if they never compete above training level—is one of inclusion, horsemanship, and sportsmanship. The fact that my little mare jumps the same fences and competes against Olympians on their latest young prospect makes the sport exciting.

    And part of what grows our sport is the adult amateur. A pony-crazed kid can compete alongside professionals and keep riding competitively almost her whole life. The reason farms can financially offer horse trials at all is in part because there are so many entries from us weekend warriors.

    I bought my first eventer from the couple who bred him, parented his jockey on the racetrack, and brought him back home when it turned out he was not the second coming of Secretariat. Very wise folks these two, and dedicated philanthropic supporters of their local CIC*** and lifelong members of their hunt club. These two personally care for each horse they have bred from cradle to grave

    When asked about the culture of racing, they once told me a story. Their jockey daughter brought a promising filly to a race in the Mid-Atlantic. With a wink, a man approached her suggesting she hold the horse back from a win the next day. She declined. 

    That evening, the filly was so badly beaten with a 2×4 that her airway was nearly swollen shut.

If that’s how prize money grows a horse sport, I vote the other disciplines can keep the change.

Sara Gonzalez-Rothi grew up as an active member of the United States Pony Club and represented the Sunshine Region at USPC Nationals in two disciplines. She is now an amateur eventer in the Washington, D.C., metro area and runs the blog CapitalCowgirl. When not on a horse, Sara is an attorney working in environmental policy at the National Wildlife Federation.

Have an opinion on this topic? Want to know what other people think? Join a spirited discussion about Doug’s blog on the Chronicle forums

Categories: Blog Entry, Eventing
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