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October 14, 2010

Understanding Who We Are

Photo by Richard Malmgren.

Our columnist points out the unique strength U.S. horse sports have at the grassroots level.

After the excitement of hosting the world’s top equestrians at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, it’s natural to get caught up in comparing ourselves to the rest of the world. As with every world games, there’s tremendous excitement to get behind our teams, to cheer them on, and to come together as a nation. These types of events fuel our passion.

On the contrary, when we analyze our sport and dig deeper into each discipline, we can also become a bit humbled and naturally start to reflect upon how can we improve. How can we better represent our country with more depth in horse and rider combinations? How can we better prepare ourselves for the next Olympic or World Games? Without a doubt, this must be examined in order to remain competitive on the world stage.

Our elite riders represent a highly visible sector of our sports, though there are many tiers below that of equal importance. Credit must be given to the national body, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and all of its affiliates for their work and creativity in coming up with educational venues and incentives, like the national programs that help build the future stars of each sport. 

These tiers of participation, which develop riders and horses, theoretically shape our sport into a pyramid, with the base dedicated to the grassroots level and the top tier being our high-performance, international athletes. Within this pyramid, tremendously dedicated staff and volunteers work hard at continually improving the system with various programs. This pyramid feeds the pipeline of the sport, starting at the beginning with dedicated breeders producing quality foals and leading all the way up to a polished, internationally competitive horse and rider.

In viewing this pyramid, are we successful and going in the right direction? Or are we concerned? Where have we gone wrong, and what are we missing?

I would hope we continually see it as a combination of these two perspectives, not as black and white, one or the other. For example, we can criticize any specific program or championship here in the United States by comparing ourselves to Europe. The depth and numbers of the highly conspicuous, more elite tier of horses and riders in Europe is far greater than in America, this is true. However, we are unique in America in who we are, and we are stronger when we look at ourselves beyond this elite level of sport.

We have tremendous depth in the number of people involved in our disciplines on the lower tiers, and, added to that, we have the diversity of other equine sports, like all forms of racing, show horses, polo, the Arabian, Morgan, and Quarter Horse industries, along with varied recreational activities.

We can minimize our view of ourselves to the small, elite, top tier of sport, but in fact, our base is actually very robust, which indeed is our strong suit here in the United States. According to the American Horse Council, we have 2 million horse owners in America with over 9.2 million horses, varying in their passions and businesses. I think this is something to be very proud of! We have a lot of horse people in America, but they make up many different fields. The more we can be inclusive in our sports, making each sport attractive to the many horse enthusiasts in this country, the better our sports will thrive.

We must have two main aims. One is to continue to develop the elite level of our sports and the ongoing development of horse-rider combinations, which our national body and its affiliates are already handling well in my opinion. The other is to focus on the grassroots or even outside that group, the larger horse-loving population who may not know about our sports as of yet. We must focus on keeping the grassroots level of each sport fun and embracing the amateurs.

To a degree, the year-end acknowledgements awarded by the national bodies and its affiliates do focus on this group, but the challenge is to continually expand our base. How do we keep the fun in the sport so that it inspires more people to get involved? How do we help our grassroots level of riders feel accomplished, fulfilled, and best of all, important?

When we look at horses in the United States as a whole, it’s exciting to know that we have so many passionate people invested in horses. We certainly have the base to pull from! Let’s make sure we are doing everything we can to keep our sports attractive and meaningful to all the people involved. In this way, we positively represent our sports and open the door to new participation.

Look at how other sports attract families and new fans, like football or baseball. We must remember that every single person involved in our equestrian system, from judges, to show organizers, trainers and instructors, riders of every level, volunteers and supportive husbands or parents—and of course, our invested sponsors and contributors—are equally important and valuable to the horse industry.

It’s always been true that what’s good for the horse is good for the sport. So it is that focusing on what’s good for each invested interest is equally good for the sport and for its potential to thrive and grow. By each of us adopting that mentality, perhaps we can bring more horse enthusiasts to our equestrian sports, which ultimately benefits us all. 

Scott Hassler, the National Young Horse Dressage Coach, resides in Chesapeake City, Md., and has trained many horses to Grand Prix. The U.S. Dressage Federation Sport Horse Committee chairman since 2001, he helped establish the sport/breeding record-keeping system now active in the USDF and U.S. Equestrian Federation. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2005. 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Understanding Who We Are" ran in the October 15, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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