Last year, I wrote an open letter to Katie Prudent in response to her controversial WISP Sports interview. The Chronicle published my open letter online, and the aftermath of that letter was inspiring and exciting.
Murray Kessler, president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, contacted me and invited me to be on the new Grassroots Advisory Board. Hundreds of fellow grassroots riders who felt like my voice spoke for them too also reached out. They shared similar stories and likewise clamored for change. From the many who contacted me, I formed the Riders Coalition, a group of about 15 like-minded grassroots riders.
Desperate for change and willing to be part of the solution, we’ve spent hours discussing and identifying problems, mining for solutions, doing market research, and developing an idea for a new organization that would advocate for, equip and connect the 99 percent.
But as I sit here reflecting over the past year, I find myself asking: In terms of real change in the year that’s gone by, what has tangibly changed? Honestly? Not much. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that while outcry is easy and quick, reality is complex, and change is slow.
It’s not that nothing has happened. The U.S. Equestrian Grassroots Advisory Board has met a handful of times over the past year via teleconference calls. The group is populated by big-name and regional trainers, show managers, and people in governance of the hunter/jumper world as well as trainers and riders from other disciplines. Everyone on the board recognizes that the sport as a whole has changed in a way that makes accessibility an increasing challenge. Everyone wants to see a shift away from elitism toward opportunity.
As a group, we worked hard initially to identify the true issues and what changes would make a tangible difference to all of us. Kessler leaned heavily on my voice and experience as a grassroots rider, a privilege I was honored by and took advantage of by speaking honestly to the struggles average riders face. The group has discussed some changes and programs that could help give the middle a sense of place and create a sense of satisfaction.
My Riders Coalition group is made up of some of the most earnest, passionate, self-sacrificing people I’ve ever known. They’ve dedicated countless hours to figure out whether a new organization that’s autonomous from existing governing bodies and wholly focused on the grassroots would be effective, needed and viable. While we all believe in the mission and think our ideas would make a difference, we face functional realities, like funding and logistical challenges—considering we’re a bunch of amateurs with full-time jobs plus our horses and families—that may prevent it from ever getting off the ground.
When speaking of true, measurable change, well…there isn’t any. And to be honest, I’ve held off writing this blog post for far too long because of it.
Why is it that with so much outcry and with so much effort, in a year, nothing has palpably changed?
It’s because when you dig into it, the main issues we can diagnose are really symptoms of many different things that have layered together, wound around one another, and grown so tightly woven that separating and untying them is an almost impossible task. Trying to solve them feels like trying to come up with a cure for a complex disease.
The feedback I received to my open letter made the main issues utterly clear. The conversation highlighted two main problems:
1. The biggest hurdle to participating and competing in the way that people want to is financial. The costs of horse showing, and all the expenses associated with doing so competitively, are insurmountable for most.
2. Talent and hard work alone aren’t enough to make it, even though it’s routinely touted by those at the top of the sport as being the magic potion that brings success to those without financial backing. Hard work and talent are necessary components, but without being realistic about the other needed ingredients to make it in our modern sport, you end up with a lot of talented riders working at more than 100 percent capacity who aren’t gaining traction toward anything other than burnout—and who are told to just work harder.
The end result? We end up with a group we call the middle: riders of average means and disproportionate dreams; riders who work hard for every opportunity they can afford yet remain virtually unseen in the underbelly of the sport. While riders who are satisfied by showing on local or schooling circuits have plenty of opportunities, and those who can afford the top circuits are likewise not left wanting, the middle has dreams or abilities that exceed what is offered at local shows, and yet they cannot afford to play at the big competitions.
The middle is comprised of the riders Katie Prudent wants to see. Riders like me, and all of you who wrote me. Riders who grew up as barn rats—and who really never outgrew being one. Riders who ride the naughty and the green, but who really aren’t quite sure what to do with a made one because they’ve sat on so few. Riders who can care for and manage and prepare their own horses, because they’re doing it every day at home. Riders who did what they were supposed to do—working as grooms and working students and assistants, learning the business from the ground up and sacrificing everything for it—yet who find themselves stuck there, without an easy way to advance from being a part of the team who creates the winning ride to being the winning rider.
Though apparently mysterious to many of the upper echelon, who are perhaps too far removed from the middle to even know it exists, for those of us in the trenches, the issues are simple to identify and explain. They’re even simple to research and document.
The complexity of the solutions, however, rests in the multifaceted nature of the problem. If you sit back and ask, “What makes this sport more expensive and less accessible than it was 30 years ago?” you get a dozen different reasons or contributing factors, all of which have their own reasons or underlying problems, and so on and so forth.
Many of the reasons why the modern sport is so expensive are due to the infrastructure of the modern industry itself, an infrastructure that has become necessary and normal and circular, but has also created a gap. Unfortunately, it’s a gap that a large percentage of the industry either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about, because it doesn’t affect them.
And so, my friends, why isn’t there tangible change? Because truly solving this issue is more intricate than, “This sport is too expensive, and USEF needs to fix it.” There are reasons behind why the sport is more expensive that have become so ingrained and normalized that to change them, we’re talking about changing a culture, a way of thinking. Changing habits and business practices. Changing perspectives. We’re talking about creating a shift in an industry.
And honestly? That realization is overwhelming.
Last year, I was invigorated with the idea of helping to create some real change. A year later, I’m left wondering whether any of the changes or ideas that have been discussed over the past year will really change anything, because they feel like a drop in the bucket against an industry that’s set so strongly in one particular path.
I’ve let the weight of that keep me quiet for too long. I’ve realized that at the very least I want to keep the dialog open. To keep us all thinking, talking, making noise. Because I know one thing. This industry won’t change itself. No, change must come from within—from all of us.
The middle may feel invisible, but though we aren’t widely seen, we are here. And it’s time to stand up and be seen.
So my challenge to you is to take some time to do what I’ve done over the past year: to really sit back and think about why the sport is the way it is. Don’t take the easy way out with simplistic finger-pointing. Get your friends together and have an honest, deep discussion, considering all the factors, both from internal and external shifts and changes. Then consider the ways that we all perhaps enable the system to be the way it is, and maybe it’s just because we accept that it is the way it is when we shouldn’t.
That’s Step 1. Because I guarantee it, this movement will not gain traction if we fail to truly understand that there is no one-size-fits-all, easy solution that will fix this. We can’t continue to beg for change without being willing to be a part of it and without being willing to change ourselves. We have to get involved. We have to be willing to break the mold instead of empowering an industry that’s working for everyone but us.