Expectations ran high, tension draping the crowd like a shroud. Teenage girls clutched at each other excitedly, the names of their favorite stars written in glitter on their cheeks or on their T-shirts. And as the lights in the stadium dimmed, the crowd started yelling and stamping their feet. No, this wasn’t a rock concert, folks, this was the start to the FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Gothenburg, Sweden (p. 8).
Dressage really can be exciting when the stakes are high and the crowd is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic. These spectators “oohed” and “aahed” at Rusty’s one-tempi changes, but they groaned in sympathy when Jan Brink had his hands full with a fractious BjÃ¶rsells Briar. And they simply loved Rocher’s floppy ears. Just as gratifying was each rider’s response. As they left the arena, each one waved to each individual section of fans and responded to particularly enthusiastic exhortations from their admirers.
The adoration even ramped up a notch for the show jumpers. I wish I could read Swedish, because I’d like to know what was written on the big banner a group of girls unfurled as the top five horses of a jumping class galloped by in the victory round. Whatever it was, it was provocative enough for German superstar Ludger Beerbaum to wheel around, gallop back, and throw his bouquet of flowers up to the exuberant girls, rendering them weak at the knees in a swoon of excitement.
And then there were the four-in-hand drivers. Talk about whipping a crowd into a frenzy! Indoor World Cup driving is wildly popular. And why not, as the sport has it all’speed, danger, skill and rock music’yes, rock music! As the drivers set off through the timers, the music pumped through the stadium speakers at tremendous volume’for the whole run. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
The drivers would send their teams at a gallop through the cones, then rein them in as they threaded through an obstacle, and then, to the roar of the crowd, set off at a dead gallop to the next. The adrenaline flowed in an intoxicating current, from the horses to the driver to the fans. Now I know why chariot racing was so popular in the days of the Roman Empire.
And the drivers, knowing that the popularity of this new venture could decide their sport’s future, played it up like seasoned showmen. That’s what really stood out for me at Gothenburg’the riders’ realization that their public demeanor does as much to sell tickets as anything else.
They know that every ticket sold helps increase their prize money, the quality of the footing, and the likelihood that the show will go on next year. And so they respond. No matter how angry or disappointed they are with what happened in the ring, every single one of them graciously acknowledged the crowd’s attentions at Gothenburg.
We may never be able to wholly duplicate that sort of environment, but we should try because, boy, is it fun! Riders need to play to the public’in any way they can. Show announcers need to engage the public in the ring’s action. Show managers need to make every effort to educate their spectators. And why don’t more show managers bus in the local Pony Clubs, 4-H groups and schools, giving them discounted tickets and autographed photos of the riders? Entertainment is the key ingredient of success today, and our riders and managers must learn to be both athletes and entertainers if we want to attract the attention of anyone outside our clique.