When I arrived at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions in Gladstone, N.J., representatives from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation had feed scoops for sale. They were ordinary feed scoops, pink, red or orange and plastic, except that the riders competing in the championships had signed them in permanent marker. My first thought was that this was a cute little fundraiser. I even bought one to give to the college student who was riding my horse while I was away working.
Upon my return, I offered my present to her a bit hesitantly. Would she think it was stupid and cheesy and wonder why I hadn’t brought her a stock pin or a T-shirt instead?
I was totally unprepared for the sparkle in her eyes and the delight in her voice as she realized what exactly was inked across the orange plastic feed scoop. Instead of being unimpressed, she was thrilled with the idea of owning something signed by some of the best dressage riders in the country.
I probably should have bought her a USET poster as well. Elma Garcia, a renowned photographer and producer who rides with Debbie McDonald, was the creative force behind that fundraiser. She dressed up a few of our best show jumpers, eventers and dressage riders and took stunning portraits of them with their horses. These posters were so beautiful that they made this jaded journalist want to collect them all and hang them on her bedroom walls, as she might have done at age 13. Special edition signed posters were available at last spring’s Rolex FEI World Cup Finals (Nev.) and at the Festival of Champions.
Signed feed scoops and glamour-shot posters may not sound that important in the scheme of things, but I think the idea of recognizing and encouraging our elite athletes to be idols and Hollywood-style superstars is a good idea. The U.S. Equestrian Federation and discipline affiliates should do more to market our elite riders. Marketing and promotion is an important issue facing the horse world today. If we want horse sports to grow, and we want sponsors and funds to support them, then we need to encourage positive public relations.
I was also impressed at the World Cup Final when I realized that just hours before Steffen Peters would compete in the freestyle, he was signing autographs for a line of people that stretched around the building. He didn’t have to do that, but he was happy to. I’m sure that lots of fans went home that night not only inspired by the impressive performances but also by their contact with an actual star rider. If Steffen wasn’t their idol before that night, I’ll bet he was thereafter.
But there were also some riders who didn’t impress me at World Cup that night—riders who stormed out of the ring after a disappointing ride and refused to have anything to do with the media or fans. It’s a tricky challenge to make our top riders into superstars. Many don’t particularly like the spotlight. They’re riders, first and foremost, and they pursued equestrian sport because of their love of horses, not because they wanted to gather adoring multitudes of fans.
Certainly elite riders are human too, but I think it’s in the best interest of the sport if we can promote more hero worship. There are a whole lot of golf fans out there who follow the game avidly. Many times it’s because they love Tiger Woods, not because they’re passionate about playing golf. Or maybe Tiger got them interested, and now they truly love the game. Let’s give our fans more opportunities to adore our riders.