Our columnist reflects on progress, the advent of big show businesses and how to keep more riders coming up the pipeline.
Lately, I’ve heard and read about people in our sport lamenting competition years gone by. These equestrians seem to be longing for the past, condemning the present and often not offering solutions for our future.
There are occasions when we all find ourselves reminiscing and harking for better times when there seemed to be fewer problems, less stress and more enjoyment. This isn’t just prevalent in equestrian sport; it’s something that happens to all of us, especially as the world economies fluctuate and as we grow older. If you think this is only something that happens to your parents or “old” people, just remember you may one day be a parent or an “old” person, and you might just find yourself guilty of doing the same thing.C
Our competition stage has undergone significant changes in the past 25 years. Our world now consists more of management companies that hold numerous licenses rather than clubs, non-profits and organizers who hold one or two competition licenses. Like everything else in the world of sports, competition management is big business.
When I hear people talk of the old days, I wonder if they remember the years of showing on dirt that often resembled cement, jumping over plain undecorated fences, wondering where the bathrooms were located, if any were present, hoping the church ladies had made enough food to feed everyone and not having wash stalls. It wasn’t that long ago that this was the norm. There were also positives to the old days, including much lower entry fees, many fewer competitions, a season that included time off, greater recognition for our champions and perhaps a more congenial, laid back disposition overall.
Following our success in show jumping at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, our sport experienced tremendous growth, with more people riding and showing horses. This sudden increase of interest became the catalyst for changing our sport into a business. Trainers wanted to be able to bring their entire stable to the same competition, and organizers developed a business model to provide classes ranging from leadline all the way to the FEI-level grand prix, all at the same competition. Com-petitors wanted more shows to attend, and their wishes were answered.
Now I hear people say that our “AA” hunter and jumper level 5 and above competitions shouldn’t be allowed to hold unrated classes and/or classes at the lower levels. I remember going to the Upperville Horse Show (Va.) about 25 years ago, and the lowest you could jump was 3’6″ in the hunters and preliminary in the jumpers. Those days are gone, and we need to recognize that the current business model is what has enabled many organizers to be able to upgrade their facilities with state-of-the-art footing and other amenities.
It costs a lot of money to show a horse, and it costs a lot of money to produce a competition. There’s no doubt that competition organizers make money, just like professional horsemen make money. Some make more than others, and often both make money on some ventures and lose money on others. That is the cost of doing business and taking a risk. At the end of the day, a professional horseman is not going to keep throwing money away on a losing horse, and an organizer is not going to throw money away on a losing competition.
Often we hear that our sport needs to control and limit how much organizers can charge, and it’s understandable that many think this is a simple solution to controlling the cost of showing horses. I always have to wonder, would these same people want limitations on how much money they are allowed to charge for their services? When you ask this question, you quickly see that restrictions are not necessarily the answer.
The usual next solution proposed is the revocation of mileage protection and the argument that a free-market system will eliminate the “bad” shows because new and better shows will come into the marketplace. We already have a means for this to happen, and it hasn’t been utilized very often. Hopefully, with the recent changes to clarify the system, potential organizers will make the effort to step forward. Mileage protection is very likely the single most discussed competition issue, and it provides the single greatest reason for competitions to meet the new standards, which become effective in 2012.
The new standards consist of several layers of requirements, including number of entries. I believe that we’ll see a shift at every level as competition organizers who don’t meet the requirements either step up their game or move to a lower level, which will open up the marketplace for new competitions.
Proper Prize Money
Amazing amounts of prize money seem to have become all the rage in our sport, but I question whether this phenomenon is being utilized properly. I firmly believe that the professional sections should receive the greatest share of the prize money offered at competitions and that prize money should be paid further down in each class utilizing a system related to the number of entries in the class. I also believe that we need to really examine the reasons for paying anything but minimal prize money in junior and amateur classes. I ask you to think about this clearly before getting in an uproar.
No matter which area of the country you go to, the same small percentage of exhibitors tend to win the lion’s share of the prize money, and the same large percentage of exhibitors tend to win very little prize money. Every time our sport increases the required prize money, the entry fees also increase. How long do you think it’s going to take for the larger percentage of people to get tired of paying more entry fees while continuing to get less in return? We’re starting to drive people away from our sport, and this does not bode well for our future. I feel we need to consider moving in the direction of reducing prize money in our junior, amateur, children’s and adult sections, offering prize money in only one class in each section and in relation to this reduction in required prize money, organizers reduce the entry fees.
A special class or classic can be held for each section, which offers greater amounts of prize money and greater entry fees. This way, exhibitors who want to spend more for the chance to win more can do that without taxing those only interested in showing in their section. I truly believe that a select number of special big money events are good for the sport, but on a day-to-day basis, the push to escalate prize money required of our weekly competitions is not serving us well.
We have to encourage people to participate in our sport, or in another 25 years, we will have driven so many people to other equestrian options and other activities that showing at rated competitions will be financially unattainable by the majority of people. This will result in the reduction of competition options.
Often, people forget that the winter circuits and the larger summer competitions make up only a small percentage of the total number of hunter/jumper competitions. We have to remember that another whole world exists throughout this entire country, and we must take into account how our rules and regulations affect competitions and competitors across the nation.
Over the next couple of years, I believe that we must move toward making our sport more accessible for more people in order for us have long term stability and sustainability. Adjusting the required prize money and how it is distributed could be one step in the right direction to help lower the costs of entering the world of recognized competitions. Just like a puzzle, there is no one solution to finding a balance between the cost of competing and the cost of producing competitions. The solution will be made up of numerous pieces, all interlocking. One thing I am certain of is that we have to continue to strive to reach the goal of quality events at a reasonable cost at all levels of our sport.
Bill Moroney, Keedysville, Md., is president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and a USEF R-rated judge. He started writing Between Rounds columns in 2004.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “The Ghost Of Horse Shows Past, Present And Future” ran in the March 14, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.