Monday, Jul. 22, 2024

The Up Side Of The Downturn: Do We Need To Reboot The Sport Of Eventing?

This event organizer sees the economic downturn as a glass half full.

The American public is understandably consumed with the grim reality of the national economic downturn. How could it not be? Every day, new layoffs are announced along with new retail store closings, increasingly bleak reports from industry and new financial institution failures. Sadly, once dreaded news has now become the norm. People are fearful for their futures–and have every right to be.

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This event organizer sees the economic downturn as a glass half full.

The American public is understandably consumed with the grim reality of the national economic downturn. How could it not be? Every day, new layoffs are announced along with new retail store closings, increasingly bleak reports from industry and new financial institution failures. Sadly, once dreaded news has now become the norm. People are fearful for their futures–and have every right to be.

The long-range economic impact on the equestrian world in all likelihood will be equally grim bordering on devastating. Desperate individuals are abandoning their animals, farms are going into foreclosure, in some cases routine veterinary intervention isn’t being sought, and the discretionary income reserved for the pursuit of horse sports in too many cases is being reassigned in order to keep individual hearth and home from going under.

Predictably, events that were on shaky ground before the economy went south might go away entirely. The more healthy entities, especially those with established and continued financial support, might experience slim years, but in all likelihood, and with some careful reassigning of assets, they’ll most likely come out in one form or the other at the other end. Competitions that have found creative ways of staying alive will probably also survive.

I’ve been struggling to create a scaled-down budget for the event I organize, the Maui Jim Horse Trials in Illinois. Despite the continued support of a wonderful sponsor, I fear for our numbers this year even though we have added novice to the established slate of FEI CIC*, ** and ***, advanced, intermediate, preliminary and training divisions.

I’m far from being a gifted numbers person so this has required a whole lot of thought and soul searching and weighing of what-ifs against realities–but oddly enough, I didn’t find the chore as depressing as I thought it would be.

Thinking Positively

On the contrary, in fact, it gave me the freedom to explore some exciting alternative scenarios that, if applied globally, might just push our sport of eventing into a revised way of looking at itself. This, in turn, could possibly lead to a revamped direction that might address some of the perceived disconnects that one hears frequently referenced.

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There’s a handful of recurring themes that frequently pop up in online chat rooms, in postings on the COTH Forum, in committee meetings, on conference calls, and in conversation with competitors, other officials and organizers. One of the most prevalent complaints I hear is the gap that’s felt to exist between the elite riders and the (for lack of a better word) “recreational” or “amateur” equivalent, the latter that includes most members of the U.S. Eventing Association, the working amateur adult.

I hear repeatedly that the sport has become obsessed with addressing the needs and wishes of the upper level riders, the ULRs, at the expense of those at the lower end of the spectrum, the lower level riders, or LLRs, who admittedly are the bread and butter of the sport.

A similar disconnect is also often referenced between the “average” eventer and the governing bodies of the sport. “The Powers That Be” are perceived as ignoring the plight of the LLRs and making decisions that solely benefit the ULRs.

In something of a self-nurturing spiral, there’s also increasing emphasis upon marketing our sport. The ensuing “fancifying” of events to fulfill this goal is believed by many to have helped to speed the demise of some smaller, simpler competitions that have served as fun training grounds for participants.

The organizers of these events see diminishing returns and decreased entries as riders flock to the more prestigious venues, and they subsequently feel they cannot compete without charging significantly higher entry fees and changing the overall ambience of their competitions. Unrecognized events then take the place of these fallen smaller events.

(Many people feel that the recent spate of rules being imposed upon events is also helping to kill the smaller recognized events. I’m not prepared to agree or disagree with this theory other than to draw a comparison to our national picture. Deregulation hasn’t worked in our economy. Has it worked in our sport? This is a question for philosophical debate in another forum. Let it rest that, like it or not, rules are there to be followed for better or for worse.)

Making Choices

I started my personal journey into creating a leaner budget by dumping the various budgetary needs into “Essential,” and “Icing On The Cake” if there’s any cash left over. Elaborating on these categories, listed below in no particular order, was an interesting process that led me to some unexpected revelations.
 
Essential

These are things that cannot be compromised:
   
1. Safety/Medical (human and equine). A good safety plan that accounts for the transporting and care of injured people and animals along with the best cross-country controller available. Eventing is a risky sport, and organizers are beholden to provide the best possible systems for intervention.
   
2. Security. Anticipation of potential trouble spots and creating a method to ensure that they are covered.
   
3. Officials. Hiring the best available and taking care of them. If this involves spending a bit more to fly them in, do it. It’ll pay off in the end.
   
4. Volunteer appreciation. Creativity can trump expensive. A pleasant word and a thank you goes a long way as does making each volunteer feel an important part of the whole picture.
   
5. An efficient secretary and good, accurate scorer.
   
6. A safe, jumpable, appropriate, well-built cross-country course with the best footing on the best track possible.
   
7. Rudimentary amenities–potties, garbage disposal, feeding competitors. These can all be offered in varying degrees of elaborateness.
   
8. Association fees and other fixed liabilities.

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Icing On The Cake
   
1. Awards. I’m hopeful that riders will appreciate that everyone is in for some belt tightening. Maybe the
ribbons will be shorter than they were in plusher times, and maybe cash prizes, if offered, will be more modest.
   
2. Decorations. Do people really go to an event because every cross-country jump is decked out like a Saturday night lady-of-the-night? I really hope not! Available funds should be spent first on fixing and preparing footing, making sure the galloping lanes are in top form and providing the safest, most jumpable fences possible laid out in logical and inviting order. Leave the frills until the essentials are in place.
   
3. Wining and Dining. Officials don’t need to be hosted every night at the area’s top restaurants, or dragged to elaborate banquets. In fact, many prefer to be on their own. A per diem is a good way for the organization to control officials’ costs, and most will understand. Ditto competitor parties, breakfasts, etc. These are great, but only if the essentials are addressed first.
   
4. Giveaways and Prizes. These are great if sponsored. Otherwise, not a major reason for a rider to come to an event.

OK, where am I going with all this? Maybe, just maybe, today’s economic necessities will serve in the long run to rearrange some priorities, which in turn just may contribute to the overall good. Perhaps with the necessary paring down of the extras, the sport can “reboot” and emerge as a better functioning and more relaxed and inclusive entity. Rebooting works with my computer. Why not with a way of approaching a sport?

We hear the term “returning to basics” often enough when referring to riding. In this case, I venture to say that rebooting one’s thinking about the sport and returning to organizational basics might be a big plus.

The major question should be–who are we organizing for? Few venues or organizations are capable of running a Rolex Kentucky-type competition. I can think of only a handful that seem to succeed at this in the long run, and they are very, very special!

Instead of diving off into offering amenities and/or divisions that will never pay for themselves, then, maybe the “average” event organizer should instead be content doing what they do well, serving their specific market well, and upping the ante by striving to improve what they’ve got by putting forth the best product that they can within these parameters. Creativity and thinking outside the box are needed more than ever in these tough times.

It’s been exciting to watch the event I organize grow in size and gain in stature. The current climate, however, has created a need for a whole lot of self evaluation. Is my event serving the correct market–and serving it well? Can that service be improved? If so, how? Should the emphasis be changed? Am I putting our energies in the wrong direction? What is the next step? Where do I go from here? What will be the result of the rebooting of my system?

Stay tuned. Even I can’t predict the answer, but I find the process quite fascinating! 

Katherine Lindsay


Katherine “Katie” Lindsay, Wayne, Ill., has been involved in the horse world for most of her life and has competed hunters, jumpers and eventers. Her father was a Master of Foxhounds, and she continued the family tradition as MFH of the Wayne-DuPage Hunt for 26 years. She was an R-rated eventing technical delegate and is currently a Fédération Equestre Internationale Chief Steward. She’s organized events for more than 25 years, is the competition director of the U.S. Eventing Association’s American Eventing Championships and is chairman of the USEA Competitions Committee.

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