We dreamed up a fantasy world of systems, programs and attitudes that might be found in an equestrian sports utopia. Some of these 15 ideas we admit are far-fetched, but some could be implemented tomorrow. Are you open to the possibilities?
1. COLLECT AND SHARE DATA ON TRAINERS AND HORSES
Horse sale transactions and histories should be recorded and searchable—dates, prices, sales agents, commissions—just like real estate information. The same could be true for trainer listings—searchable certifications, areas of expertise, fees, former suspensions or infractions. The more you know, the better decisions you can make.
2. MARKET TO ACHIEVE DIVERSITY
The horse world can only benefit from more variety and points of view, and marketing and outreach should reach (and show) people of all backgrounds, cultures and experiences. There should be viable pathways for those without exceptional means, for those who do not “look the stereotypical part,” and the programs, images and outreach should extend to include diversities of all kinds.
3. CREATE A PATHWAY TO PERFORMANCE FOR U.S.-BRED HORSES
Is the next Valegro out in a field in the middle of the United States, just waiting for someone to bring him to the world stage? U.S. breeders may be producing spectacular young horses, but we’re lacking a pathway to get them to the show ring. We need a national system that matches young horses with competent trainers, bridging the gap between the breeder and high performance homes.
4. STANDARDIZE CERTIFICATION FOR INSTRUCTORS
If you’re the parent of a horse-crazy kid who’s begging for riding lessons, and you don’t know anything about horses, how do you choose a knowledgeable instructor? We need a national cross-discipline instructor’s certification program that guarantees the trainer you pick has basic credentials like first aid/ CPR certification and passes a background check. Even better would be certifications that show which levels an instructor is trained to teach from beginner to advanced.
5. TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
Don’t turn over all your decisions to professionals. As in any industry, when you’re paying someone, they hopefully have your best interests in mind, but that’s not always the case. Amateurs must take the responsibility to educate themselves. We can’t all become expert horsemen, but reading independent literature, getting recommendations and insisting on professional behavior will not only improve an individual’s equestrian experience, but will also bring up the standard of the industry.
6. SET MORE CLEAR WORKING STUDENT EXPECTATIONS AND COMPENSATIONS
In the business world, an internship can play a key role in preparing you for a job and getting to know the right people in your industry. The same is true for working student positions, but these programs can vary vastly in their demands and rewards. You may be working 15-hour days with no time off and never get the twice-weekly lessons you were promised. Contracts that spell out what’s expected of a working student (yes, you’re signing up for long hours and hard work) and what’s expected of the trainer (yes, you must offer something in return for work) should be more prevalent. Could an industry norm be created that involves the student spending X hours working and X hours receiving training? Similarly, can the industry officially pay grooms legally for the hours they work?
7. CHART A PATH TO HIGH PERFORMANCE
In sports like football and basketball, a defined pathway clearly directs players from undiscovered status to pro athlete. It’s not an unheard of narrative for these players to come from little to no means, with their talent taking them to Division 1 scholarships and eventually the professional draft. In horse sports, we lack such a clear path where the collegiate level—or anything else—leads to the professional level.
8. INSIST ON PROFESSIONALISM AND INTEGRITY
If a doctor commits malpractice, he loses his license. If a mechanic scams you into paying more than you need to pay, you take your business elsewhere, and you warn your friends. In the horse business, people still go back and support those who’ve had multiple suspensions, lost lawsuits and exhibited other unsportsmanlike behavior, helping them prosper and ensuring their business thrives. We need to decide if a good horse or a good ribbon is worth compromising our own—and the industry’s—honor and integrity.
9. COMMUNICATE TO FANS
When Real Madrid Club de Fútbol (Spain) sold famed striker Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus Football Club (Turin, Italy) in 2018, the world got wind of the $110 million transfer fee and Ronaldo’s $140 million, four-year contract. Mainstream sports are a model of transparency, a reality the equestrian community should adopt as we look to become more spectator friendly. What if the price of a horse was announced as it entered the ring for a grand prix jump-off? Tell spectators he was just bought from the reigning Olympic champion for seven figures, and they’ll gain a new perspective on the rarity of his talent.
10. LET HORSES BE HORSES
How many people do you know who never turn their horses out because they could get hurt? Horses were meant to live outside, in herds, grazing all day. They will never thrive in nomadic horse show tent communities, always on the road, competing year-round. Let them go outside, go on trails, take time off, even swish their tails on course now and then! If we keep them locked up 20-plus hours a day to make sure they don’t miss our next show, we are far from worthy caretakers.
11. DON’T ENGAGE IN CYBERBULLYING
There’s more gray area than not when it comes to whether internet comments are bullying or an honest attempt to learn or educate, but in this social media age it’s a safe assumption that if you’re an athlete or public figure someone is going to question your choices online. We can learn an immense amount from internet discussions, but no one benefits from tack room gossip and pettiness. The horse world would be a far better place if everyone would sit on their hands for a minute and imagine being in their target’s shoes before typing something unkind.
12. BE A SUPERSTAR
The regular sports world has Tiger, LeBron, Serena—athletes who need no introduction or even a last name. They win; they have standout personalities; they earn fans (and sometimes create controversy). While we can claim McLain and Beezie—our one-named celebrities—if you mention those names outside our sport, you’re most likely to get a blank stare. One larger-than-life superstar whose story and personality reached the mainstream public would do wonders for equestrian sports.
13. DEFINE THE SEASON
Ask anyone what the most important game in professional football is, and the answer is easy: the Super Bowl. The same idea goes for hockey (the Stanley Cup), college basketball (March Madness) and baseball (the World Series). The regular season games lead to playoffs, which lead to a grand finale, and then an off-season. Show jumping, dressage and eventing lost their off-seasons when everyone started showing all winter, but they also lack the concept of a yearly major competition that all other competitions build towards, something that builds suspense and adds a sense of “meaning” to the title. Without a major annual event, how can fans know when to tune in?
14. BECOME MEDIA SAVVY
Riders who say their test “had some good moments and some tense moments” or who do no more than thank the owners and the sponsors do not make good stories. What’s compelling or inspiring about your journey? Why should anyone care about what you’ve just achieved? If you win a big event, tell the media how you remember breaking that horse as a 3-year-old and getting thrown off it more times than you can count; how you spent years getting mediocre show results and wondered if you’d ever get to grand prix. Tell them about a hard time in your life you overcame with horses and a competitive goal as your outlet. Don’t be afraid to talk about the tough times. Don’t let some public relations company or our national federation convince you “no comment” is your best option. Everyone has a story, and yours deserves to be told in your own words, in all its context and complexities. Readers and viewers appreciate real people with real stories and struggles, people they can relate to, not meaningless soundbites.
15. SHARE VETERINARY RECORDS
Imagine buying a horse, and along with all the paperwork that accompanies your new mount—the bill of sale, commissions to be paid, passport, Coggins, etc.—was a complete veterinary history. Not just seasonal vaccines and dental care, but all the information about your horse’s previous medical treatments from minor ailments and maintenance to major issues. Veterinarians own the records, and while the American Veterinary Medical Association says they may only release records with permission of the horse’s owner, state laws supersede that directive. In the racing world some states already require vets to keep a daily log of their actions and turn it over to the racing authority. More transparency in veterinary care can only benefit the horse.