The End for Equestrianism at the Olympics?


Rio 2016, the ‘last hurrah’ for horse sport in the Olympics?

This rather nightmarish headline, for those of us committed to horse-sport anyway, is a possibility sad to say. These sports are being ‘evaluated’ based on viewership, social media and outreach to consider whether they should remain in the Olympics, this is as a result of the disappointing figures from the London 2012 Games. Equestrianism in the UK received a boost from the 20 gold medals won by Team GB culminating in that win by Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Of course this is a Worldwide sport, if somewhat Euro-centric in mindset, so the UK position isn’t necessarily reflected in other countries. Horse sport is ferociously expensive to put on, particularly eventing as it can’t be held in one arena and equestrianism generally has long been plagued by a public perception that it is elitist. There is also a feeling in the Olympic body that particularly eventing and dressage are largely based on the skills required by a 19th Century cavalry soldier and thus these sports are something of an anachronism. It wouldn’t surprise me entirely if the Rio 2016 Olympics I’m watching as I write this were the last Games to have horse sport within it as a discrete discipline.

Go compare

Is this how we are seen?….Really?

More generally there is an urban myth, particularly in the UK that to be involved in horse sport, riders and owners have to be wealthy. The ridiculous caricatures in the 2016 ‘Go Compare’ TV advertisement campaign featuring horse riders with ludicrously exaggerated ‘cut glass’ accents are but one symptom of that. This, like many myths is based on some truth. Before the arrival of the motor car it was mostly necessary to be wealthy to own a horse, the better the specimen, the more moneyed the owner generally was, much as it is now with ‘high end’ cars. In the process of my research I considered the changing place of the horse in society and there is no doubt that particularly in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries the horse was a central feature of our economy, they were traded in huge numbers and were the root of a significant body of litigation which later grew into what we now know as consumer rights law. It is unsurprising then that the myth remains that to own horses you have to have money. For those of us owning horses at the amateur level this seems odd in the extreme though. It may be a different matter in the Home Counties but in the bulk of the UK horse owners and riders are conducting their pastime on a shoestring, going without luxuries, sometimes necessities, to keep their horses. We can be fairly safe with the notion that an average leisure horse costs about the same to buy and run as a second hand car.  Of course second hand cars vary enormously in cost but the analogy holds just the same.  Visiting local shows, even county level, I am often struck by how old and beaten up most of the vehicles are yet how pristine and polished the horses and riders mainly turn out to be.  This is all anecdotal of course and ripe for a properly funded research study but it is hard to reconcile the lived everyday experience of an ordinary horse owner with the received truth that horses equals riches and glamour.  Horse racing is traditionally the ‘sport of kings’ but again it wouldn’t take me long to find owners and riders locally scratching everything they can together to keep their horses attending races each week, only a couple of vets bills away from financial ruin.  Of course horse racing, because of its betting component, has grown to have an appeal which transcends class and you don’t have to have an affection for horses to enjoy spectating, the adrenalin rush of gambling does that for many.

I am also struck by the disconnect between my circle and the world of elite horse sport.  World class dressage horses can cost millions of Euros and eventing requires a significant income just to afford the entry fees for competitions.  The predominance of royals, both UK and Middle-Eastern in eventing and show jumping doesn’t help.  It’s not just the gene pool of the animals that seems to matter either, there are a number of families that are synonymous with elite level equestrianism.  Imagine if it were not really feasible to make it in football or rugby unless a player was related to a certain family group?  Of course the sheer cost of owning a top level competition horse is prohibitive for most people but this is also true of an Formula 1 car, however it is possible to make it in F1 racing from very humble beginnings.

Olympic gold

It isn’t medal tallies that determine the ongoing popularity of elite horse sport, it’s viewing figures and social media content, we need to wake up to this.

The concern may not be so acute in horse racing of course because of the completely different way it is funded and how it is a ‘bespoke betting product’.  Elite equestrianism with its traditions however has to deal with the perception of elitism whether or not it is deserved though.  I can remember when showjumping would receive prime time weekend sports TV coverage but that is no longer the case.  Cricket went through this, so did darts and snooker.  For differing reasons the old formats were losing viewing figures and popularity.  The result was a resurgence after a shift in format.  Such as floodlit cricket, broadcasting rights deals and sponsorship on shirts were an anathema to purists but these are now the lifeblood of  20/20 cricket and the Indian Premier League as just one example.  The One Day format is also more conducive to effective and popular TV coverage.  A transformation with similar drivers has happened in snooker and darts too.  I have little doubt that elite equestrian sport has to something similar to address falling viewership, social media and outreach figures if, as I suspect that is what the current scrutiny reveals.  Equestrianism’s ruling class won’t like it of course but the

trick riding

‘Half time entertainment’ for equestrian events

time has come for shorter formats intermingled with the equivalent of ‘half time entertainment’ perhaps with some of the trick horsemanship and other riding displays performing that function.  Perhaps betting needs to be encouraged and rules simplified focusing less on purism but more on what is digestible for a TV audience, what will fit between commercials as well.  Dress and tack traditions need to be addressed to encourage sponsorship beyond that provided by the purveyors of    ridiculously expensive riding attire.  We need to persuade airlines and power companies, betting operations and high street fashion brands to sponsor riders and events as a matter of routine to bring in the viewers, the cash and survival.  Major motor manufacturers sponsoring horse trials are a start but only that.  Food for thought I suggest but something must be done if our sports are not to fade to the status of ‘minority interest’ pursuits.



About Dr Jonathan Glen Merritt

Senior Lecturer in Sports Law and Criminal Justice, and a member of the Sports Law Unit at Leicester De Montfort University School of Law, UK. PhD in Equine sports law governance, especially disciplinary structures. Also competing as an owner and rider with British Dressage. Obviously all views expressed are author's alone except where a guest author has contributed.
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