Equestrian sports have a reputation in North America, and much of the world, as being expensive and elitist. It’s tough to argue that point given the high cost of horses, boarding and training, competitions, and general vet and blacksmith care. But one European country appears to have struck a balance between the horse haves and have-nots: Sweden.

A new study published in The International Journal of the History of Sport claims that the intervention of the state in promoting horseback riding in the 20th century has allowed the sport to be far more popular and accessible to its general population.

Historically, like in most developed nations, equestrian activities in Sweden were predominantly found within the military/cavalry or the upper classes. After the Second World War, there was still a belief in the horse as a possible tool for the military, but the cost of keeping trained horses during peacetime made this idea unsustainable. According to the study, investigators tasked with solving the issue proposed an equestrian foster system (ackordhästsystemet), which basically meant that the “army would purchase and train young horses before lending them to individuals and riding clubs during times of peace, with the option of reclaiming the horses in case of war. In addition, the investigators suggested that tote money from harness racing and horse racing be used to subsidize this system, which also aimed to protect the Swedish Warmblood – a Swedish-bred riding horse [once] seen as suitable for the battlefield.”

Another outcome of the investigation was the 1948 foundation of Ridfrämjandet, its aim was to protect the Swedish Warmblood horse by establishing equestrianism as a ‘sport for all’, while ensuring that the army would have access to trained horses should the need arise.

The Swedish government found no shortage of riding schools willing to foster these horses.

The study also found that the “government introduced interest-free loans with no compulsory instalments at the suggestion of the investigation, and granted riding schools interested in increasing their activities loans for building riding halls between 1948 and 1958, during which time several new riding halls were built. From 1958, the government offered new grants, which did not have to be repaid if riding schools offered activities for 15 years or longer. In addition, riding schools used public means to offer discount tickets for youth to attract more young people to riding.”

Getting kids interested in riding at a young assures a future for the sport on the international competitive stage. (Mikael Sjöberg / www.mikaelsjoberg.se)

With that level of grassroots support it’s no wonder that the sport took off. Many of the horse-riding schools in existence today are members of the Swedish Equestrian Federation, which in turn is a member of the Swedish Sports Confederation, the unifying umbrella organization of Swedish sport. The SSC currently lists more than 164,000 members in 862 clubs actively involved in equestrian pursuits.

And despite a slight decline in participants since 2000, when there were 991 clubs and 215,000 members, equestrian sport has a firm place in Swedish life. As the study’s authors point out in their conclusion, “equestrianism is still among the top-ten sports in Sweden, and despite the decrease in riding school activities there seems to be an increase in horse riders with their own horses.”

It would be difficult for Canada to replicate this type of involvement in horse sports, especially during these trying times. But the Swedish model does indicate that if more people had access to horses and riding, the sport would grow at the grassroots level and also feed into the elite riders and competitions. The study also proves that horseback riding is an activity that once learned in youth, carries humans throughout their lives as a source of physical activity and mental health.