In 2006, Horse & Hound took a light-hearted look at where eventing could be in 10 years’ time. They reported that everyone would be wearing not-yet-invented inflatable jackets to cushion a fall; Oliver Townend would be “finding himself” at an ashram in India; and the UK, global mecca of eventing, would be staging everything at two venues with cross-country entirely on artificial footings. Thankfully only one of these predictions came true!
Over a decade later, Horse Sport has taken a look at what issues are being tackled … but this time it is not so easy to be frivolous.
After a fabulous Kentucky and Badminton, international eventing appears in rude good health, but behind the scenes lies uncertainty. Aside from the struggle of retaining a leisure market presence when people have entertainment choices that were unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, the sport must grapple with a raft of technical issues: eventing’s longer-term future in the Olympic Games; long-term planning and risk management for breeders, riders, and shows; and the economics of running a resource-heavy discipline which has never attracted the scale of sponsorship enjoyed by top-class show jumping.
Does eventing have a future in the Olympics?
Loving-up the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been a complex balance for the FEI, largely between proving international participation, creating new formats, and capping costs. The latter is particularly difficult when even Britain couldn’t deliver equestrian at London 2012 on budget – the originally feasibility study for Greenwich Park in 2007 was estimated at £6 million; actual cost: a rumoured 20 times more.
The FEI has to keep convincing the IOC that equestrianism is globally practised. Through its Solidarity and other programs the FEI, rather than national federations, is providing grass roots opportunities in far-flung places, sometimes stoking up interest where none was discernible before. Competitions are sometimes organized just for one rider when championship qualifications are required.Yet while playing this numbers game, the FEI does not always acknowledge the practical challenges for riders representing a successful national federation that occupies a land mass dwarfing the entire continent of Europe.
About 900 people in North America have current FEI registrations to event internationally, yet Canada will stage just three FEI competition weekends this season, two at Bromont and only two offering events at 4* (previously 3*) or above. The USA lists 22, mostly east coast, just 10 counting towards Olympic qualification. Europe has 109, many of them in countries so small you can drive right across them in half a day.
Aside from the enormous expense in travel and board, limited opportunities at 4* and 5* events prolong the upgrading process for North Americans if a horse has to scratch through a minor niggle. Upgrading could take even longer if the safety lobby’s move to downgrade horses that lose their form is applied widely. To date the FEI has resisted “reverse qualification” (loss of qualification due to cross-country elimination) in its international rules; that concept so far has been adopted by just a handful of countries at national level including Canada, the USA, and Britain.
Reverse qualification is not, though, a million miles from the format changes that have been controversially applied to secure eventing its Olympic berth through at least 2024. Next year at Tokyo there will be just three horses per eventing team and no drop score. To prevent the nightmare scenario of most teams failing to complete, everyone can still travel a fourth man to service the unthinkable – a mid-contest substitution of a brand-new horse and rider should any of the original trio fall short. Substitution brings a heavy tariff of 100 extra penalties if you swap horses after the dressage phase, 200 after cross-country, and 300 if you still fail to finish with three. It’s now theoretically possible for a fresh combination who pitches up for the final jumping test to win a team medal.
Eventers grudgingly accept this as the one-off price of Olympic participation, despite its wholesale undermining of the equine all-round test. At least we hope it is a one-off, but you can never say never … after all, no one thought the changes introduced for Athens 2004 would catch on – no steeplechase or roads and tracks – but once Badminton, Kentucky, and Burghley junked them in 2006, the rest toppled, too.
What kind of event does the future hold?
On the whole, of course, stakeholders thought the idea of a shorter format was a good idea to prolong the competitive life of a horse and give owners more high profile outings each season. To riders aged over 50, though, there were some negatives. Among the veterans still at the top of their game, Andrew Nicholson has often bewailed the limited know-how about fitting-up horses among the short-format generation, and the loss of instinct for jumping at speed that came from riding the ‘chase.
The opportunity to see top combinations in action more frequently did not, alas, result in any sustainable influx of commercial sponsorship. The FEI continues to prop up a Nations Cup which will never assume the importance of the historic show jumping series. The eventing World Cup and Classics disappeared due to lack of sponsor interest. The only marketing initiative in recent years came from the riders themselves – the Event Riders Masters, now entering its fourth season. It battles on in Europe still without a title sponsor or mainstream TV deal.
Much has been made this spring about Irish Sport Horses filling the top six spots, 75% of the top 20 and over 40% of starters at Badminton. Hats off indeed to the Irish breeders who, during the ‘noughties, foresaw that horses of Irish Draught/Thoroughbred extraction with a warmblood grandsire or two would fulfil the sport’s changed demands in 2019. But who wants to predict the type that will win at top level in 2029? A 10-minute horse? What if, by then, the optimum time at a three-day is eight minutes, or even less if by then championships are decided by CIC? How much more of an edge will you need in dressage if the FEI messes with the coefficient again to re-emphasize the influence of cross-country? If parachuting in a substitute mid-way through the contest has indeed become the norm in 10 years’ time, will we just chop and change from a pool of specialist horses anyway?
Probably the only certainties are that cross-country courses will shorten, and the horses most likely to get the time will be the Thoroughbreds – horses originally destined for the track – rather than the fruition of someone’s dedicated study of sport horse pedigrees!
Meanwhile, course designers are running out of ideas to separate the brilliant from the best – even more difficult for venues without naturally-challenging terrain. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, an arrowhead was the single “novelty” fence on a course. Now “skinnies” are the norm, especially after the introduction of the “black flag” rule. On return from his eight-year sabbatical in 2008, Mark Todd wondered if Britain was in the grip of a national timber shortage! At this year’s Badminton, William Fox-Pitt estimated there were 10, maybe 15, jumping efforts with flags right on the stirrups.
The effect of skinnies in provoking run-pasts rather than dirty stops inevitably triggered a raft of judging quandaries and hence enhanced “missed flag” rules, their latest manifestation causing a well-reported ruckus in northern Europe this spring.
Four- and five-star organizers take these irritations in their stride, but the same rules must apply all around the world – often where money and qualified officials are in short supply. I well recall one Latin American delegate at an FEI Sports Forum, trying to get eventing off the ground in their country, almost in tears when yet another layer of red tape was being proposed. This is where broadening the participation base pulls eventing, above all other equestrian sports, into conflict.
Frangibles are another case in point. The increasing use of collapsible fences is morally and politically correct in an era of changing public perceptions. It protects everyone – the novice riders encouraged out of their personal comfort zones, and the elite horses being asked unfathomable new technical questions. But frangibles un-level the playing field if they heap even more organizational burdens on the developing horse world. Many countries can’t afford to use them, so frangibles remain “optional” while encouraged under FEI rules.
What’s more, the FEI has had several stabs at setting an appropriate penalty (currently 11 points) for breaking a device. Its now mandatory, rather than asking the ground jury to decide if the horse would have fallen if the fence hadn’t collapsed. Insidiously, though, subjectivity has been entering an objectively-judged cross-country phase.
Rules to cope with unintended consequences of risk management gnaw away at the competition narrative – and this is tiresome for the digital landscape, which expects instant information. When the leaderboard is repeatedly revised after a penalty is protested, it is bad for supporters, television, and sponsors.
How to market eventing?
Another dilemma for marketers is that two of the world’s top three events, Kentucky and Badminton, happen at the start of the season, making it impossible to build a promotional campaign across the year. On the one hand we are panic-struck about not being an Olympic sport forever, yet our best-attended, best-televised and most gripping contests are already icons in the calendar and all widely acknowledged as tougher than the path to Olympic gold!
It is also unfortunate for eventing that in 2012 the FEI agreed to an exclusive, long-term “top partner” deal with Longines, whose prime interests are show jumping and, despite its negative reputation, endurance. One hears whispers of luxury labels showing interest in eventing, but feeling shut-out by the Longines’ stranglehold.
Another handicap is a global phenomenon equestrianism cannot do a thing about. This is the turmoil in the off-road luxury vehicle market, sponsorship which British events in particular have been overly-reliant on for decades – Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Mercedes, Toyota, and Audi, to name just a few. That sector is now facing up to falling sales in diesel vehicles as buyers do their bit for climate change. The carmakers themselves, with commercial survival at stake, are meanwhile throwing enormous resources at renewable technologies. Investment in research will surely cut into the automobile industry’s sponsorship budgets.
The lack of big prize money and sponsorship in eventing compared with jumping has been a debate for as long as I can recall. Suggestions of extra entertainment to attract more spectators, or devising an eventing equivalent of the jumping Global Champions Tour, in my view illustrate naiveté among normally switched-on people about the economic realities of organizing a three-day event as opposed to an arena sport.
Unless you are among the handful capable of winning a five-star, there is – period – no serious money to be made in eventing aside from training and selling a top-class horse. For sure many high-worth individuals go eventing as a lifestyle choice, although few are in the league of the sheikhs, Silicon Valley zillionaires, and eastern European oligarchs who currently underpin 5* show jumping!
But by a happy token, this frustrating injustice is also eventing’s unique trump card. Eventing is the only FEI sport demanding courage and longevity with your equine partner and (standing by for the beating!) still the only equestrian sport in which you cannot buy your way onto the start list at a 5* event.
How one wishes the general public had more of an understanding of what it takes to even reach the Wednesday jog! Read any article about a rider who has mortgaged their home to fulfil their ambitions, or upped sticks and settled on the other side of the world, and nine times out of 10 it will be an eventer.
These are the indelible qualities of the very special community attracted to eventing in the first place. It will ensure their beloved sport’s survival in some shape or form, however much it has to adapt.