Hi All – This is Jennifer Anstey here to hijack Karen’s blog for one post. For those of you that don’t know me, I own Horse Publications Group of which this website is a part. I’ve read Karen’s last two posts and having just returned home from Equestrian Canada’s convention I wanted to share my two-cents.

When it comes to our governing body, I too have grown sceptical over the years. Between departing CEOs, disillusioned athletes, disciplines in disarray, and a dysfunctional governing body, I feel this view is justified. Despite my reservations, however, I still choose to be optimistic and want to be supportive of change. It’s a journalist’s role to question, but I opt to do so with a different tone. With that in mind, following is what I took away from my trip to Montreal.

For the majority of you that weren’t at the convention I want to let you know that it really was quite inspiring. Yes, even I gag at that word, but I choose to approach life with a positive outlook and that’s really how I felt and so did all the other attendants I spoke to… even amidst the remaining questions. The speakers in the sessions I attended were outstanding. I think the fact that Havaris was successful in securing the attendance of the president of the FEI was quite a coup, but there were several high profile speakers that also delivered great presentations including:

Sönke Lauterbach, Secretary General and CEO of the German Equestrian Federation
Chrystine Tauber, CEO of USEF
Martin Boileau, Director General of Sport Canada
Mitch Garber, CEO Caesars Interactive Entertainment & Chairman of Cirque du Soleil
Charlie Johnstone, CEO of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair
Lisa Lazarus, past Commercial Director of the FEI (and also new EC board member!)
Mark Nelson, President of the Ontario Equestrian Federation

And these are just some of the speakers at the presentations I attended, there were many others! Two presentations in particular really impressed me, and I want to share their important messages with you.

The Future of Sport featured the first three speakers listed above and set the perfect tone to start the convention before people started attending other meetings. Everyone talked about change and the evolution of our industry to improve awareness and access to stay relevant. While De Vos’s presentation about the IOC requiring said change and how the FEI was addressing that need was informative, I found Lauterbach’s presentation particularly impressive and filled with useful tips. I hadn’t thought of Germany as facing the same problems we do, but they have/do and following is a list of some of their solutions:

– They started 15 years ago by streamlining their organization (much like EC just did with the new by-laws)
– While they have 700,000 Club Members (!!!! EC has 90,000), only(!) 90,000 of those compete (19,000 in Canada… almost double their ratio). To improve that conversion rate, they gave the people that run events the tools to help them grow including information on how to attract volunteers, and basic management suggestions.
– In the belief that education and training are keys to their future success, two years ago they started a badge system for kids to make them part of the system and to encourage progression. They also produce video trailers to promote these badges as the target audience doesn’t read brochures.
– Previously, they had “old fashioned” (his term) trainer qualifications that only focused on disciplines, and now they offer a recreational coaching system to better reflect the needs of a huge segment of their membership.
– They helped keep events motivated and took measures to make it more affordable to show
– They offered new approaches to compete, not just at traditional shows but at other venues to bring horses together to train.
– They offered riders new training options like physio and mental coaching. He freely admitted that it took a while to get riders to buy-in, but that now most do, and the high performance riders on a weekly basis.
– They started to identify young talent.
– To preserve funds and horses, they made the decision not to attend all FEI championships unless they had a solid chance of doing well.
– They buy shares in young horses to keep them in the country and available for their riders. I didn’t write the number down but I think he said they own or co-own about 30 horses now… feel free to correct me.
– They support their young riders and offer them free media training. He did note that they didn’t make this mandatory and the first time they offered it only 20 showed up but that was ok.
– To help promote riders, they give local papers free articles on the riders in their community.
– They try to create news that appeals to recreational riders.
– They issue very few traditional press releases and mostly communicate with members on Facebook and through their website.
– They try to attract new journalists to cover the sport and invited several to a two day seminar where they learned about horse sports and got to ride a horse – always a good hook! They subsequently noticed that their press conferences are much better attended.
– They lost TV coverage for some big events because not enough people were watching so they worked with a livestream company to help the shows get coverage.
– They initiated a campaign about the value of horses to society. They actually did a study to demonstrate the positive effects of the horse which (happily) gets repeated by politicians all the time. Moreover, the next time something bad happens (because it will) they can point to this study to show the value of sport.

And that’s just one presentation, each of the speakers delivered their own version of progress and opportunity. There were so many great ideas all I can think of is the potential for Canada! How can you help but to be inspired (don’t gag!) when you hear these ideas? We have so much room to grow because we haven’t even started to tap into these possibilities.

The second great session was Best Business Practices for the Equestrian Industry with presentations from the bottom three listed above plus Lauterbach again (Garber, for those keeping track, spoke at a cocktail reception). The most important message that I took home from this session was the need to better connect with people – this was also a theme in the first session but was hammered home here. We have to educate participants and must communicate our passion. It’s necessary to spend time and money to make our athletes heroes so fans will be able to relate to them, leading them to buy tickets, which leads to increased attendance, improved sponsorship, etc. etc.

Yes, we’ve fumbled the ball repeatedly over the years and have missed many a great marketing opportunity, but we have one important thing going for us: Practically everyone is born loving horses! We might have missed the boat leveraging this affinity with a generation or two, but there is always the next. Working in our favour is the new digital age which allows us to reach more people more efficiently than ever before. (This is a good time for a shameless plug… I’ve started a video production branch of the company called Horse Sport LIVE that will launch in May. Our first offerings will include free livestreamed events from Caledon Equestrian Park and profiles of the hottest show jumping trainers!)

One other topic that didn’t fit neatly into the above info but was a constant in my sessions is coaching and the need for a mandatory certification. The case for this is that in order for our sport to prosper we need to increase the number of participants. To increase participants, we need to educate the uninitiated. The uninitiated need better pathways into our sport which includes a more systematic and professional approach. Coaches… I would be surprised if in a few years time you aren’t going to be required to be certified to train at EC sanctioned events.

So those were all the possibilities and opportunities… but we are most certainly a long way achieving any of it. There are still many issues to be addressed and tons of questions that have yet to be answered (How will these initiatives be implemented? When? What will improved communications look like? How are they going to fund all of this??? etc.), and members are going to want to start seeing progress in pretty short order. While it’s a daunting task I remain optimistic, but I will certainly be pressing for answers to support that position. As one particularly enthusiastic attendee put it to me, “The seeds have been planted, but will they grow?”

So this is my plea to all at EC: please, please, please deliver the goods for us this time. The possibilities have been made clear and you have great people in place. Both Karen and I would dearly love to report that the sport is flourishing with more participants, athletes are nurtured and succeeding, shows have increased attendance, there are more sponsors, and our various governing bodies use best practices. That is your task, those are your metrics, GO CANADA!