As any devout cover-to-cover Horse Sport readers out there have no doubt noticed, I have a new monthly column in that magazine that goes by the name At Issue. Each month I look for a topic that I believe is relevant, timely and preferably at least a wee bit controversial, and then I dig in. Just a few days ago I delivered my article for the April issue, which covers the sorry state of affairs between the Olympic equestrian disciplines and Own The Podium. All that number crunching got me to pondering on a few things that didn’t make the article, because of space or because they strayed too far into ‘editorializing’. Thank goodness I have this blog, so I can unload these thoughts somewhere.
The conclusion I came to at the end of writing the article was this: while it’s too bad that OTP has completely dumped Eventing and Dressage from its payroll, cut Para funding in half and slightly decreased Jumping’s allowance for 2013, our high performance programs don’t live and die by what a government program decides to bestow upon them. OTP has made some exciting things possible, such as the European tours that sent riders in all four disciplines to play with the big kids . I won’t bore you all with yet another round of ‘boo-hoo DC’ for the perennially failing situation with the team technical leader, or adviser, (or godfather, or mean uncle, or whatever you want to call the role that was fulfilled first by The Dover and then by his charisma opposite, Markus Gribbe). In fact, that was probably the only OTP money which ended up being to no purpose. No, OTP could not have single handedly swept Canadians onto the podium in London. Having come to that realization, the natural next question must be: what WILL put Canadian equestrians on the podium at future WEGs and Olympics?
The answer lies with us, my friends, and some of our rich friends and associates, who must be persuaded to loosen their purse strings a little wider for the sport. Jumping is in fair shape, as it traditionally has been, in this respect. Many of the top riders have good backing from sponsors, though we do see the odd horse we ought to have kept slip away (such as EC’s 2012 Canadian Bred horse of the year, to which I referred in last week’s post). But the other three Olympic disciplines are seriously lacking in depth of equine talent. I feel like a broken record for pointing it out yet again, but the plain truth is that when everything goes right and everyone has their best day, Canadians have what it takes to win medals – ie. our Silver Eventers at WEG in Kentucky. But even a child learns early in life that you don’t count on everything going your way. And when it inevitably doesn’t, we just don’t have the horses to compensate for bad luck. The problem starts with the money, either to buy a horse that has already proven itself at the international level, or to keep, maintain and nurture a talented horse with a Canadian rider. I take my hat off with a great flourish for the Canadian owners who have supported Canadian riders. There aren’t enough of them.
I have done some comparing of Canada’s high performance programs and financial picture with that of the US, and it would be easy to blame the population difference. After all, it takes the same number of horses to make a team, regardless of your country’s size. But the US has ten times the population of Canada, and presumably that translates to ten times the number of rich people prepared to throw a gold coin at the sport. (Of course, recent performances at major games for US equestrian teams has not exactly been reflective of a kick-ass high performance program, dollars notwithstanding). But then I thought about Australia and New Zealand – two countries much smaller in population than Canada. They are continuous medal threats in Eventing, and Australia really proved some potential in Dressage in London. Is it because people isolated on their island nations are more patriotic and have more determination than those of us who rattle around in our giant cold northern land? I think there might be some truth to that theory. Their accents are cuter than ours too.
At the end of the day, Canada’s equestrian sports – all the stakeholder groups included – need to try harder to engage the public in their endeavours; we need to invest some serious energy into fundraising. The aforementioned charismatic (almost too charismatic) DC Technical Adviser proved that a dressage fundraiser can raise a lot of dough, when the WEG Team fundraiser produced a good chunk of change on fairly short notice two and a half years ago (I seem to remember something in the neighbourhood of $60k). These things don’t happen on their own. Stand alone one-off events are better than nothing, but we need to build fundraising programs that have momentum from the dedication to see them through beyond the next plane fare.
I don’t really know who can or wants to spearhead something for Canada along the lines of the USET Foundation. I do know a few people who would have been ideal but who have lost heart over the years. Sponsors don’t like being snubbed, or going un-thanked for their generosity, or treated like a cheque book with no valuable insight to offer. The next time you see a sponsor or horse owner at an event, go over to them and thank them for their contributions. I guarantee it can do no harm. And the next time you hear of a fundraiser being organized, you can support it in any number of ways. Even just turning up and buying a silent auction item is a start. It’s a long road to having a fundraising infrastructure that will make elite equestrian sport in Canada a vibrant, sustainable entity. Even baby steps are better than the apathy that has pervaded the culture for so long.