Crossing people, scribes, bit checkers and warmup folks. Photo by Holly Covey. Crossing people, scribes, bit checkers and warmup folks. Photo by Holly Covey.

The essence of sport is fair play. The organizations to which we belong were formed solely to develop fairness and ensure that competition is undertaken fairly. Fairness seems to be intrinsic to the human experience, so it’s not a surprise that in our working lives we expect it as well as in our recreation.

I took a quick look at the elemental aspect of this concept and found a new study just published this fall that used primates, the closest human subjects. The researchers studied rewards given to the primates and how they reacted when a partner was given a bigger reward. They found that resentment in those with the smaller reward arose when they knew that a bigger reward was given to another for the same task.

Longterm, the scientists were looking for ways to understand why humans aren’t happy with what they have, and how fairness evolved in humans. “If you are cooperating with someone who takes more of the benefits accrued, they will do better than you, at your expense,” said one of the researchers.

The human response to unfairness seems to have evolved in order to favor longterm cooperation, they found. This means that if things are pretty much fair all the time, more cooperation occurs and a happier workplace exists. 

The whole of our system of government is based on fairness to all citizens. For example, public schools are open to all children who receive the same education. Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech examined the Declaration of Independence of the United States, “that all men are created equal,” essentially claiming fairness as a civil right.

Our very own United States Equestrian Federation has in its “Welcome” the very clear mandate it sees itself protecting: More than 84,000 members make it possible for USEF to continue the mission on which it was founded — a dedication to 360° of fairness …” 

Fairness begins many an endeavor and unfairness ends many, too.

Let’s take this back into our sport of eventing. If one set of people does all the work but don’t get any of the glory, and in fact, hardly ever get any reward for the work, they become resentful. This outcome is manifested in not being involved in eventing any more. While more people are attracted to fill their empty places, they too, in turn, become disillusioned, point to the unfairness as the cause, and drop out as well.

Meanwhile the highly rewarded set of people continue to stay in the sport. They do less than the larger group but gain relatively more, which keeps them coming back. However, the sport begins to feel the lack of experienced, returning people in the larger group.

The revolving door of unfairness selects newer and less experienced group members to do more than they are educated for or wanted to do. Meanwhile, the rewarded group finds over and over that the sport provides more unfair competition because the experienced people no longer want to participate and ensure the sport remains fair. Their knowledge base is lost.

This results in a competition left wanting, and a host of other issues we’ve all heard about throughout the year at the competitions we attend or view. Mark Twain once wrote, “The institution of royalty in any form is an insult to the human race.” Are we creating “royalty” of our riders at the expense of the REST of the sport?

Science tells us that fairness is an inherent human condition, a necessary part of evolution, insurance for the future. Of course, we can apply this to our recreation, too, and find that fairness should be a focus to ALL ASPECTS of eventing, not just the competition, but to the people who help to nurture and guide the sport, the people who agree to organize sporting competitions and all the helpers they require. The reward must be equal for all who participate, or it will cease to be attractive to all.

The takeaway for eventing is that volunteers need WAY more attention than they are getting. They need a voice (just as PRO and USET are voices for the riders), they need rewards (sponsorship and opportunity, as the riders have) and they need recognition (year-end awards, accumulative awards, special mention awards and attending press). British Eventing has already addressed this with the BE Volunteers program.

Here’s a revolutionary idea — how about rewarding in equal measure? How many year-end awards do we give to riders? How many to volunteers? I know that many will dismiss this idea or be resistant to the facts that volunteers play such a vital role in the sport today.

I had one very high-level organizer tell me they didn’t need to know all the names of the volunteers at their very large event because “no one could possibly keep a list of everyone who volunteered; it would be too expensive to print them all out.” Oh my goodness. I believe that it is the exact opposite. Without attention to each and every single volunteer, the cost to the sport should they give it up due to unfairness is far too immense to dismiss.

Of course, not all who volunteer want rewards, or need them. What some view as fulfillment (such as gifts or items of value), others don’t care about. Some feel rewarded in what they do on a deeper level, being a part of the undertaking, feeling a sense of belonging and shared experience. This is as valuable to the sport as free lunches and T-shirts, even more so, because it creates a community — which is a powerful energy.

Rewards can also be intrinsically educational, such as those who volunteer in order to educate themselves (such as dressage scribing or jump judging). This also has no downside and is available to even more subsets within our eventing population, since all of us are always learning or participating in learning in various roles either as student or teacher.

These two aspects of volunteer rewards certainly seem worthy to develop as part of a fairness initiative going forward. There is value here that we can’t afford to leave undeveloped.

The point is, rewards matter. We need to recognize this. We should probably be paying attention to getting closer to balancing the rewards, because we know that long term, that’s the best choice for the longevity of the sport. Without fairness to all, we risk the sport.