Our Future Defined?

We announced the final four in the 7th Annual EN Blogger Contest, and now we are bringing you their second round submissions. The prompt: "Eventing has been approved for inclusion in the Olympics through 2024 under an altered format, but the sport still faces uphill battles both in the U.S. and abroad. What can we do to make eventing more appetizing, engaging and understandable to the mainstream public? Share your ideas in an interesting, funny, informative and creative way." Take it away, Andrew!

2016 Rio Olympics individual medalists from left: Astier Nicolas (FRA), Michael Jung (GER), Phillip Dutton (USA). Photo by Jenni Autry.

A collective sigh of relief ran through the entire equestrian community after the recent announcement by the IOC that the Olympic program will include equestrian sports through 2024. The vote of the majority of National Federations to approve an altered format proves that we are willing to be flexible to maintain that inclusion. It makes you ask though, what is the Olympics to us and are we using it to our advantage?

There is no doubt that the Olympic Games propel our sport onto the world stage and into the public eye. It is one of the defining characteristics we boast when describing three-day eventing that separates it from many other equestrian endeavors. That status validates a lot of the time, money and energy invested into it, but do the Olympics promote our sport or do they define it?

Emotion is our currency

There is very little social status tied to three-day eventing when you think about it. Outside of our community there is not much social value, economic benefit or celebrity status that we attain. While we find the greatest of the sport worthy, it is unlikely that we will see one grace the cover of Rolling Stone in the near future.

So what drives us that can draw others to understand our passion? We are part of a society that takes anything interesting and makes it go viral–so what is not contagious about taking one of the largest mammals that the average human can subdue, clinging to its back and convincing it to take us over solid obstacles at speed?

Our rationale for pursuing this sport is not as commonly understood as you might think. However people do understand  the elements of discipline, partnership and a dream, and our goal should be to convey those things to a captive audience and connect them emotionally to what we do and why we do it.

Look around at any horse trial or three-day event and you will most likely find nail biting family members, excited horse owners, proud breeders and any other person that supports and believes in the pair on course. More often than not the people behind our sport are connected emotionally to one of the participants. How do we grow that connection to a larger audience?

Every horse has a story

Stand around long enough and you will hear of every trial and tribulation along the way! There is a diverse background of horses and no shortage of people to tell their tale, but these highs and the lows connect us all and build the framework for our community. Blogs, vlogs and all other social media create an infrastructure that never existed before and are a vital part of our engagement with the public.

Every couple of years we hear the stories of athletes overcoming the odds, pushing their limits and making it to the Olympic Games–that personalizes the experience for us and we feel that we know these people even if we’ve never heard their name before. We have to find a way to capitalize on the exposure while it is granted to us. In the past few years even some of the largest companies in the U.S. have turned their marketing strategies towards telling a story because stories last, stories are shared and stories connect with people.

Hey Olympic dream, let’s take a break–and by the way, it’s not me, it’s you…

There was a certain disenchantment I felt during the last Olympic Games. That is not a criticism of performance by anyone but rather a disappointment in the sport as I witnessed a disheartening of nations and a poor portrait of the high level of sportsmanship that brought each pair onto the world stage. For once I didn’t envy those members of our team, as if we took the best we have and offered them as tributes to the games.

One thing that our sport cannot withstand is damage to the underlying dream that drives it. Every four years we have a chance to connect with the world and not only explain to them what we are doing but why we do it. We cannot devalue our currency by producing a spectacle of elimination, but rather invest it wisely in the stories of partnership and determination.

Laura Graves did just that with an unrideable, unmanageable horse she couldn’t get rid of yet persevered to lead the U.S. dressage team to a bronze medal. It’s the kind of story you love as it fuels that desire to keep working hard (it is also they kind of story that leads to many injuries as we are all inspired to go ride the most difficult horse in our stable with a new determination, reminding ourselves later that our horse was not so moved by the story).

There were incredible successes for sure as we all witnessed Phillip Dutton transition from merely a great horseman to a wizard in breeches. I’m sure that made a headline somewhere in “Otherworldly News”.

Be careful what you wish for

As the number of competitors and competitions continue to steadily grow, the visibility and outside appeal does not show a significant increase in measurable elements like sponsorships, media attention and prize money. While we struggle to secure what seems necessary for the sustainability of the sport, we must recognize that there is value in the integrity of what we do and how we do it.

A high level of horsemanship, welfare and camaraderie are all fostered in our current environment, and as appealing as large payouts might be, do we really need a financial incentive pressing us to ride our horses faster and harder at solid obstacles? I wouldn’t expect growth in some of those areas to improve our goals of safety and welfare.

As we adapt to the changes in our format to make the sport fit into the program of the Olympic Games, we must demand that it convey the heart of eventing and not define it. We can decide to build support for the process and not the results, as it is a long road to the top. There is a story being written as each rider strives to attain their goals and live their dream, and engagement in the sport does not lie in sponsorship and prize money but in taking part in that story, investing emotionally and supporting the process.

Excitement is sure to follow and it just may be contagious.