Big Feelings: An Emotive Response to Eventing and the Public Eye

Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Let’s be clear, the fact that the public is so concerned about horse welfare is a good thing. And many people are concerned: a survey commissioned by World Horse Welfare and performed by YouGov found that 20% of respondents did not agree with the use of horses in sport, with 40% only supporting their use should welfare improve.

The eventing community and the public are obviously on the same page when it comes to wanting to keep horses happy and healthy. The discrepancy lies with how the public perceive equestrian sports with regards to welfare, and what is actually going on at the competition and at home in the stable and the training ring.

Emotions run high when considering the use of animals for entertainment. The rise of the vegan lifestyle over the last few years, due in no small part to social media campaigns such as ‘Veganuary’, has no doubt encouraged people to think more widely than just diet, and is likely to have fed into the concept that animals are not for human use.

A clear example of this is when a contestant on the popular reality TV show ‘The Great British Bake Off’ (in the US, ‘The Great British Baking Show’) identified herself as vegan whilst displaying photos of herself horse riding on her Instagram account. The British public spoke up, loudly and critically, condemning her for using an animal for entertainment whilst claiming to be vegan. As I said: emotions around this topic run high.

It’s this depth of emotion that I want to talk about.

When I watch eventing, I don’t just see it and hear it, I feel it.

Nothing comes close to replicating the emotions we feel as a part of this sport. Photo courtesy of FEI.

I love the build-up of excitement and awe as I watch those glorious horses prance their way through the horse inspection, full of promise and anticipation, hope and ambition.

What may seem like the beginning, I know, is in fact the culmination of the journey: the start of an event is the destination for many. Just being there.

I recognize the months and years of work: the slogging it out in the gym and the exercise arena, the mindful approach to nutrition and training for both horse and rider, the expert care it takes to produce a horse, and the dedication to excellence shown by all involved in the horse’s care. I know that the riders want success for their horses as much — if not more — as for themselves.

But not everyone knows all this. I didn’t when I first started watching eventing.

In my early days as an eventing spectator, I obviously focused all my attention on the cross country, adding in the jumping as I got sucked into the competition and then the horse inspection when it became more widely available to view online. Eventually, the buzz of the event as a whole swallowed me up and I began to dedicate entire days to the dressage tests, too.

In eventing, the dressage phase brings the opportunity to chat about the training of event horses: the time and dedication to the flatwork, how the written movements are founded in the natural movements of a horse, and why this type of exercise helps to keep horses fit and happy.

I know some people think of dressage as dancing horses, but for me, dressage is more like yoga. It increases suppleness and balance; there is unity between the horse and rider, their bodies and brains working as one. It’s at once difficult and free and easy. There is strength paired with ease and grace. It’s knowing all of this that takes away the performative aspect of horses seemingly being made to dance for sport.

Having said that, I must admit, I do enjoy it when dressage is jazzed up with some apt musical accompaniment. It was a feature of the Event Rider Masters series that I particularly loved. Not only did it prompt spectator interaction via some toe tapping, humming along and perhaps a random dance move or two, but it also gave some fun insight into the riders’ personalities: Matt Ryan’s choice of ‘The Lion King’ for his trusty campaigner The Lion, for example.

Steffen Peters (USA) and Suppenkasper. Photo by FEI/Christophe Taniere.

It’s certainly a way of capturing the public’s imagination, as Steffen Peters’ Tokyo 2020 freestyle dressage demonstrated with #ravehorse Suppenkasper — just do a quick TikTok search and you’ll see. The video shared on YouTube by the official Olympics channel has 825,000 views; in comparison, the final jumping round of the individual eventing on the same channel — with medal wins for Germany, Great Britain and Australia – has 166,000.

Once the public’s attention is won, sport has the potential to inspire a huge positive emotive response. Take the English women’s football (soccer if you’re in the US) team, the Lionesses, for example. The summer before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off in Qatar, the UEFA Women’s Euro tournament caused football fever to sweep the UK; specifically, women’s football fever. The Lionesses were a source of inspiration for both football fans and less regular viewers alike, with their positive messaging about women in sport and their passion for sharing those messages.

We all know that bad news travels — that’s just how it is, but good news can travel too, if it’s shared enough.

A survey by the FEI’s Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission found that the public’s concerns over welfare vary between equestrian disciplines. Dressage, for example, is perceived to have the least welfare issues, according to the public, with 53% of respondents concerned about welfare in dressage, as opposed to 68% in eventing. For context, endurance was the most concerning discipline for respondents (78%), with racing and show jumping equal at 67%.

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

This means we can surmise that it’s the jumping phases that the public, perhaps understandably, sees as the most potentially harmful to the horse in eventing. Maybe bigging up the emotion of the event, rather than focusing on how big the fences are, how hard of a task the course is, and how tired horses are on the final day, may encourage people to feel more positively about eventing.

For me, there’s nothing quite like cross country. No matter how I’m feeling or what’s going on in my life, I can put on a video of any cross country day and get totally lost in it. I get caught up in the emotions of every rider, owner, groom and connection.

With every horse that jogs their way into the starting box, I hold my breath. Hearing the starter shout, “Good luck!” has me tearing up. What a feeling, to be setting off on a journey that you’ve put your heart, sweat and life into. To have made it. Wow. Then I’m hooked, totally invested in both horse and rider: wishing them luck, willing them on, feeling for them if things don’t go their way and celebrating with more happy tears when things do.

The surveys suggest that the public has an emotional response to horses being used in sport. I certainly do. The difference is, my emotional response is because I’m aware. I’ve listened to the commentary, I’ve watched the rider interviews, I’ve seen the pictures of content horses in the field at home after an event, and I’ve read the posts showing outpourings of love for the equine partners that help make people’s dreams come true.

In a world where equestrian sports in the Olympics are under the public microscope, it is vital that all those involved in the sports — directly and, as in my case, indirectly as a fan — act together to show the world why our sports are deserving of the love they so inspire in us.

Let’s think about the recent announcement that show jumping will not be part of the Modern Pentathlon at the 2028 Los Angeles Games. The decision came after the very public outrage following viral footage of some unsavory scenes from the event in Tokyo 2020.

Embed from Getty Images

Having watched Modern Pentathlon show jumping at the two previous Olympics, (often grimacing from behind a cushion — some of the rounds looked like they belonged in the blooper reel, not an Olympic event), I was aware of the problems of the show jumping phase, although I hadn’t witnessed anything quite like that of Tokyo. The problems already existed, but once the public became aware and spoke out, change was prompted incredibly quickly. The power of the public is something we need on our side. To be clear, not every athlete, coach, or official involved in Modern Pentathlon is at fault. The behavior of the few has had a huge, lasting impact on the reputation — and future — of the sport.

At the recent U.S. Equestrian Federation Annual Meeting, David O’Connor, USEF Chief of Sport, said: “Can we train with current practices in the middle of Central Park in New York City and defend your actions? If not, those practices cannot happen”.

Regardless of your opinion on having to defend yourself to those who are not perhaps as knowledgeable or experienced as you, it’s clear that this is something the equestrian world must take heed of, for the good of the sport.

But it’s not just about having a good defense. In order for a sports team to be successful, it needs a good attack too. Let’s take the media hype surrounding the dressage in the leadup to the London 2012 Olympics, for example. I was obviously aware of all the equestrian sports on offer but, being an all-out eventing fan, I’d never watched pure dressage before. The enthusiasm of BBC presenter and horsegirl Clare Balding piqued my interest and, like so many others, I tuned in to watch Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro dance their way to Olympic gold in front of the historic Queen’s House (not her late Majesty’s actual house, but an impressive backdrop all the same).

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Granted, I was in the UK and watching a home Games; the British media was bursting with Olympic fever and Britain’s success (at first potential, and then realized) in the dressage ring understandably raised the profile of dressage in this country. However, it could be argued that the potential of Britain’s eventers wasn’t to be overlooked, having medaled at every Olympics since Sydney 2000, with 2012 team member Tina Cook winning Bronze at the previous Games in Beijing in 2008. Making up the team for London, along with Tina, were William Fox-Pitt, Mary King, Zara Phillips and Nicola Wilson — an all-star cast, if you will. Yet eventing didn’t prompt the hype that dressage did.

It’s a bit like being in drama class at school and the teacher tells you to make everything bigger. Bigger movement, bigger voice, bigger expression. You feel like you’re doing it big — enormous, even — but that’s not coming across.

The pride in the horses, the hope of the competition, the achievement of being there, the gratitude every rider I’ve ever heard interviewed has for their horse. The tension at the top of the leaderboard as they enter the jumping ring. The desperation not to let their horse down. The elation just to complete for many, regardless of how many poles may fall or how far over the time they may have been. The absolute love for their horse.

After all, it’s clear to me that eventers don’t event just because they love the sport; they love the sport because they love their horses.

And all this is reciprocated by the horses. You can see it in their ears, in their gallop, in their faces – there’s love for the sport written all over them. It’s common knowledge that a happy dog wags their tail, and a happy cat purrs; perhaps we need to make the signs of a happy horse common knowledge, too.

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