The Importance of Looking at Challenges from All Perspectives

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I’ve just now been able to poke my nose out of the snowdrifts and start thinking about the upcoming season, and unhappily, I’m already hearing vague rumblings of discontent from “the ranks” – and it’s only the end of February! At this rate, by July, the world of eventing will look like Cairo’s main square during the demise of Mubarak.

I’m not going to spend much time thinking about the PRO “controversy” prompted by the poll conducted on EN because I don’t think it much matters. I don’t actually have a lot of use for PRO mostly because of its self-serving “let’s raise sponsorship so we can award ourselves prize money” mantra. I’m just not convinced this is the best way to promote the sport, and I sure as Hell don’t buy the “trickle down” theory. What does a financially well endowed PRO endorsed FEI/Advanced event on the east coast have to do with the fate of a struggling lower level effort on the great plains?

One of the “selling points” PRO put forward when its program was launched was that events would be enhanced by its presence, both in numbers and quality. To quote an early press release : PRO is also devoted to elevating the level of competition, contributing to ongoing rider education, improving the standards of competition and promoting safety while working to attract new fans, sponsors and participants.” Has this happened? Really? Have PRO supported events shown an increase in entries that can be directly traced to its involvement? Again, I don’t think so. An example. In 2008, Jersey Fresh started 80 horses. In 2009, 86.  Last year the Jersey organizers made every effort to listen to the negative comments from the sport’s leadership and rerouted and greatly improved their courses. It were included as a PRO tour event, but nonetheless a relatively dismal 52 horses started. Is PRO going to help or hinder Jersey’s efforts this year in keeping with its mission’s “promise?” I guess that remains to be seen.

Admittedly, PRO does have its place, but it hasn’t started out very well in the eyes of the American eventing masses. Perhaps it’d profit more from a concentrated effort to promote a better connection between the top and bottom levels of the sport. The following just announced program seems to be a step in the right direction.

“The PRO Junior/Young Rider Training Level Scholarship focuses on the education and mentorship of juniors and young riders participating in competitions at the training level. The objective is to offer deserving riders, the opportunity to train with a PRO professional based on their merit within these scholarship guidelines. The program will take place at designated events associated with PRO on both the east and west coasts.” I sincerely hope this program comes about.

What is actually worrying me way more than the future effect of PRO on eventing  is the continuation and maybe even escalation of the disconnect between the various entities involved in the sport. There are, in fact, four different ways of looking at an event through four different sets of eyes – the competitors’ way, the officials’ way and the organizers’ way. The fourth side is probably the most accurate way – one that combines all the three others in an intelligent sort of give and take.

I think it can safely be said that all sides agree that there should be more money available in the sport to boost event budgets from mere sustenance to profitability, to offer meaningful prize money, and to ensure that making a living in the sport is possible and sustainable. The question isn’t what. It’s how. Sponsorship is the first answer that comes to mind – but sponsorship is ephemeral at best, hard to get, and securing it takes a special talent not shared by everyone. Believe me, I’ve been there and done that, and it aint easy especially now when corporate entities are themselves trying to stay afloat. So riders, instead of loudly demanding prize money and extra services, why not help events find the extra funds to provide them? In a roundabout way, PRO claims to do just that, but so far the funds it raises seem not to go beyond prize money for winners of selected upper level divisions.

And organizers – what is being done at your end to raise extra funds? There are some very clever methods that some organizers have devised in order to stay afloat, but what about securing the major money required to make the improvements that are being demanded? Does the average competitor have a clue what it costs to build new arenas with state of the art footing? To aera-vate, agra-vate, irri-gate and all the other “ates” being demanded on galloping tracks? To build great stabling? To pay all the extra officials needed to put on an FEI event? To update courses? To pay association fees? Many events are good at securing sponsorship, but many more aren’t.

And demands on organizers aren’t just coming from the riders, but also from officials and from the governing associations. In the past five years alone, breakaway cups, frangible pins, increased safety personnel have been mandated, These things must be provided before any capital improvements can take place. It’s a never ending battle. Does an event raise entry fees and risk losing entries? Does an organizer opt to eliminate the more costly upper level divisions? Does an event go unrecognized? Does an organizer tiring of the pressure and constant carping just say to Hell with it and pull the plug?

Officials are also feeling more than their fair share of pressure in the carrying out of their jobs. There’s enough paperwork to choke an elephant. People seem to be testier and testier in their interactions during the course of an event. The constant cloud of a litigious society looms overhead. Hours are long. Accommodations are often marginal, and the pay sucks.

And on the other side of the coin, do organizers and officials think about the added demands being put on riders – the need to qualify, the added costs of registering, joining and renewing associations, the travel costs and the cost of something as essential as keeping a horse sound?

I feel that eventing right at this moment resembles one of those cartoon animals that goes in circles and eats its own tail. Riders make demands and now even go loudly viral through blogs and various well-meaning, but basically uninformed websites instead of resorting to more civilized methods of discourse. Organizers are afraid to defend themselves because they need the entries so instead they just grumble. Shyer riders fear that their entries will not be accepted if they speak out. Some officials fail to act because they don’t want to make waves and risk losing jobs or losing favor. Riders avoid bringing problems face to face to officials because they fear being punished in the future with bad scores, and instead they resort to complaints made behind screen names in various chat rooms. This whole thing is escalating, and it’s not pretty.

I would love to see various movers and shakers in the sport at all levels and in all aspects come together and rationally discuss possible solutions face to face without fear of retribution and leaving firearms, drama and self-serving interest at the door. We have a bunch of really smart people involved in eventing who come from all walks of life. It’s time to call upon their expertise and experience.

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