Horse shows are an essential aspect of the equine industry. According to the 2017 Economic Impact of the US Horse Industry Report, produced by the American Horse Council, over 1.2 million horses are used in competitive events annually and the four largest organizations sanction nearly 6,000 competitive opportunities, supporting 241,000 jobs and adding $11.8 billion in direct value to the national economy. What this report doesn’t capture, though, is the percentage of equestrians that might want to compete, or compete more often, but are limited by any number of factors. What if I told you that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most if not ALL of those limitations can be overcome?
Skeptical? I wouldn’t have believed me either, until the pandemic forced me to rethink content for a university course I teach, “Principles of Horse Trials Management”. Normally, students in this course play an integral role in the production and administration of our US Eventing Association sanctioned horse trials, held right on campus. But this fall, campus and local restrictions precluded us from being able to welcome outside guests to our facility and the trials were cancelled. I needed a meaningful, hands on, real world activity that would challenge students to learn, grow and experience some of the skills, tasks and problem-solving required in traditional competition management— all while maintaining social distancing and density rules.
Enter (figuratively and literally) the virtual horse show.
Prior to this year, I had heard of virtual shows but never thought much about them. But thanks to COVID, opportunities to compete in virtual horse shows have increased, with many organizations—ours included– making their first forays into the genre.
At first, I didn’t know quite where to start, so I decided to conduct some research. By which I mean, I entered a virtual show.
Dressage Show Online offers both virtual show management for groups/individuals as well as hosts shows of their own. There is no membership fee required to join; just create a profile, add your mount’s info, and then you can start competing. Tests cost just $30 (in total; no add on fees are required, and this includes the shipping for prizes). Once entered, riders film their test—in one take, from start to finish—and then upload it to the site before the deadline. Within a few days, the judge scores and provides comments on the test electronically and uploads a pdf of the score sheet. The judges range from USDF “L” graduates to USEF “S” judges—so this is legitimate scoring and feedback, just like you would expect at a traditional in person show.
The UNH Virtual Dressage Show that my students organized was inspired by this experience, but we put our own ‘Wildcat twist’ on the process. Entries were divided into an open division and a lesson horse division (where “serviceably sound” would be overlooked in the judging and protective boots allowed), and offered a “best turned out” award. And since we lacked a fancy website for competitors to upload to, we asked them to send videos via YouTube links that we compiled into a playlist for our judge.
I had no idea what kind of interest, if any, equestrians would have in entering the UNH Virtual Dressage Show. After purchasing ribbons and hiring USEF “r” judge Leslie deGrandmaison, I calculated that if we came up with 42 entries, we would at least break even.
Nearly 100 entries later, I learned that not only would people enter, they would do so with enthusiasm. What impressed me most, though, was the wide range of reasons that riders gave for doing so.
Some riders were UNH grads, wanting to compete at their alma mater one more time; others were regular competitors who had chosen not to travel to shows this season. Some belonged to barn or scholastic equestrian teams and had made a day of filming everyone’s videos, offering each other encouragement and support, a fun facsimile of a day at a regular horse show. But I was especially surprised by how many entrants were riders that in general lacked other opportunities to compete: they had no trailer, or their horse didn’t trailer well. Their horse was a lease, not allowed to leave the property. Their horse was older, and going to regular shows was too stressful. Yet they all wanted feedback and the opportunity to dress themselves and their horses up a little bit and show off their skills.
From an organizational perspective, a virtual show is more work behind the scenes than you might think. Once those videos started rolling in…well, there was a lot of detail-oriented work in making sure that each one played for us, was saved correctly and then added in the right order to the playlist. Like any show, you have your usual last minute hiccups; horses with abscesses needing to be substituted by a stablemate, entrants that ran out of time to video and needed to scratch, people who were overambitious in signing up for a higher level that wanted to change their entry. We also used paper tests that had to be copied, labelled, put in order, and mailed to our judge, so these late changes were harder to accommodate. But now that I have done it all once, I know better how to do it again. As with managing any horse show, the more you do it, the savvier you become.
From a competitor’s perspective—I was pleasantly impressed by my virtual show experience, and I am planning to enter again next season. The best part (well, besides the $30 entry fee) is that the feedback I received related to my young horse’s performance in her usual ring, under typical conditions. Truthfully, this is in many ways more helpful right now than comments I might get at an offsite show, where she will likely be more tense, anxious, or distracted than usual (she is just 5 years old, after all). Through the virtual show, I received a mini lesson from one of the best in the business; it helped to confirm that my training was on track and challenged me to put all the pieces together sequentially, under a little bit of pressure (aka, my videographer was not going to tolerate me asking for multiple re-takes). Entering a few shows next season will allow me to track progress in the training and provide me with areas to focus on next. Some virtual show platforms (such as Dressage Show Online) even offer championships and year end and performance awards.
But from an industry perspective, these unique competitions are serving the needs of an audience that traditional shows can’t reach, as well as providing an outlet for traditional competitors looking for additional feedback. At a time when the costs of traditional (especially sanctioned) competition are ever increasing, virtual shows eliminate much of the expense while maintaining the fun and achievement of competition. Riding at shows puts us—and our skills—under pressure, and can serve as a litmus test of how secure we are in our work. Whether we are riding for a judge in the booth or one behind the screen, we all want to put our best hoof forward.
Post-pandemic, I hope to see the virtual horse show community continue to thrive, because I believe that moving forward, we need to increase inclusive opportunities for our sport. Virtual shows fill an important niche within our community by offering affordable, accessible competitive opportunities for equestrians at all levels.
Disclaimer: The views contained within this blog post are solely my own. I do not intend to speak for the other staff of the University of New Hampshire Equine Program, its students, volunteers, or other affiliates, who may well see things quite differently. I am merely using my experience as the manager of the UNH Horse Trials to inform my perspective on the continued loss of competition venues in eventing.
At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida, I attended an interesting panel discussion: “Growing the Grassroots”. This presentation featured the work of a panel which included representatives from several USEF affiliates and disciplines. Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF, facilitated the discussion, and he opened with the statement that “a majority of the USEF membership feels they are part of the grassroots.” This large group of riders mostly avoids competing at rated shows due to any of a number of barriers—cost, exclusivity and accessibility being among the most significant.
One panelist commented that local shows (which are often unrated) are doing well, and the upper levels are doing well, but there is a serious lack of opportunity in the middle levels—and this is where we are losing riders. The middle is the land of the one day rated horse show; when I was a kid, these were the “C” and “B” shows, where you were able to log miles and trips and hone your craft in the show ring, without the budget and time commitment of going to a week long “A” show, but with the pressure that comes with an increased standard of riding.
Although most of those present were speaking of the hunter/jumper scene, I couldn’t help but think about the sport of eventing. In 2018, 28 horse trials were cancelled, reducing the number of starters by over 3,000 rides. Though some of these cancellations were due to weather, many more are permanent losses to the eventing calendar. Here in Area I, we have lost Stoneleigh Burnham (which hosted twice per year), King Oak/Grindstone Mountain (King Oak used to host two per year, and the new owners tried it in 2017 but threw in the towel in 2018) and we have just recently learned that for 2019 we also are losing Fitch’s Corner in New York and Riga Meadow in Connecticut. Collectively, this represents over a century of eventing in the northeast. Losing these competitions impacts the bottom line of the US Eventing Association, which collects a starter fee for each ride, but more importantly, it is eroding access to local, one day events. You know, the ones where you log your miles and hone your craft and learn how to compete under pressure. These events are the bridge between schooling trials and premier, destination competitions.
I have been managing the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials since 2006; we are the quintessential “middle” competition, a stepping stone from the growing schooling eventing circuit to larger, more prestigious events in the region. Our competitor base is largely local, coming from within a two hour radius, along with a handful of riders from further afield.
UNH hosts two events per year (spring and fall), and for five years, we ran one in summer as well—to help replace yet another event lost to the Area, Kingsbury Hill. Since Kingsbury Hill was sold, UNH has remained the only sanctioned horse trials in New Hampshire. When Snowfields stopped running, Maine lost its only sanctioned event. For those event riders in Maine or New Hampshire, save for UNH, you have to travel to Vermont, Massachusetts or New York to compete at a USEA horse trials. Most of these losses have happened within the past 5-10 years.
Each semester, when I meet with the ten students who will head up committees of their peers to manage each phase of our horse trials (dressage, cross country, show jumping and awards/promotion), I ask them: “Why, for over forty-five years, has UNH run a horse trials on its Durham campus?”
The answers are fairly consistent: to promote the program, to give students a chance to learn about how to run a horse show, to make money. And most of these reasons are true, save for the last. It is an unusual show in which we actually turn a profit. Our goal is to break even—because truly, for us at UNH, hosting the horse trials is mostly about giving our students a living laboratory, a chance to get behind the scenes and to ‘learn by doing’ all that goes into organizing and running a horse event. We use the horse trials as a model; using similar skills, students could go on to coordinate any number of equine related activities. Plus, the experience of running a committee is a real resume booster, full of transferrable skills: organizing, communicating, delegating, meeting deadlines, coordinating, following organization rules. I hope you can tell how incredibly proud I am of the work that our students put into these competitions.
But each time I ask the question, I find myself thinking: “If this were my private farm, and I had all of these resources and the land to run cross country—would I still do it? What incentive does a private land owner have to continue to offer eventing on their property?”
Truthfully, I have no way of knowing what exactly motivates these landowners, but I sort of suspect it comes down to a deep seated love of the sport, and a desire and willingness to give back. People take pride in their properties, and I believe that many of them truly love watching others enjoy them as well. We competitors are just invited guests to a party. Let’s face it—no land owners + no organizers= no more eventing. To that end, we have to keep organizers happy. We need to be better guests.
It seems trite to say that running a farm is hard work. Maintaining a cross country course can almost be a full time job itself; it feels like you have no more finished mowing and weed whacking than you turn around and have to do it again. Mother Nature is always out to reclaim that which she considers hers. Water complexes become clogged with weeds, wooden fences rot and decay. Footing becomes compacted and worn away on trails as roots and rocks rise up. Trees fall, blocking routes and sometimes destroying jumps. I come back to my earlier point; to do this much work on a private farm in order to run a competition a handful of times per year, one which is most likely not going to make you money and might even cost you—it is a labor of love.
The event at UNH is unique for many reasons. It is the only recognized event in the country held on a college campus. It is nearly wholly coordinated and staffed by students, very few of whom would call themselves eventers. They come from myriad equestrian backgrounds: horses at home, 4-H and Pony Club, breed specialty programs (we are the land of the Morgan Horse, after all), dressage, western, therapeutic horsemanship and of course, hunter/jumper. Some have shown, some have not. Some have volunteered before, some have not. Many have never in their lives been handed a clipboard and a radio, been trained to do a job and then told: you are now in charge. They are emergent leaders. They are your future boarders, clients and friends. They are equestrians.
Volunteers, like organizers, choose to offer their time and talents for myriad reasons. Just like organizers, if they are not getting what they need from their experience, they are unlikely to do it again in the future. Our students are not volunteers in the strictest sense—they are required to participate in the horse trials as a course expectation—but like volunteers, they are trying to fit competition preparations into their very full schedules. They have classes, homework and exams, jobs, family commitments and personal lives, just like all of our competitors. They are up early, giving of their time and energy, setting up courses in the rain and then running to an exam, coordinating a dressage warm up before their peers have even gotten out of bed.
So perhaps that is why, after a week of frenzied activity and three days in a row of 12+ hours of nothing but horse trials, and bearing witness to this hard work, I bristle to receive the following types of feedback from event participants (these are from actual competitor evaluations):
“College kids were distracted and handled timing poorly….though they are college kids, so kudos for not wearing pajamas.” (How insulting is this? Really? The nicest thing you can say is at least they were dressed?)
“College kids didn’t have a clue.” (Maybe the particular student you asked a specific question of didn’t have the answer you needed. That can happen, because most of them are only familiar with the phase of the event which they prepared for. But I can guarantee you that our students, overall, have been through a more comprehensive training program than the average event volunteer. For example, our fence judges have two hours of lecture training and are taken out to see their fences in advance of the trials, in addition to the TD briefing on the day of.)
Or one of my favorites, when a prominent trainer in our area said out loud to our dressage stewards this fall, “I hate when they give you benches to sit on. It makes you lazy.” (So you would like them to stand for seven hours? With no break? Is this any way to treat a volunteer? I should probably also add that the phase ran on or ahead of schedule both days—and I can’t even begin to explain the impact that remark left on the two people it was directed towards.)
Maybe I just take these comments so personally because I know, first hand, how hard our students work to put this event together. For some, it is a steep learning curve, and when a phase is first getting under way on the first day, and people are figuring out their jobs, are there some hiccups? Sure. But the officials, full time program staff and student leaders are right there behind them, offering them support, helping them figure it out. Our students are not lazy and they are not inattentive. They are learning, and most take their duties quite seriously. They are volunteers.
I should add here that we receive positive evaluations too, and a handful of emails or notes thanking us for hosting the shows. I am always sure to share these with our students and staff. But the hurtful ones leave a sting that can be hard to forget.
When Stoneleigh-Burnham School, our sister event out in Greenfield, Mass., was forced to cancel their 2018 summer competition on the morning of the event due to excessive rain, my heart broke for them. So much time and effort, and money, was spent for naught. This private girls’ school has an equestrian program, but their focus has become primarily hunter/jumper. Like UNH, SBS has run an event for decades, on its campus, the cross country course wrapped around soccer fields and tennis courts and its main dormitory. Like most schools, it doesn’t have a generous margin of error when it comes to its budget.
Within hours of the competition cancellation, while some of its entrants were no doubt still making their way back home, having already begun their trip to the foothills of the Berkshires when they got the news, the posts started on social media. “When are we going to get a refund?” snarked one competitor. “I don’t have the money to lose on a cancelled competition.” Others chimed in. Many defended the competition and understood that this was a lose-lose situation. But the fire was lit, and some threatened to never enter the event ever again, accusing organizers of keeping funds which should be returned to competitors (contrary to the omnibus listing, which clearly stated no refund in event of cancellation).
Within two months, Stoneleigh announced that they were done with eventing for good.
Here’s the thing folks—if we want our “middle” eventing competitions to survive—organizers need to break even, volunteers must be treated with respect, and competitors need to say ‘thank you for inviting us’. We are all in this together.
“Middle” event staff and volunteers work hard and invest time, money, energy and love into presenting a quality, safe competition on a budget. We want our competitors to have fun, to meet their goals, to be challenged reasonably for their level. We take constructive feedback seriously, and over the years many changes to the format, layout and coordination of the UNH event have been the direct result of competitor feedback.
At that Grassroots round table, the panelists stated that in the hunter/jumper industry, the middle of the sport is in a bad place. There is no incentive for organizers to run local, one day recognized shows, because trainers don’t come; instead they take their clients to the high end shows, where they can camp out for a week or more. The clients which can’t afford it either bankrupt themselves trying, drop back to the schooling level or leave the sport.
Eventing must take this warning seriously. When events go off the calendar, they don’t seem to come back. There just isn’t a long list of new facilities and land owners clambering to get a spot on the schedule.
It benefits ALL of us to ensure that people who start in our sport stay in our sport. We want people to be lifelong equestrians, which means they need to have good experiences, and this includes our volunteers and organizers. As a competitor myself, I appreciate that when we are under the pressure of a show, we are not always our best selves. I warn my students about this and I can forgive a sharp word or two. But please, before you hit send on that snarky competitor evaluation, take real stock of what it is you are trying to say. Are you offering help, or are you just complaining? Is your intention to make yourself feel better or to genuinely improve the quality of a competition?
Perhaps outgoing USEA President Carol Kozlowski said it best in her “President’s Letter” in the Sept-October 2018 Eventing USA, in regards to organizing, “It’s a tough job even when things go well, and it quickly loses any appeal when an unappreciative audience runs amuck,” writes Kozlowski. She then encourages competitors to reach out to organizers to thank them for their effort and say you are looking forward to their next event, even if the show had to be cancelled or something didn’t go smoothly. If being an organizer has taught me anything about how to act as a competitor, it is the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to even be there in the first place.
Please listen to her. I promise it makes a difference. The future of our sport may depend on it.
I started 2017 by attending two big meetings, one which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and one which heralded the start of a new era for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), including a re-branding effort which will have us calling the group US Equestrian. I was struck by some common themes—and common company—between the two meetings, and it has caused me to ponder the long term future of equestrian sport as we begin this New Year.
In general, equestrian sports are considered “elitist” by those outside of the industry and their continued existence in the Olympics Games remains questionable. Even within the business, there appears to be a dramatic divide between what I will call the “grassroots riders” and the “upper echelon” in terms of needs, motivations for being involved with horses and the ability to reach their personal and performance goals. At the same time there are those who would argue that there is no gap, that the upper echelon depends upon the grassroots, and that the whole community is structured sort of like a pyramid, only as strong as its base.
I was born with a horse bug. My earliest memories of wanting to ride come from nursery school. My parents aren’t “horsey”, and neither were my closest friends growing up. How often have we heard this kind of story? That this obsession should come from seemingly nowhere is unexplainable, yet it happens, over and over, these people who have a seemingly insatiable desire, or need, to be connected to horses. Where that drive takes them is a journey unique to each individual. Some may stand atop a medal podium. Some may be fulfilled with a quiet walk down the trail. Yet wherever we fall on this spectrum, we are all part of the same greater community.
I believe that whether we like it or not, the events which affect the “upper echelons” of equestrian sport affect the rest of us, too, sometimes as a trickle down and sometimes as a mad rushing current. It is a good thing when we are inspired by a gifted rider’s performance on a talented horse; it is bad when we are left explaining to friends and family why a horse dropped dead at a show, or a big name rider/trainer is suspended for positive drug tests. But the reverse is true, as well. If an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals, and they put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.
The USEF is the umbrella organization which oversees much “sanctioned” equestrian sport in the US. US Equestrian sets rules, approves licensed officials, offers year end awards programs and more. Yet most people are members only because they compete and membership is required to show. When they stop competing or take time off, they allow their membership to lapse. Some of the controversies which have come to the fore front in sanctioned competition, most recently including covert abuse of drug rules, turning a blind eye to questionable training practices, and ever increasing fees, have caused some horse lovers to choose to leave the organization—and competition—behind. I say horse lovers, because some of these are driven individuals who have put their love for the animal ahead of their love of competition.
For me, this is what it comes down to– love of the horse. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether someone shows or not, what discipline they ride, or even how often they ride. What matters is that they love the horse, and they are committed to giving the horse a humane life, a safe life, one free from pain, suffering or misery, and that they love having that experience. There is a woman at one barn I go to who doesn’t seem to ever ride. She grooms, longes, and plays games with her horse on the ground. It wouldn’t be for me, but that doesn’t matter. SHE is happy, her HORSE is happy, and everyone wins. We are both horse lovers; we are equestrians.
New US Equestrian president Murray Kessler sent a letter to all USEF members (of which I am one), which he basically opens with, “I love horses.” He has been involved at all levels of equestrian sport, from local shows to watching his daughter ride at an Olympic Games. People who only know him as the father of Reed might dismiss him as another one of those “upper echelon” people; he has been successful in business and clearly has become financially secure to the point where exceptional horses are now a reality. Despite this, my sense from the US Equestrian meeting is that Mr. Kessler still remembers what it was like to struggle to find the funds to attend a local show, and that he holds a bigger, broader vision of what US Equestrian could be for our industry. Instead of a pyramid, I think he sees a circle, where the grassroots supports the top but then the top turns around and gives back to the grassroots. I think that is something quite exciting.
Mr. Kessler has promised that he will serve as an “advocate for our membership at all levels in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the Federation is important and plays a role in our future.” He has promised to help the organization take a stronger stance on fairness and safety in equestrian sport, going so far as to state that the “purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated”. He vows to increase access and participation in the world of horse showing. “Competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive,” says Kessler in his letter. It is beyond time for someone in this level of leadership to formally act on these points, for the good of everyone in the industry, not just the competitors.
Because here’s the thing…on some level, the backyard owners need the horse show people. Horses are a luxury item. A robust industry means that resources are being produced and consumed, keeping tack retailers, grain suppliers, hay producers, instructors, trainers, boarding stables, veterinarians and farriers in business. When the number of people consuming these resources dwindles, they become scarcer as suppliers go out of business. Then the cost goes up, and all horse owners are forced to make difficult choices.
Kessler commented that his research shows that participation at the smaller USEF shows has declined by 40% over the past ten years, while entries at large scale, more costly events have gone up. In my role as the organizer for the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials, I have noticed a similar trend in eventing. Our competition draws from a more local/regional audience, and we used to be full with close to 200 entries just a few days after opening; now, we are lucky to run 150 and are forced to accept entries post-close. I hear other organizers of similar competitions say the same thing. Our sanctioned summer dressage show used to run four rings with a waiting list; now we can barely fill three.
This slow and steady decline in participation is the result of so many different factors, but it is a concerning trend. Undersubscribed competitions can’t sustain themselves forever, and sooner rather than later they stop running. This takes the bridge between schooling competition and more prestigious ones away, leaving a gap in our circle that is hard to overcome.
US Equestrian states as its new vision, “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible”. It has created a new “fan” membership; for just $25, fan members can have access to many of the benefits which the organization offers, including access to the new learning center (which has educational videos featuring well known riders and trainers), access to the USEF network, the youth high school lettering program, and more. The new website lists “start riding” and “learning center” as the first two tabs in their banner, ahead of “compete” and even “join USEF”. As part of their new membership recruitment efforts, US Equestrian has given a free fan membership to every member of the IHSA and Intercollegiate Dressage Association, and perhaps some other youth organizations as well (I just happen to know those two for sure). The website has pictures of young people on horses and recreational riders as well as the usual competition photos. It is, frankly, refreshing.
At the IHSA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in early January, I was struck by how many generations of equestrians were in attendance. Everyone in the room was connected through just this one organization, and those present were but a small sliver of the total number who could call themselves a current rider, alumni, coach or former coach of the IHSA. There are close to 10,000 undergraduate members today; over fifty years, that is an enormous community.
Each and every equestrian needs to be mindful that we as a collective group are completely connected to one another. Threats to open space access, to collegiate riding programs, to agriculture as a whole, all affect us. It is crucial that equestrians seek the synergy amongst our different groups. We must work to cultivate a supportive, not competitive, atmosphere within our ranks. Our tack, goals and preferred riding speed may be diverse, but we should all be united by one thing: our love for the horse.
I challenge each of you, no matter how you define yourself as an equestrian, to work to always remember the love of the horse. Share your love with others. Because they are out there—those young people with the intrinsic, insatiable need to be with horses. They are looking for you, for me, for all of us, to help them to fulfill those dreams.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian