The Changing Face of Equestrian Sport News: Trending Issues vs. Championship Headlines

A coming-of-age in equestrian sports media means that issues compete with event results for readers' eyes--and sentiment

If I asked you to name the main news story in equestrian sport last week, what would you say?

Are you a dressage fan? By traditional standards, you’d say that it was Charlotte Dujardin’s total domination of world dressage. The Olympic champion added FEI World Cup Champion to her Olympic and European titles as she and Valego prepare to passage on toward the World Equestrian Games in Normandy later this year. If things go their way, they will add World Champion to their list. 

But by new media standards, the news story that captured eyeballs and imaginations and was most-talked-about at the cyber-equivalent of our office water cooler was the redux of the blue tongue dressage scandal, as Danish journalists Julie Taylor and Luise Thomsen at Epona TV once again brought a horse’s mouth to the attention of the world. 

Blue tongue: Epona TV’s coverage of Danish dressage rider Andreas Helgstrand’s rough reining and spurring at a private event competed with the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Finals for attention online and in social media. On Facebook, Epona’s series of stories were shared about 7000 times from April 16-21; the FEI’s series on the jumping and dressage World Cup finals, including spectacular photos and original video, totaled about 300 shares during the same time period.

This time it was Danish dressage rider Andreas Helgstrand, long unpopular with dressage reformists for his tough-guy riding style on what appear to be sensitive horses. At a private event, Helgstrand’s lovely young star horse Akeem Foldager was photographed with tight rein, an open mouth and yes, a blue tongue.

Are you an endurance fan? The US Equestrian Federation’s 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Endurance Team Selection Trial in South Carolina was rained out last week, but went on when the skies cleared. There’s a lot at stake there, and the final post-ride vet check is going on today, with the naming of the Normandy-bound team to follow. That would have been the top news without a doubt just a few years ago, but now we have a separate news stream on endurance. And it’s not pretty.

CNN’s Christina MacFarlane shared some big news (to us) via Twitter during the FEI World Cup; the network’s international division will expand its coverage of horses from just racing to a separate feature on equestrian sports. But will CNN decide to cover the issues or the results–or both?

Led by the brave British equestrian journalist Pippa Cuckson in The Telegraph, tendrils of scandal and barely-believable coverups emerged over the past few months. An almost-weekly update pairs a move by the FEI with a counter-move by either the Region 7 nations who have conducted what seems to many like a lawless form of endurance racing under FEI sanctions or another expose by Cuckson of transgressions like riders compiling championships points on two horses with the same name, but at two different events.

Google’s trending analysis has tracked a steady decline in equestrian sports news coverage since 2004. It has also shown a migration away from the United States as a major equestrian sports news source. This graph shows spikes of coverage that correspond with Olympic and World Equestrian Games years.

Racing has the excitement of the Kentucky Derby in just a few weeks. But racing also has the continuing fallout from a PETA undercover video suggesting mistreatment and over-medication of racehorses in a leading trainer’s care

Eventing is poised for the two single biggest weeks of its year, with the Rolex (Kentucky) Three-Day Event and MItsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials sure to dominate headlines. While the entries for Kentucky have shrunk by 19 horses in the past few weeks, the sport is still chirping as its popularity continues to blossom. An all-home-safe a week from now is on the wish list.

Even that newest of horse spectacles, “colt starting” as entertainment, took it in the chin this week. “Road to the Horse” in the USA enjoyed another successful week at the Kentucky Horse Park last month, but the British version of that event, Horseman’s Calling, didn’t go down well with Epona TV, always on the watch for unhappy horses. They felt there’s something not quite right about horse training under time pressure for public entertainment, and began asking questions that may echo on this side of the Atlantic.

It’s said that there are two sides to every story, but it seems as predictable as the Google trend chart to foresee that only scandal and tragedy are likely to get horse sports into the news when people who would normally be part of an avid fan base are much more interested in reform and issue advocacy than who won or even who’s competing.

While Epona TV and Pippa own the soap box at present, it doesn’t take too much analysis to connect the dots that may form. While many of us complain that the way to rise in Facebook standings is by posting the cutest horse memes or the cleverest horse-husband jokes, the alternate media path of tabloid-shock is uncharted territory. If 7000 people wanted to share photos and news about a blue tongue on a faraway dressage horse on their Facebook pages, what else might they want to share? Who else might they be delighted to see squirm?

Not all engines driving the issues-based news are trained journalists like Epona TV and Pippa Cuckson. 

The FEI and CNN might be wondering the same thing I am after an Easter weekend where the fans weren’t where they would have been, where the stellar scores fell on deaf ears, and where addressing the issues can no longer be an option.

But magnifying and sensationalizing them is an option. Social media crowd sentiment seems primed to do that, even as the Danish authorities have responded to Epona TV’s investigation and have sent a veterinarian to inspect the horse in question, and the FEI comes closer to a more objective investigation of endurance violations.

Even as one issue cools, another will always be brewing in a culture when the hungry crowd waits for the next shocking image or headline. Finding facts is not always easy but it has never been more important that the media be prepared to look beyond the press releases and publish news the old-fashioned way: by writing and researching the facts, as we find them, about what is really going on out there.

 Photo at top: Flickr photo by JE Spaghetti.




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