What is happening in the horse world? Can an industry and sport model built on a tradition of gentility and elitism possible survive in the age of transparency and public power? A recreational activity and core group of sports have been counted out of the running before; many people thought they would never survive into the 21st century, let alone have been such a successful part of the 2012 Olympics.
Owners want to be empowered. Rider organizations want to be heard. The public wants input into what goes on in the ring (and the warmup ring). Riders are talking about private warmup. Judges are, for the first time, talking at all. But with everyone talking at once, can anyone be heard? Are we making changes that will stick and where is all this transparency taking us?
The consumer's voice
Last week was the wonderful bi-annual horse event in Germany known as Equitana. Huge trade show halls were filled to their rafters with carriages, trailers, brushes, saddles, clothes, medicine and everything that can possibly touch the inside or the outside of a horse.
Of special interest are the Equitana Innovation Awards, which select new products worthy of recognition because they move horse care and/or equestrianism forward. This year was no exception, and the word "innovation" is an understatement. Some of the products are absolutely revolutionary. Imagine an automatic feeder that recognizes your horse's face and shuts off when he's reached his daily quota.
But throughout the interviews and publicity surrounding the German show, the products all seem to be coming to market with statements that "horse owners are demanding"..."horse owners insisted on"..."the informed horse owner realizes that"...
A new nutrition product is described a "response to the high demand from riders" for high-fiber, low-additive feeds.
Marketers are no longer simply applying available technology to horse equipment and clothing. They are listening to the complaints and ideas of the consumer, and delivering the desired product. This is no longer a top-down industry; sheer numbers mean that the needs of backyard horse owners can be more lucrative than the needs of an advanced rider, and the manufacturers and marketers know it.
Products no longer trickle down from the show or race stables to the home user. The home model may be the origin, and the manufacturer upgrades the product's bells and whistles to appeal to the elite user.
The competitor's voice
Last month, a potential change in eventing rules affected how horses and riders advance (or decline) through the levels. In this day when many riders are astride horses owned by patrons, they know that the horse beneath them can be in someone else's barn later in the season or end up being shipped to a new owner in a different country. What you do with a horse, at what level, and what you score with a horse can add to or detract from a horse's value and the depth of your own string of horses to train and compete.
The pressure is on riders to deliver value to the owners who trust them with their horses, and the competition for the few upper level horses means is keen.
But what happens if you've been out of the realm of upper-level competition--do the rules make you start over? Can an owner choose not to give you a ride because of your rating? How long out of the top levels is too long? If you're given a new advanced ride, do you have to start at 1* as a pair and work your way up? How long should that take? Should the rider's rank match the horse's level?
An activist campaign from the ranks of event riders voiced displeasure with the new FEI system, which ranked riders by an MER or "minimum eligibility requirement". The resistance spread around the world in the time it takes to send a tweet and push the "publish" button on an online petition.
When almost 1500 people signed on to the protest, the FEI changed the proposal.
The advocate's voice
Nowhere is the voice of the public heard louder than in the welfare side of horse events and sports. And whether it is horse welfare or rider welfare, the push has the added grassroots force of social media behind it. Welfare advocates come in all shapes and sizes but for every minute issue--many of which you and I haven't even heard of (yet)--there is an advocate out there building a constituency.
It was a mere three years ago this month that US dressage rider Courtney King-Dye was injured in a tragic riding accident. This Sunday, the US Equestrian Federation rule requiring dressage riders to wear helmets at all times when mounted goes into effect. The passing of a global requirement for dressage helmets through the FEI left wiggle room for riders to choose between the traditional top hat or the round-head look of helmets, but only "on the field of play"; helmets must be worn at all other times.
In a sport where change has been glacial, this is a revolution.
Charlotte DuJardin's Olympic gold medals were won under a color-trimmed helmet, and German rider Matthias Rath has helmet manufacturer Casco on his sponsor list. Helmets--dreaded, hair-crushing, head-enlarging, sweaty, smelly helmets!--are now cool must-have accessories in the ring, and they're getting cooler every day as new designs emerge at shows like Equitana.
The helmet rules were not initiated by the organizations but rather by a groundswell of support from people who may not even know a passage from a pirouette. Grassroots organizations like Riders4Helmets saw an opportunity to drive change and supporters made an emotion-based decision to add their voices, votes, signatures and dollars to the cause.
It worked, but the citizen-based initiatives for helmets and for research into rollkur have placed dressage in the hot seat. The sport is now acutely aware that it is being watched and that those who are doing the watching believe they know how to impact the decision-making process. And they are prepared to do it again, if they recognize an issue that violates their code.
(And now that dressage is on board, barrel racing is next on the helmet advocates' target list.)
All of which brings us back to the Icelandics on the ice. While researching the event I saw something on the event's web site I had never noticed before. Event web sites usually tell you the schedule, the ticket process, about the organizers, the venue, the history of the event, who won last time, who's entered this time. Each aspect generally has a tab or button at the top of the web site.
What's different about the Icelandics' web site? It has a category for "welfare". There, plain as day, the event announces what processes it uses to insure animal welfare during the event: when and how horses are inspected, and what the inspectors are looking for. Before you can even ask, "What if they have weights in those overreach boots", your question is answered.
You'll find the same sort of information up front on the "animal care" section of the web site of the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Rodeo has an army of detractors who object to the sport on welfare grounds, but in 2012, the Stampede attempted to put itself in a class by itself by listing humane organizations that are involved in the event and that work with the Stampede to insure that the animals are well cared-for; a video by Temple Grandin specifically discusses her observations of animal welfare at the Stampede.
Following the death of more chuckwagon horses in 2012 at the Stampede, the rodeo faces an even bigger challenge this year to put public fears to rest.
As a horse owner or equestrian, we all choose our battles, dedicate ourselves to our priority issues, and see things we would like to change. Still, it seems like there are no master plans out there for where we are headed, and few people are coming forward too articulate their vision of how we preserve equestrian sports and accommodate groundswell changes that consumers, competitors and the general public want to see. Or think they want to see, since they can't see them in place yet. Instead, people focus on their personal hot button issues.
Where's the big picture? And, when it comes to getting something done, where is the spirit of compromise?
Please use the comment section of this article to give your vision of future rule changes, product innovations and welfare reforms. What does our world look like, in your dreams? Is there room for me? Are you ruling yourself out of the picture? Is there such a thing as too many rules?
What would equestrian products, sports and events look like if your changes were initiated?