The recent EXQUIS World Dressage Masters attracted several of the world’s top horse and rider pairs, including the Olympic and World Cup champions like Anky van Grunsven and Steffen Peters. On hand to watch the event was also a fair number of our high performance riders, dressage judges and horse owners. Missing were spectators to fill the bleacher seats lining the ring.
The recentattracted several of the world’s top horse and rider pairs, including the Olympic and World Cup champions like Anky van Grunsven and Steffen Peters. On hand to watch the event was also a fair number of our high performance riders, dressage judges and horse owners. Missing were spectators to fill the bleacher seats lining the ring. More than a dozen of the dressage world’s most successful horses and riders were gathered in one place and yet, even for the most popular dressage event – the musical freestyle – there were a lot of empty seats.
How to fill spectator seats is a question the dressage world has struggled with for years. I don't have the answer, but I invite all who are reading this to send in their suggestions. I do know that dressage show managers and the equestrian community’s public relations experts spend a good amount of brain power trying to figure out how to make dressage attractive to the wider public. Horse racing is clearly the equestrian sport that most attracts the attention of the general public, but I know that even the horse racing industry has been fretting about the reduced number of spectators at race tracks. Clearly, as the racing industry has pointed out, equestrian sports are competing against many other forms of entertainment for those spectators and their money.
There are some who have said the effort to generate wider interest in equestrian sports is a waste of time. And yes, this view is often most directed at dressage. In general, spectators find show jumping exciting and they get it – you clear the jump, or you don't. Dressage, it's argued, is something most Americans simply "don't get.” Figure skating can attract a crowd and make it onto national TV on a regular basis, but how many people actually understand the judging of it? I suspect very few. They are attracted by the beauty they see in the sport. Not to pick on anyone's passion, but there are a number of sports that take up much air time that I would argue are hardly exciting TV viewing. I can remember many Saturdays trying to figure out how to woo my dad away from the TV so I could switch the channel to something other than bowling.
I have often wondered if there is something about Americans that makes them a particularly hard audience to attract to equestrian sports. We can’t say that people in general don’t have an interest in equestrian sports, because then how would we explain their popularity in Europe? I’ve covered a fair number of dressage shows in Europe and coming from the U.S., I’m always amazed at the crowd such shows draw, even regional dressage shows. Dressage shows in the U.S., even CDIs, rarely fill the seats. And yet, some have, which indicates the effort spent trying to make equestrian sports – dressage in particular – popular among the masses is not wasted. When Debbie McDonald and Brentina danced down the center line at the 2005 World Cup in Vegas, they did so in front of a sold-out crowd. The Saturday evening Grand Prix Freestyle at Dressage at Devon usually plays before a packed house.
Such examples offer hope for the growth of dressage as a true spectator sport, but getting there will be an uphill battle. Show managers will often cite lack of sponsorship money as a barrier to better marketing and better show venues. This clearly is a challenge for dressage. The Dressage Masters is the most lucrative dressage show in the U.S. in terms of prize money. Saturday evening’s Grand Prix Freestyle had $84,000 in prize money. To a Grand Prix dressage rider, that’s a lot. To a Grand Prix show jumper, it’s peanuts. The reality is that while our equestrian world might seem big to us, it's very small to sponsors. Consider that USEF membership is around 100,000 out of a population of well over 300 million. Hence, the number of competitors in the Olympic disciplines is a small percentage of the overall population – too small to make sponsors jump at putting money into equestrian sports.
There is, however, one huge asset we have in equestrian sports. We have the horse. And there is one thing I am sure of, Americans have always been attracted to the horse. Its beauty, its grace, its kindness of character charms the most hardened souls. Race horse trainer Carl Nafzger has, for some years, been preaching to the racing industry that the key to the survival of the racing industry is to put the horse first, meaning that if all in the industry focus on the well-being of the horse above all else and make decisions based on what is best for the horse, then the industry will thrive. Maybe the key to the survival, and growth, of all equestrian sports is just as simple. Maybe the way to make equestrian sports popular among the general public is to forget about the ribbons and the medals, forget about the money, forget about everything except doing what is always in the best interest of the horse. I don't know if the answer is that simple, but maybe...
Please feel free to contact Lynndee Kemmet with your perspectives at firstname.lastname@example.org