May 6, 2008

by Lauren Greathouse

At the Kentucky International Equine Summit Olympic Gold medalist David O'Connor urged the disparate elements of America's horse industry to work in concert to improvement promotion in the sport.

He said that the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) gives America's horse community a unique opportunity to reach a large segment of the public. The WEG is to be held in September in Lexington, Kentucky. He made his remarks last week at the Kentucky International Equine Summit, sponsored jointly by the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.

"There will be 700,000 people coming to the games," said O'Connor. "Media from all over the world will be here. This can be a catalyst for promoting horses. These games won't be back in America for another 25 years."

O'Connor said that people in horse sports suffer from a "silo mentality" in which they compartmentalize their participation and don't see themselves as part of the overall horse industry. He said that horse organizations must unify to create a promotional resource.

He drew a parallel between horse sports and track and field events. It's difficult to promote javelin throwing, O'Connor pointed out, unless it's packaged as part of the overall sport of track and field. Horse people should think of their participation as being part of the overall sport instead of just their individual discipline, he stressed. "None of us is big enough to play on the world stage by ourselves," said O'Connor.

He emphasized that there is a desire among many Americans to interact with horses and it's the responsibility of horse people to reach out to them. "The economic impact study done by the American Horse Council showed that horses are a $112 billion industry in the United States," he said. "Americans want to have an association with horses. The USEF wants to create opportunities for people to participate in horse sports."

Speaking as president of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), O'Connor said that the USEF's "On The Road" outreach program has been successful in increasing the presence of horse sports around the United States. "We've taken the horse to the public instead of waiting for the public to come to us," he said. "We need to get horses onto the internet, onto TV, and into the mainstream media."

Speakers came from all corners of the equestrian community, and beyond, yet their messages had several similarities. The importance of unity in the equine industry was echoed through a call for unity and a prompting to explore new methods of promotion during the final day of the Kentucky International Equine Summit.

The upcoming 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park for the event's first venue outside of Europe, is a prime opportunity for horse enthusiasts to help showcase America's love affair with the horse, speakers agreed.

"We have the theme of unity, and the theme of inclusiveness for the 2010 World Games," said John Nicholson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park. "All of us here need to talk about legacy. There's opportunity for the United States horse industry to permanently plant the horse in the US consciousness."

An extension of the WEG, the World Games 2010 Foundation, was formed to "put the time and effort into making sure we put on the very best show, and be commercially responsible," said Terry Johnson, Vice President of External Relations for the foundation. "We're speaking to a number of different audiences, and have to balance saturating the horse world with helping to grow [equestrian] sports with new people."

Jerry Fruth, President of the US Equine Trails Coalition, is a former polo player and champion endurance rider. "There's a horse population of nine million in this country, and roughly half of them are recreational horses, which includes trail riding, endurance, and hunting. [A quarter] of the horses in the US are in Kentucky or in the states that surround it.

"David's bill will have tremendous impact," he said. "In a few years, this will be the best state in the nation to trail ride. People will come here from all over the country, and spend a boatload of money while they are here."