For months, if not years, it all seemed like nothing more than talk. Today, the reality of major reform within the world of horse sport is suddenly looking very real.
Representatives of FEI member nations will soon be making their way to Lausanne, Switzerland, for the world governing body’s annual Sports Forum at end of this month.
The agenda includes several potentially game-changing topics, based around the perceived need for reform within horse sport.
The fact that controversial reforms are being considered in the likes of dressage, and competition changes are being considered at the highest of levels of competition, seems to have come as a surprise to many. The World Equestrian Games also face a shake-up.
Why the need for change? Aren’t things going along just fine as they are?
In reality, there has been plenty of warnings that major reforms need to be considered. The Sports Forum will ultimately prove to be a barometer that measures the appetite of national federations for change.
There seems to be general consensus that horse sport needs to shore up its position within the Olympic movement, but there is unlikely to be the same level of consensus on how to do it.
The immediate past president, Princess Haya, who served on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), spelled out several times the challenges facing equestrianism.
Last December, in the final hours of her presidency, she told delegates from member nations at the FEI General Assembly in Baku, Azerbaijan, that the Olympic movement’s recently approved Agenda 2020 programme would require a change in mindset for the horse world.
Agenda 2020 is a major program of reform which will see, among other things, more flexibility within the Olympic program. It includes a move from a sport-based to an event-based program.
“We do need to make the Olympics relevant to the 21st century and exciting to young people. We can’t afford to lose the magic that the Olympics have brought to the world.”
Princess Haya warned as early as 2008 that equestrian sport’s hold on its Olympic status faced scrutiny.
Senior FEI figures talked in Baku of the need to engage the public and simplify formats, the latter seemingly essential to boost television exposure.
Ingmar De Vos, who succeeded Princess Haya as president in Baku, put it succinctly during the election campaign.
The wider organisation needed to have the courage to look at competition formats with unbiased, open minds, he said.
“If we want to promote our sport in the best way possible, we need to make the sport accessible, exciting and easy to understand for a larger audience,” he suggested.
“This means that our competition formats need to be adapted for modern television and digital media.”
It was crucial to continue to grow horse sport’s popularity, he said, not least because it was the IOC’s evaluations which decided the distribution of Olympic television revenues to international sporting federations.
It was therefore important to showcase horse sports on television and on platforms unrelated to the Olympics as much as possible.
“To achieve this, we need to promote our sport in general on global networks and use our flagship events more effectively for this purpose.
“We need to make our sport more accessible for a larger audience by reviewing our competition formats – not only for the Olympics but in general across the disciplines,” he said.
One challenge, he said, was coming up with equestrian competitions suitable for television that were easy to distribute, suggesting that 60-90 minute formats were best suited.
He continued: “As popularity is also linked with the image and reputation of a sport, we need to investigate and better understand what the image of our sport is and what initiatives we can undertake to improve this image where possible.”
De Vos was certainly not alone is this view. Indeed, all five contenders for the FEI presidency at the time largely shared common ground on where the FEI needed to take horse sport.
They all talked about the importance of media exposure and growing the fan base. They alluded to the need for the disciplines to be easily understandable, packaged in a media-friendly way, and made accessible to the masses.
To see what is driving this process, we need to look more closely at the 40-point reform package unanimously supported by 96 IOC members at their 127th annual session, held a matter of days before the FEI’s General Assembly in Baku.
The package delivered wide-ranging reforms in the face of growing worries about the cost of staging the Olympics, one sign of which has been the dwindling number of cities keen to host the iconic event (problems, incidentally, which are mirrored by WEG).
Of greatest interest to the world of horse sport was recommendation 10, headed up “Move from a sport-based to an event-based programme”.
It imposes a guideline for restrictions on the numbers attending the games – about 10,500 athletes and 5000 accredited coaches at the summer Games, with the number of events capped at 310. This is entirely sensible, given the desire to rein in the cost of staging the summer Games.
However, it also introduces what it calls more flexibility in the programme, allowing for the inclusion of new sports within the Olympic schedule.
The size limits mentioned above do not necessarily restrict the Games to the current roster of Olympic sports, so the mathematics involved are pretty straightforward.
If the IOC is going to allow fresh sports into the fold, but keep numbers capped, then clearly cuts will have to be made elsewhere.
The major Olympic sports – the likes of athletics and swimming – are unlikely to be too fearful. But those further down the Olympic pecking order, such as horse sport, would certainly be wise to take notice.
It is inconceivable that horse sport would lose its Olympic spot, but with the new “event-based” program, the IOC would certainly have the option of dropping individual events.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that eventing would be most at risk among horse sport’s three Olympic disciplines. It is costly to stage and its global appeal – crucial to Olympic inclusion – is limited.
Is the FEI worrying about nothing?
No, it is all very real. Consider this: Last year, the IOC concluded a review of how sports sit within the classification system used to allocate a share of the Games profits to the international sporting bodies which make up the Olympic family.
Equestrian sport was dropped from category C to D, joining canoeing/kayaking, fencing, handball, hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon, and wrestling.
The only rung remaining on this ladder is E, which is mostly reserved for demonstration sports.
The FEI raised concerns, asking the IOC why equestrian sport had been reclassified, especially given its fine showing at the London Olympics.
The answer is not entirely black and white, I’m led to believe. It is understood that the criteria on which sports were assessed was based around television audiences (40 percent); internet page views and social media mentions (20 percent); general public appreciation (15 percent); spectator ticket sales (10 percent); press articles (10 percent); and universality (5 percent).
It should be stressed that the category system is for the purposes of revenue distribution, but it is sorely tempting to read more into them.
So, it is not difficult to understand why the mantra of the FEI centres around growing the international appeal of horse sport and trying to build greater media exposure – and the percentages above spell out clearly the importance of television in the equation.
I suspect the questions around formats remain the last major hurdle the FEI must jump in terms of reform – at least as far as the Olympic disciplines are concerned.
The news is not all bad. The FEI has made substantial progress around safety issues, especially in eventing, and introduced robust drug reforms through its Clean Sport initiative (remember the embarrassment of the Beijing Olympics?).
And we should not forget the other plusses that equestrian sport brings to the Olympic table, with a high ratio of female participation. They are also the only mixed sports at the Games. Age is no particular barrier to competition, either.
So, what is the magic recipe?
For Olympic inclusion, sports need to be clean, transparent, cost-effective, safe, attract a good number of competing nations, and get plenty of media attention, especially so on television.
Achieving those goals is not altogether easy.
Delegates to last year’s Sport Accord – the global union for both Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations, as well as organisers of international sports events – were surveyed ahead of the conference.
There were disturbing findings from the survey among a cross-section of delegates, who gathered last April in Turkey.
Delegates were asked how they viewed the future of sports. When asked about which sports they saw as increasing in relevance in the future, equestrian sport did very badly.
Equestrian sport was among the six sports most frequently mentioned by delegates as expected to decrease in relevance. In all, 37 percent of respondents mentioned it in this context.
The only sports to fare worse were wrestling (46 percent) and boxing (48 percent). Motorsport, hockey and handball rounded off the six sports.
In contrast, the delegates named beach volleyball, mountain biking, snowboarding, women’s football and disability sports as the top five most likely to increase in relevance.
The news got no better for horse sports when it came to sponsorship. The movers and shakers were asked to identify sports they expected to increase and decrease in relevance for sponsors.
Equestrian sport again ranked among the six sports most often mentioned as expected to decrease in relevance. It was mentioned by 27 percent of respondents – on a par with handball and gymnastics. Only hockey, wrestling and boxing fared worse.
What should we make of such an unpalatable message?
Many of these respondents are not people with horse interests, of course, but we must not forget that those who judge us are not all fans of equestrian sport.
So, when we look at growing the fan base, some very difficult questions need to be asked.
Is equestrian sport too complicated for watchers? Are welfare and safety issues taking a toll? Is the sport too elitist at the top level? Is it global enough? Are competition formats simple to follow and exciting enough to draw in new fans?
Make no mistake. The conversation has begun in earnest. The answers will take real vision, and will undoubtedly involve trial and error.
Think, for example, of where dressage would be today had it not been for the popularity of Freestyle.
Modern horse sport for the modern era. That is the ultimate goal.