The social contract in horse sport: Are we getting it right?

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How many extra rules and constraints filter down to lower levels of competition that were intended to police competitions at the highest levels?

Most economists, I suspect, don’t know a great deal about horses, but that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us a thing or two.

I listened to one last week deliver a wide-ranging talk about the global economy, and what he called the breakdown of the social contract between voters and lawmakers in some parts of the world.

This, he said, was most likely the reason for Britain’s Brexit vote and the rise of some strongly Right-wing political forces in Europe. It also goes some way to explaining the election of US President Donald Trump.

It got me thinking about the social contract between horse riders and those who administer the various disciplines, right up to the hallowed halls of the FEI.

Social contracts are kind of interesting. They’re largely the unwritten, even unspoken, agreements between parties that define a relationship. Yes, you can have formal constitutions and bills of rights, but social contracts tend to be less precise.

In politics, it could be defined as the unspoken agreement that politicians can run the country, but their decisions shouldn’t be at the expense of individuals and families going about their daily lives. Once enough people feel that politicians are directly responsible for eroding their standard of living or rights, there is trouble brewing.

Competitive riders operate under a similar social contract – and by competitive riders I mean all those who get out at the weekends to compete at their local showgrounds right up to those competing at international level.

What do they expect from their sporting administrators? It’s quite simple, in my view. They want the right to compete fairly, with reasonable oversight, under rules that provide adequate protection for all participants, including the horse. And they wish to do so as affordably as possible.

The central issue is one of balance. How much should lower-level competitors be paying by way of levies to support sport administration all the way to the FEI? How much should they be contributing to the Clean Sport initiatives to support drug-free competitions? How many competitions and qualifying structures seem overly complicated in order to conform with national or international requirements? How many extra rules and constraints filter down to lower levels of competition that were intended to police competitions at the highest levels? One only has to look at endurance to see this effect at work.

Even at low levels, the cost of competing can be substantial. No-one needs to be reminded of the costs of training and caring for a horse. There are entry fees and the cost of getting to competitions. But the fees start, of course, long before you get out the door. There are membership fees for governing bodies and costs for horse registration. I could go on.

And let us never forget how daunting this all might look to someone interested in taking up a sport.

Disciplines concerned about falling participation rates need to look hard at all these issues, in my view, and in particular those they can do something about. These collectively amount to major barriers to participation at all levels.

It has to be acknowledged that it is a difficult balance, but I sense we can do better.

The great majority of horse sport unfolds around the globe thanks to voluntary labour. These are people who are dedicated to horses and to horse sport, and I don’t doubt that the great majority are under-appreciated.

Many top level administrators are voluntary, and often undertake a thankless task. Too often, they eye the requirements of the top tier of horse sport, enacting changes that ripple down through the ranks. Regrettably, not every change is positive for the weekend warrior.

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