Is equestrian sport in the United States becoming too elitist? That is the big question everyone is asking following a candid podcast interview on WispSports with highly respected trainer and decorated equestrian Katie Prudent.
Katie suggested that show jumping in America is developing into something more like golf, where wealthy amateurs get to play with the best in the world, at the best events on the circuit, and enjoy a myriad of services and treatments—if they pay their way. The interview raised many questions, underscoring the very real possibility that elitist culture is rotting the sport in America from the inside out.
I think that show jumping has always existed in limbo, floating somewhere between Formula One and tennis, but with none of the consistent engagement that either sport enjoys.
Katie believes that the days of toughing it out through a hard day at the show, the dues that Laura Kraut and Kent Farrington paid—riders who were required to ride everything and anything—are gone. What is left is the super-wealthy pro-amateur client, expecting progression in exchange for a fat check. Katie proposed that this will affect America’s ability to field strong international teams in years to come.
To say that it is a competitive and ruthless time to be a sport is putting it mildly. Should we just give up, embrace our elitist tendencies, and follow in the footsteps of Formula One? Will we ever really be able to compete with the likes of tennis? Or should we pull on the reins and consider an alternate route, one that controls where the money goes, and how much can go there? How much could and should be controlled?
“The question of elitism in show jumping is one that’s worth pondering, especially since it so directly speaks to the future of the sport. In my mind, it’s time to pick a side.”
Some would say the decision has already been made. With new formats such as the Global Champions League coming into fruition, many hope the sport will continue to follow in the footsteps of Formula One.
However, Formula One isn’t in the Olympics, nor would it ever be. Golf is in the Olympics, but it’s argued that it has has no place there, and I would have to agree.
If equestrian sport really emulated the Formula One structure, I think that eventually, there would be so much prize money, such escalating purchase prices for horses within the industry’s free market model, such an active pro-amateur community and such a growth in the elitist aspect of the sport, that the IOC would have no choice but to remove equestrian from the Olympics.
So what’s the alternative to allowing the money to flow freely and without inhibition? It has everything to do with controlling that capital.
Prices for horses are increasing, making the sport more and more inaccessible and less relatable to the everyday man. Establishing transparency in horse sales and adding a purchase cap on horses the way that the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL) have used salary caps to control the acquisition of athletes would be a necessary step.
An effective salary cap prevents wealthy teams in the NHL or NFL from buying their way to victory by signing a multitude of high-paid, star players. A salary cap on horse sales could do the same, in preventing wealthy pro-amateurs from buying their way to victory or into a level they cannot sustain.
Would a horse sales purchase cap in equestrian sport ensure that a larger number of high performance athletes have healthy access to high performance horses without the threat of these horses being sold to the highest bidder?
It might. It could even balance the scales so that results become a question of the best rider for that horse, rather than the highest purchase price.
If you are a talented rider, this idea doesn’t worry you, but if you aren’t as talented, then this might offend you deeply. But should the best horse in the world be ridden by the best rider in the world, or the rider who is willing to pay the most money?
It’s a radical idea, and one that doesn’t fit into the business of equestrian sport as we know it today. So many professionals have developed very successful careers around developing horses for wealthy amateurs and pro-amateurs, so they won’t like this idea one bit.
But if a purchase cap were to be established, the financial climate of the sport would drastically change, potentially eradicating the need for a business model in the sport at all. If you are the best, you get the best horse, and you win the most prize money. The question of riders giving up their best horses for career-changing amounts of money would potentially cease to exist. Potentially, the sport might become more of what many riders see missing: pure, competitive show jumping sport—pay to play not included.
I think that show jumping must decide once and for all what type of sport it wants to be, and embrace that choice with vigor.
Do we want to become one of the most elitist sports in the world, falling into line with Formula One and yachting? Perhaps we do—it would create amazing opportunities on many levels. but if not, then it is time to sit down and do the math. If equestrian sport does not wish to put its existing elitism on steroids, it needs to control the movement of its main commodity: the horse.