We need to talk about the elephant in the room… the Olympics. I’m not interested in placing blame, but the truth is that the Equestrian Olympics were a public relations disaster for the sport. Let’s drill down into what the non-horse-educated public saw:
- Swiss horse Jet Set euthanized after sustaining an injury on the cross country course
- Irish horse Kilkenny sustained a bloody nose that streamed across his white chest during the second half of his showjumping course
- Annika Schleu being told by her trainer to “hit him harder” on live television as she pummeled her borrowed horse in an attempt to make it around the modern pentathlon show jumping course.
Altogether, this does not look good for horse sports. As many problems as I have with PETA, I really can’t blame them for calling to have equestrian sports pulled from the Olympics. If this is the best of what we can present to the world, I’m not sure we deserve to be there.
A post from Denny Emerson got me thinking. He said, “Back to the Pentathlon. Sure, bad temper, bad riding, bad behavior—But the thing that gets me is that a couple of days earlier a horse died in eventing, adding to so many horses that have died in eventing over the last few years, and not a peep. Not a murmur. No “Maybe we ought to think of ways to make serious injuries and deaths not be almost “business as usual” in eventing.”
So, this Olympics had Denny, myself, and the public asking the question: are we asking too much of these horses? How can we make our sport safer for horses and riders? As a lifelong hunter/jumper who has dabbled in eventing, I can’t really answer that question. But as a public relations professional, I have to make my voice heard because the PR professional in me is screaming that this. is. a. disaster. We need damage control. We need to make changes. The only way our sport can recover from this is to develop a strong plan to show the world that we’re safe, we love our horses, and we’re doing everything we can to make our sport better.
We need to start with damage control and an analysis of the problem. As of right now, what are we doing to understand the problem? I’d love to see a study done on equine injuries in the long format versus the current short format. The FEI describes the long format nicely, “Phase A was roads and tracks, required for warming up, B was steeplechasing at a gallop over brush type fences, C was back to roads and tracks, before horse and rider were then vet checked in a 10-minute holding box. The horse’s heart rate had to get below 80 within 10 minutes of being in the holding box, if the horse was declared fit, off they would go across country. Finally, at the end there was a further vet examination to check the horse’s health, before the pairing would be allowed to show jump, the final element.”
That’s two different veterinary examinations to ensure equine health. In today’s one-day short format, there are how many vet checks at most lower levels? None. The FEI states the short format was developed after there were concerns that horses were going too fast over cross country, so they designed more technical courses to slow riders down. This is a classic “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” type of situation. Now we have horses and riders attempting massive solid jumps and technical courses at a moderate pace. Sure we’ve slowed down (a bit), but the technical courses have raised the stakes in another aspect to dangerous levels. It’s still a sport where one mistake can cost both horse and rider their lives. As humans, we can choose to take on that risk, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think our horses wake up in the morning day dreaming about blue ribbons and massive fences.
Step two of my PR plan for the equestrian Olympics is to make changes efficiently and quickly. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to how to make our sport safer. But I do know that those answers lie in a statistical analysis of injuries in the long format versus the short format. Could it be that our attempt to make the sport safer actually put our horses in harm’s way? Can we combine the two formats? Is there such a thing as a medium format? Two vet checks, a dressage round, a slightly more technical course, but lower fences? Whatever the solution, I do know that we need to take emotion out of the equation and take a hard look at what we’re asking these horses to do.
The Tokyo Olympics was a culmination of years of criticism of equestrian sports coming to a head in a very public way. The modern pentathlon was a fun “cherry on top” that served to highlight everything the public thinks is wrong with horse sports. It’s time for serious change across all of our equestrian sports and a tough evaluation of who we’re out there riding for. Even at the Olympic level, when the weight of our country is on our backs, the horse has to come first. I think most equestrians would agree with that. Now, it’s up to us to make the changes and develop the right PR campaign to earn the public’s trust back. Because that trust? It’s gone. Without that trust, I’m not sure we’ll be back at the Olympics.