How You Can Help Equestrian Sports Grow and Thrive

FEI gold medalist Ayden Uhlir shares her thoughts on seven ways we can all pitch in to promote equestrian sports.
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If you’re reading this article, I bet I already know a few things about you. First, you have the horse "bug." It’s terminal, so you have had to learn to live with the disease. This means you have changed your lifestyle to cut financial corners on "non-essentials" like food and clothing to afford the "essential" massage therapy for the love of your life—your equine partner. Second, you are a giving person. You want to help others, both human and animal. You have a big heart and find ways to help. You work to spread the love of horses and to help others experience the awe-inspiring feat that is dressage.

Ayden Uhlir (Photo by Susan J. Stickle) 

Ayden Uhlir (Photo by Susan J. Stickle) 

Dressage Today has been running a series on industry leaders, like Betsy Juliano and Kim Van Kampen, which focuses on how they are helping to grow our sport. Perhaps, as a giving person, when you have been reading along you have asked yourself, How can I help? 

Most likely, you have already contributed in a dozen different ways without even realizing it. Perhaps you volunteer at local shows or you bake cupcakes for the youth fundraiser for the North American Youth Championships, or you donate used tack to a Pony Club or you sponsor a rider in some capacity. Maybe you have hosted a regional clinic or summer camp for your breed registry or GMO or you serve on a committee. Perhaps you open your barn to the public the week before the holidays for hay rides or sleigh rides and have costume parades for your boarders. There are hundreds of little things that we all do regularly to grow our business, our industry and our dressage fan base.

But what if you want to do more? What if you fear that equine sports will be taken out of the Olympics or you want to see equestrian sports become more mainstream? What if you dream of dressage being on ESPN every weekend? Or what if you simply love the sport and want to see it grow? Then what?

I have felt this way my whole life. As a youth rider, I tried to make dressage more like soccer. I wanted a "team" atmosphere and sleep overs! As an adult, that desire continues and motivates me to host Dressage4Kids and KWPN youth events at my barn. I write articles and blogs to try to inspire others. For example, I contacted the FEI before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and suggested a concept for a series of videos to change some of the perceptions non-equestrian athletes have of us riders. Using my contacts through my contract with Nike, we developed a "sport-swap" series where Olympic athletes from other events try aspects of our sports and I try theirs.

The Olympic Question

As you may have heard, there has been some discussion about the fate of equestrian sports in future Olympic Games beyond Tokyo. Some online petitions are actively seeking the removal of equestrian sports from the Games, claiming that equestrian sports are elitist, largely non-minority dominated sports with costs that outweigh both the number of participants and viewers. Other websites rant about "the horse doing all the work" and that the Olympics are for people, not animals. If we want to keep our sports in the Olympics, we need to do something to address these voices. If we are silent, only the voices rising against us will be heard!

1. The power of the pen—or keyboard—can never be underestimated. We need to write to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and implore them to keep our sport in the Olympics for years to come. You can email as well, but a hand-written letter shows more commitment. Address your letter to the president, Thomas Bach. In your letter, you can speak about your love of dressage and how it has changed your life and the skills you have developed through training and competing. Tell them about how learning to connect to our non-human partners helps build empathy for others. Explain how dressage truly takes a village and helps people to build community connections. Point out the number of people actively employed worldwide in equestrian sports. Speak about your personal experiences and how equestrian sports benefited you or your community. Because Mr. Bach was an Olympic fencer, you might talk about how dressage originated from cavalry training and maybe tell him to watch the FEI video with Olympic saber fencer Daryl Homer. The more letters we can get to him, the more we show we care. 

You can also write at the same address to Marisol Casado, the head of the Gender Equality Review Project. Several of the themes of the committee involve the portrayal of women in sports and equity in participation. Write to her and remind the IOC that the only truly gender-equal sports are equestrian sports. In equestrian sports, women compete and hold their own directly against men. Spread the word about how this direct competition has helped change your perceptions and increase mainstream diversity among the equine industry. 

We need to ensure the long-term survival of equine sports. Imagine if we are taken out of the Olympics. That means we lose a lot of economic incentive for top breeders, sponsors and owners to participate. We lose the dreams of young kids, like myself, who want to compete in the Olympics. We will lose the people who get into the sport because of those dreams. Let’s help keep those dreams alive. Get writing!

2. Attend, attend, attend—or watch—every event you can! We need to get spectators out to events to bring higher viewership levels. For example, if you can, go to Dressage in Central Park or other large-scale competitions. We need to show mainstream media outlets that we can bring the numbers. This brings more future media contracts and then sponsors follow—not just sponsors for top riders and event venues, but for everyone. There is a trickle-down economic effect here. 

Host a live stream-watching party at your barn. Take your non-equestrian friends to a local schooling show. Take along a picnic and make an event out of it. Post notices of local events and streaming events on all your social media. Contact your local media outlets and let them know about local shows. Your local paper is always looking for stories. When I opened Flyaway Stables, a facility in Battle Creek, Michigan, I contacted the local paper and ended up on the front page of the Battle Creek Enquirer. The story was even picked up by multiple regional USA Today outlets. Imagine the free advertising I got for my facility and our sport from that one contact.

3. Spread the word about horses and equestrian sports. Take videos and post them on Instagram and Snapchat. Like your friends' equine posts. Friend USDF, USEF and FEI on social media. The more popular our sport is online, the more support we gain for the sport. Watch those FEI YouTube videos. Post those videos. The more popular they become, the more advertisers we draw in, which brings more attention to equine activities. You’ll laugh, but my mom gives extra credit to her university students to watch and post FEI videos. Find a way to get the people in your life to do it, too! If you think there’s a story that needs to be told, write it up. Send it in. Who knows, it may get published just like this story did!

4. Have fun together. Go to the USDF and USEF conventions. Speak up in committee meetings and let the committees know what you need and where we are on the grassroots level. Form an owner’s consortium with a few friends. Get together and spend time searching bloodlines and foals. There is nothing more fun to someone inflicted with the horse bug than horse shopping! If you can, invest in a baby and give an up-and-coming rider a horse to grow on. Who knows, your consortium could help to create the next Salvino! If you buy a young horse, it won’t be nearly as expensive, but you could help grow the future breadth and depth of top riders and horses and have fun with your friends along the way. Imagine your consortium horse competing at Aachen or the Global Dressage Festival! How fun would that be? At the very least, you would get to have fun in some great vacation cities with your friends!

5. Support equestrian organizations. If you want to help but don’t know where to begin and want some guidance, there are many great equine organizations to contact.

Lynn Coakley is president of the EQUUS Foundation, whose mission is to protect America's horses and strengthen the bond between horses and people. She said their association has many programs that work to educate, stimulate advocacy and volunteerism, raise the standards for horse care and use, and most importantly, empower deserving equine charities across the United States by providing them with financial support, recognition, guidance, and resources. 

Jenny Johnson of The Dressage Foundation (TDF) told me about dozens of amazing ways TDF is working to grow our sport. For example, they have provided grants to Dressage4Kids programs, as well as grants to GMOs and other nonprofit dressage clubs to host clinics and camps that are offered to youth. These clubs have reached out to 4-H and Pony Clubs in their areas, as well as riders from other disciplines. "The events are fun, have many activities and promote camaraderie in our sport. We encourage GMOs/clubs in every state to consider a youth event! Continuing to promote dressage to youth riders is a key factor in the future success of dressage in our country.”

Jenny acknowledged that dressage is an expensive sport. In all honesty, what we can’t do alone we can do together. “The simple fact is that the more support we at TDF have, the more we can all do together to improve our sport! Donations come to TDF in all sizes, from small to large, and in many forms. Common ways to give include cash or stock gifts, becoming a Sustaining Partner with a monthly donation, organizing a fundraiser (like a raffle or silent auction), or from donors who leave a gift to TDF in their wills." 

6. I would implore everyone to get to know your community and your sport. Let’s build connections. Use technology to find out as much as you can about what is available in your area. Do you have a Pony Club or a 4-H program? Call and find out if you can help. Contact your local school and set up an after-school riding club at your barn. Email a top rider in your area and ask them to come and speak at your local middle school or Boy Scout group. Asking never hurts and you never know—they might say yes. I headed to Indiana in November to speak at a Michiana Dressage Club event about how to overcome obstacles and focus on achieving your goals. I emailed them to suggest it! No charge, I just want to help, and so many others do as well. You can help on both sides of that coin and if you can’t travel, with today’s technology you can Skype! It helps to give valuable skills to future generations and to show our industry as the caring and helping community we equine people are.

7. Be positive. Finally, I would say that the biggest motivator for action for anyone is happiness and positivity. Live each day as if you always feel the way you do in the saddle. Show everyone outside the industry that the horse bug is the best disease because they give us health, love, a positive attitude and hearts almost as big as our equine partner’s. What can more inspire growth in our industry, what more can inspire people to learn more about participating and supporting equine sports than an understanding that horses are not just a sport but an entire framework of life?

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