Campaigning for eventing

When you’re stuck on the couch, husband at work, and child staying with grandparents, you have a lot of time to contemplate. The bright side to my ‘stall rest’ is that the Olympics are underway, and I got to watch nearly every minute of eventing. Heck, I’m almost happy about being stuck on the couch for that reason! (Almost) NBC didn’t show nearly enough primetime coverage; they showed a few highlights here and there, mostly because Zara Phillips, the Queen’s granddaughter, was competing for Great Britain. What was noticeable from the coverage I saw, however, (thanks to NBC’s Live Extra app for my iPad), were the immensurable crowds packed around the cross-country course. It was later published that over 50,000 tickets were sold for this phase. And yet, I saw less than full stands for heavily televised events like archery, swimming, and even gymnastics. Even with Stephen Colbert’s media coverage of the official “Summer Sport,” dressage, our equestrian events go unacknowledged by the mainstream. Many people don’t even know a sport like eventing exists! When asked what I ride, people often give me a blank stare when I mention eventing. They expect to hear that I’m a rodeo queen–turning and burning around three cans set in the arena. And, they still don’t get it when I explain the three phases. It’s only when I tell them about cross-country, galloping over solid obstacles, that they begin to show a little interest. You do that?! Granted, the dressage phase of eventing, even at the upper FEI levels, is somewhat lackluster. Even as a rider, I find it difficult to watch 70 plus riders ride the same test on horses built for galloping. Confidentially, between you and me, I don’t even buy dressage tickets at Rolex anymore. No, what gets our blood pumping is the thought of thrills and spills. None of us, of course, wants to see anyone get hurt. And, as equestrians, we hold our breath, literally on pins and needles when we see a crash on course. We say a silent prayer that horse and rider get up and walk away. But, those moments when it looks impossible that horse and rider will make it through the combination…those are the ones that keep us glued to the television; that keep us buying cross-country tickets. And for those of us who ride eventing, it is the element of danger that makes cross-country just so darn exhilarating. When you finish the course, there’s a sense of profound amazement. The partnership between us and our horses–for them to trust us so much they drop off a perfectly good bank into water or leap over solid walls–it’s truly miraculous. And dressage? The concept is so frustratingly simple–build upon rhythm, relaxtion, and connection towards the ultimate goal of collection. But, it’s like golf: the harder you work at it, the more you find out just how deceptively difficult it is. Unfortunately, until you ride, you just don’t get it, and dressage at its best just looks like we’re warming up for something exciting. The first time my husband watched me compete, after the dressage test, he told me, “That’s it? I heard the judge tell you good job, and I didn’t even know you were competing. I thought you were still warming up!”
Thankfully, there are three phases to eventing, and show jumping is almost as exciting as cross-country. Equestrians watch this phase with bated breath; we sit on the edge of our seats in two-point, riding all the way to the fence, and release over the jump. Watch a rider watching show jumping–you’ll see him or her tense up, push her arms forward, and sit back for every fence, even if it’s barely noticeable. Even non-equestrians find show jumping entertaining. The high-flying horses leaping over rails are thrilling to watch. If they jump clear, it’s awesome. If they have rails down, it’s still exciting, and there’s still that slight element of danger.
I doubt we’ll ever get the coverage we all think our sport deserves. Most people still think of it as elitest–even though most eventers work their butts off just to afford one or two shows a year. And, like me, many of us purchased our own horses, bringing them up the levels by virtue of our own hard work through as many lessons as we can afford. Eventing is expensive, but it’s economically feasible if you want it bad enough and are willing to work. If we want to promote our sport, we need to become our own marketing campaign: share videos and pictures with everyone you meet. Yesterday, Ryan and I tried a new Jamaican restaurant in town. I mentioned to the owner how happy I was for them that Jamaica had an eventer this year. She replied with, “yes, I think we usually have a pretty good track and field team.” Uhm, yeah, you have Usain Bolt–the fastest man in the world… “No, actually, I am referring to horseback riding.” She looked terribly confused, so I explained eventing in non-equestrian terms for her. She looked absolutely shocked that Jamaica would have an equestrian in the Olympics and vowed to look it up. My husband was embarrassed that I would talk horses with a total stranger, but if we want our sport recognized, this is what we must do!

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