Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 1)

Credit : Wikimedia Commons, Eric Lamaze Facebook, Scoopdyga, FEI, Tokyo 2020

Friday 06 January - 16h38 | Ian Clayton and Sébastien Roullier

Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 1)

As with any environment where powerful interests, money and national ambitions collide, the world of high-level equestrian sports is shaped by politics. Over the past year, the deep fault lines in that world have been exposed in the high-profile and often bitter debate between top riders and senior officials over changes to the competition format for equestrian sports at the Olympic Games. GrandPrix-Replay wanted to take a look at the forces shaping the world of equestrian sports today — forces which have their roots in both history and in different visions for the future. Today, Part 1 provides an overview of the ‘geopolitics’ of equestrian sports in a question-and-answer format. Subsequently, in following days, the specific issue of the Olympic Games format debate and other questions will be addressed.

European Influence

European Influence - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 1)

Tiffany Foster and Brighton
Credit : Scoopdyga

Regarding elite level equestrian sports, it is useful to start with some geographical context. Where are these sports and the businesses connected to them present in the world today?
The biggest part of the market is Europe, because Europe has breeding, the biggest breeders. And for sport horses, maybe 80 or 90 percent of the horses come from Europe: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, a bit of Spain, a bit of Italy. The big dealers are all in Europe. There are some in the United States, but those American dealers have customers in the U.S. and they come to Europe to buy. They buy in Europe and they breed. 

But the big dealers are all in Europe, for every discipline — show jumping, eventing, dressage. And if you look at the top 50 riders in the world, you will see that even if there are Americans, Canadians, Venezuelans, etc., most of them are Europeans. And even the non-European ones often live in Europe, except the North Americans who might live there part-time. All the biggest riders from Asia or the Arabic world live in Europe part-time, depending on the season. 

So Europe remains the center of the equestrian world, and North and South America, the Middle East and Asia are getting bigger and bigger. But they still don’t really have breeding. As for Australia and New Zealand, there is a small amount of breeding; those two countries are not important for show jumping but very important for eventing. There is also a bit of eventing in South Africa, a bit of show jumping in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Syria, but now with the situation in some of those places it is obviously getting smaller again. 

Three Big Ambitions

Three Big Ambitions - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 1)

So the power center of the equestrian sports world is in Europe, and breeders and dealers are a big factor in that. But there are other countries and regions that increasingly want to be part of this sport and everything connected to it?  
Yes. The different countries around the world want at least two things, maybe three. First is having good results with their national teams. So they buy good horses or very good horses — sometimes very expensive horses. They send their riders to the best stables in Europe to develop. Secondly, they want, depending on the country, to develop equestrian sports more broadly in their country. This is absolutely true in China, for example. They are trying to build breeding and equestrian centers, stud farms, because the middle class is growing and more people are getting interested in these sports. 

And is this interest in a place like China in a certain lifestyle and products helping to drive the growth of equestrian sports?
Yes, they come to buy the products first, then they buy the ’savoir faire’ or create partnerships — trainers, breeders. It is like that in South America as well, in a country like Argentina or Mexico. This is not only for the national team, but for the sport in general. 

Do the people running the equestrian sports world, notably the FEI (International Federation for Equestrian Sports), take an interest in that development? 
Definitely, they are supporting the development of different national teams and at the same time aiming to grow the practice of equestrian sports in general all over the world. If you look at the FEI Solidarity program, there are a lot of logical projects, because it is not like another sport; there is a lot of savoir faire required.

And the third thing to mention in terms of priorities for different countries is the organization of events. These countries want to organize events because it is important for them and their international image. For example, it is important for Qatar to diversify its presence on the international scene, as they are doing with sports like soccer and basketball (hosting the 2022 World Cup of Soccer, owning the soccer team in Paris, France). It’s important for China, it’s important for Hong Kong, it’s important for Latin America. Right now, Latin America doesn’t organize a lot of major equestrian shows, except the Mexico 5* which is big.

Look ahead: The Olympic Games Competition Format Debate

Look ahead: The Olympic Games Competition Format Debate - Politics in the Equestrian Sports World (Part 1)

Steve Guerdat
Credit : Scoopdyga

But these three things are important in the world of equestrian sports — the performance of national teams, the more widespread practice of equestrian sports at all levels of the society,  and the organization of significant events. And these three things work in Europe. Not everything in elite equestrian sports comes from Europe, but everything generally still passes through Europe or exists thanks to Europe, at least in the beginning. 

And it seems like there is a a lot of discussion today about tradition versus evolution in equestrian sports, with initiatives such as the Jumping Clash designed for television. Also, as with the United Nations, there is strong disagreement about how much power different countries should have within the FEI (emerging countries versus established equestrian nations). 
Right, and what is interesting is that while a lot of the money and the real heart of equestrian sports is in Europe, even with thirty countries Europe only has thirty voices in the General Assembly of the FEI. So this means that even if you are united as a strong force, those countries will still have to convince the 100 other countries affiliated to the FEI. 

[There are 134 National Federations affiliated to the FEI, and these national federations are the governing bodies alongside the FEI for horse sport and welfare in each country — for example, Equestrian Canada and the United States Equestrian Federation]. 

So to sum up, in terms of the global state of elite- and lower-level equestrian sports, there is a traditional European power base and much of the rest of world wanting a bigger place. That brings us to the controversy over changes to the Olympic Games competition format, changes which the FEI has now adopted and submitted to the International Olympic Committee. These reforms revolve around questions of diversity in, and accessibility to, equestrian sports. In the next part of this series, this Olympics debate will be clarified, as well as other questions such as the power of television and the possible future evolution of equestrian sports.

Further reading...