Why was the Winter Equestrian Festival listing its FEI show jumping prize money in Swiss francs instead of U.S. dollars, when it’s located under the palms in Florida rather than in the mountains surrounding Geneva?

That’s an aspect of a complicated and sensitive issue involving discrepancies between North America and Europe in how prize money and entry fees are handled. The arrangement can be difficult, so the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the FEI are looking at the best way to even out any disparity and make the process easier for North American organizers.

“We are actively working with the FEI on this,” said Lizzy Chesson, the USEF’s managing director for show jumping, who hopes a solution can be reached for the 2024 show season.

For more than 10 years North American organizers have been able to charge a percentage of the prize money as entry fees, though the percentage has changed somewhat over the years. In the U.S., most of the horse shows depend on entry fees as their primary source of funding. European shows have a different economic model, with riders paying a set amount to enter classes, rather than being charged a percentage of the prize money.

At an FEI 2* in North American, for instance, riders pay four per cent of the overall prize money, which in 2023 is a minimum of $64,400 and a maximum of $194,199 in the U.S.; $63,200-189,299 CDN in Canada. This amounts to a range of entry fees from $2,500 to $7,768. This arrangement is why a lot of organizers are even able to hold FEI competitions.

By comparison, the entry fee for an FEI 2* competition in Europe is capped at 440 Euros per horse. Their shows are able to supplement staff with a lot of volunteers, who sign up because so many of the fixtures are special one-offs in a region (think Aachen or Dublin), rather than series or circuits. Paycards (more on this here) and high-priced VIP tables help pick up the slack. In Europe, the emphasis is on the “show,” concept to attract a paying audience (which provides more income for the fixture).

The question is, what’s the best way to handle a situation that maximizes the riders’ prize money but does not disadvantage the ability of the shows to turn a profit? If it turns out that North American horse shows are no longer required to offer so much more prize money, will they also be required to reduce the cost of the entry fee?

“There are plusses and minuses to both ways of doing it,” said Stephanie Lightner, who runs the Bleinheim shows in California, the Hampton Classic in New York, the National in Kentucky and Upperville in Virginia.

When asked about the European Equestrian Federation’s views on the topic, its vice president, George Dimaris, replied, “In general, the disparity was not known to us, and we cannot (based on FEI rules) be clear how and why this is occurring. Without having a complete understanding of this we cannot provide a direct comment. However, we do believe there are different ways to approach the organising of 5* competitions, including those in the USA, and the prize money is not the only issue to be considered.”

The FEI did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Stone, president of WEF presenter Wellington International, explained in a statement to Horse Sport that in recent years, “the amount of prize money in, say, a high-ranking point Grand Prix has increased for U.S. events at a higher rate than Swiss or European events.”

In 2023, the FEI requires a European 5* to offer 500,000 Swiss francs—the same as in 2022, 2021 and 2020. Meanwhile, even though the U.S. dollar is currently worth about 8% less than the Swiss Franc, a 5* US show is required to have $645,900 in prize money which is about 20% higher than a European show when the exchange rate is factored in. Moreover, this is up from $617,000 in 2022, and $609,700 in 2021 and 2020.

A Canadian dollar, however, is currently worth about 46% less than the Swiss Franc, but here a 5* show is required to offer $629,000 in prize money in 2023 which is about 14% less than what a European show pays for the same event rating with the exchange rate factored in. The cost was $609,000 in 2022, and $604,800 CDN in 2020 and 2021.

“When this was questioned with the FEI,” Michael continued, “they suggested that we put the prize money in Swiss francs. At the time, the exchange rate was approximately 1 to 1, so we kept last year’s prize money rates and just used Swiss francs.”

While it seemed like a simple solution, it turned out that wasn’t necessarily the case this year.
“Having approved the schedules, the FEI said we had to use the exchange rate at the time of approval,” Michael said. “So we have complied with that, but as exchange rates vary, it can become quite difficult for anyone to know the exact rate of each week.”

As a result, it was decided that WEF would go back to using U.S. dollars later in its 2023 circuit.

After 2008, with financial problems worldwide, prize money went all over the place with the exchange rate. In response, the FEI board approved a system keyed to inflation and the Consumer Price Index in 2012, but over the years, it, too, has gotten out of whack. The FEI has realized it, which has led to trying to find a solution along with USEF.

Stephanie noted that in Europe, a regular 5* show can’t charge entry fees. In the US, a 5* CSI can charge entry fees, but only at 1 per cent of the prize money.

“That’s a huge incentive (for riders) to be high up on the ranking list and be allowed to go to those horse shows. It’s like this perpetual circle, where these top riders get to participate and win all the money in the ranking classes and stay at the top level. It’s very hard to stay in that cycle of the automatic invitations. They’ve got such a lock on it over there.”

People who want to compete at the top level therefore spend a fair amount of time in Europe, she noted. To compete and attract some top riders, boutique shows such as Upperville need to have FEI classes if organizers want to feature top level competition for spectators.

“You have to offer FEI and a ranking class for them,” Stephanie said.

Olympic multi-medalist McLain Ward believes that “to create the best sport and have the best circumstances, you have to do what’s right for a certain region. What might work very well in Europe might not work as well in the U.S.”

He contended that the North American World Cup League was transformed over the 2020/2021 season to “mimic” the European approach so there is a single North American League instead of separate East and West Coast components. Part of that change also included a reduction in the number of qualifiers and a stipulation that all events must be at a 4* or higher level.

“It’s really taken a lot away from our World Cup League and the quality of the jumping for World Cups,” noted McLain.

However, he said, “I think that having a universal currency for prize money in relation to ranking points is not a bad thing. But you can’t have it both ways. A show organizer in North America cannot take advantage of a lower prize money number they’re able to give, but then not follow the entry fee guidelines that are in Europe. In Europe, shows are limited to what they can charge in entry fees. In North America, it’s a much larger number. I think in North America, the system works better.

“We don’t have a pay card problem or under-the-table deals on how to get into horse shows. Everyone pays the same.”

McLain advised, however, that if organizers are going to take advantage of a lower prize money situation, “I don’t think the riders are going to accept to have to pay the maximum entry fee. If they want to offer money in Swiss francs, but they stay at the same level of prize money. I think that would probably work the best and continue with the entry system that we have. The lower entry (fee) system you see in Europe comes with a whole set of problems as well. They look to cover that revenue source in other ways, which I don’t think always creates the fairest entry system,” he said, citing the paycards and VIP tables.

“It’s a system that is not clear and transparent. Our system, while it is more expensive, is clear and transparent and it allows us to jump for larger prize money at lower star levels. When I look at the sport as a whole, I think it’s great that riders at the 2 and 3-* level are getting the opportunity to jump for substantial prize money and everybody pays the same. It’s not that one person pays more and gets into this show, and the other one can’t afford to pay that and doesn’t get into this show.

“These are all kind of hard facts and while I know organizers, when they look at getting to this universal currency, see an opportunity to offer less prize money than they currently are, they have to understand the other side of that equation comes with not only pushback from exhibitors or athletes who are saying, `Why are we paying more than the rest of the world if we have to stay with the same currency and prize money system as the rest of the world?’

He warned about “The side effects–what other problems are going on underneath that are hard to solve once you go down that path.”

Derek Braun, the founder of the USA’s nationwide Split Rock show series, called a financial arrangement that has European shows required to offer less in prize money than North American shows of the same rating, “a huge point of contention for me, and I think everybody else,” maintaining, “the sport is very European-centric.” He said, “the international rider community” contends the level of competition is “much higher in Europe.”

With the idea that there could be a change in the financial standard, “it looks like finally they are coming around to seeing our point and making it fair,” commented Derek, whose organization will host the 2026 FEI World Cup Finals in Fort Worth, Texas.

If an agreement can be reached, Derek believes, “You might see a lot of (U.S.) quality events and venues able to offer more prize money and higher star ratings because of the prize money-level thresholds being brought down.”

His vision involves “shows getting larger sponsorships, better promotion packages. Higher star-level events put more production together for their events. It draws maybe a different type of clientele, a different type of sponsor. The entire level of the show gets raised, not just the prize money. It’s basically a pretty simple premise. It needed to change for a while and hopefully it is now.”

Navigating a way forward for the benefit of the wider sport will be very challenging and there are no simple solutions.

“I think it’s solvable,” said McLain.

“I think people just have to understand the whole challenge. I think the organizers in North America have to understand if they take advantage of a lower amount of prize money…the exhibitors will jump towards asking the FEI to lower the entry fees.”

Listening to a variety of opinions, it’s evident that the process involves more than simply lowering North America’s FEI prize money requirements. The system must be fair across all currencies and athletes. Figuring out what that means is the complicated part.

In seeking the answers, the USEF is pulling together a group of experienced jumping equestrians, athletes, organizers and leaders in the sport. They are aware of the need to carefully think through any proposals as they look to a long-term strategy.