Early in the New Year, Horse Sport publisher Jennifer Anstey approached me with a request that I felt both honoured, yet at the same time, given its scope, somewhat ill-equipped to comply with. Her request, on the surface, seemed quite simple: to write a State of the Union-type of article about the Canadian horse industry for the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue. She explained, “Between your long history with Spruce Meadows and your active role on the international stage, you have the perfect perspective to understand the challenges that face us and can outline what our priorities should be.”
As with most things in life, the more experience one has in any one area, the less one thinks she or he may know. The world of the horse in no exception. Indeed, it shines as a sterling example and for me provides new insights and perspective daily. In my nearly half a century in the horse industry I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to it through a variety of lenses and perspectives, ages and stages.
A Cross-Canada Phenomenon
The Canadian horse industry is a coast-to-coast industry. It is incredibly diverse and spans the generations as well as impressive social, cultural, and economic spectrums. Its players and stakeholders are as diverse as the breeds, disciplines, opportunities and challenges that the industry faces and represents.
All industries must evolve. It is an imperative for survival. Ours is no different, and evolve it has. One just needs to look at equipment, horse types and uses, competitive specs, nutrition and sports science, course design, the calendar, fashion, sponsorship dollars, media, and demographics related to the horse industry to get a real sense of this. Regardless of what part of the horse industry one is speaking about, things evolve.
At a recent Alberta Horse Industry conference, I commented to the delegates that over the 300-km Queen Elizabeth II Highway corridor that I had driven between Spruce Meadows and the conference centre in Sherwood Park, I had observed a remarkable representation of virtually the entire industry in our country. Racing, show jumping, dressage, eventing, veterinary medicine, agriculture and farrier schools, retail, breeding operations, outfitters, cutting, reining and roping stables, bucking stock, feed and equipment manufacturing, and transportation, to name a few, each representing an important cog in the overall industry wheel, had an operating presence along this Alberta highway. Yet what percentage of the tens of thousands that travel that corridor daily would be aware of or have an appreciation for this and what it represents? I suggest a small percentage. I suggest further that this would be the case across the entire country.
I also suspect each segment of the Canadian horse industry faces many of the same realities that I see in the show jumping space. With the increased urbanization of our country has come an increasing delink with the land, the world of agriculture and our days of regular reliance and contact with horses. This is not entirely new, but has certainly been expedited and become more noticeable over the last 25 years. The result of this is not the challenge of having people in 2018 like or appreciate horses. I think that is somewhat inherent with most. The challenge is awareness: introducing an urban culture, now generations removed from rural life, to the realities of the modern-day world of the horse, its relevance, and the evolution and magnitude of the industry.
This responsibility certainly falls to the many industry stakeholders, starting with the national federation. Proper “tone at the top” and truly understanding the market is imperative for cultivating a culture in our country that continues to appreciate, connect, and support the horse industry. This does not necessarily mean that horse ownership is a requirement. What is required is a focus to foster lifelong interest, awareness, and support of the industry.
Last year, for example, over four million Canadians experienced Spruce Meadows either on television, online, or by attending our FEI tournaments. Clearly, only a small percentage of these fans are horse owners. They all, nonetheless, support the industry. While that is a number we could only dream of 25 years ago, beneath the surface it reveals some details we need to be aware of and better understand.
The television fan is quite different from the social media fan. This is true of age, attention span, and content preferences. Similarly, many of our on-site fans never see a horse jump live. They attend Equi-Fair, visit the stables and enjoy the parades, for example. Theirs is a different Spruce Meadows experience, but still vital for our industry. It is equally vital that we understand them and evolve with the horse industry experience they are looking for – whatever that may be.
Youth is the Future
Show jumping is a highly-sophisticated Olympic sport that in many ways, despite some perceptions and realities of being overly-traditional, has been well ahead of its time. It is a truly global sport. It provides equal playing field access and gender equality in virtually every segment of the sport. It has enjoyed remarkable growth over the last decade in many markets, with many innovative concepts, at many levels around the world. I am certain that some of that growth has come with certain costs, questions of priority, and with some challenges that we will continue to debate and face going forward. This is a broad observation not strictly confined to the Canadian market. Our market, however, has not been exempt from such things. I believe many of us in the industry watch with great interest and contemplate the future, threats, and benefits of the likes of the Global Champions Tour, Global Champions League, World Cup, Indoor Masters, and Nations Cups.
Ours can be a lifelong sport with a potentially vast number of pathways. Some of these pathways are overly onerous or insular and, as a result, I believe our sport/industry will face difficulties supporting much of the growth it has recognized.
The necessity for strong governance, leadership, and regulatory structure is clear. Shortcomings in any of these areas can often be masked by short-term success. Over the long term, however, weaknesses will surface and catching up will be problematic.
The fact that the decade-plus journey it takes to become a Level IV FEI course designer (of which Canada has three) is a longer process than that to specialize as a neurosurgeon is both a mystery and a clear indicator of a bigger issue I see going forward – a drastic shortage of quality officials to support the growth of our sport. As much as this industry requires talented young horses and riders with a clear potential pathway to the Canadian Team based on performance, so to do we require young officials: course designers, stewards, judges. This industry needs to attract young, capable candidates that can earn a reasonable living and enjoy good careers as respected, accountable professional officials in our sport. To me, this is essential to protect the credibility of our sport and industry and should be a priority.
Benchmarks of Success
Like all global sports, the measure of where a nation stands on the global stage is benchmarked against results at majors, championships, and the Olympic Games. In my career, beginning with the Montreal Olympics, Canada has delivered medals on more than 30 occasions at such events including the Olympics, World Equestrian Games, World Cup Finals, Pan American Games, Aachen, Geneva and Spruce Meadows. Success on the field of play in high performance sport is the objective destination at the top of a very competitive and integrated sport pyramid. The industry unquestionably benefits from competitive success both directly and indirectly. Success spawns increased awareness, growth, and new investment. That investment can and must take many forms and should be driven by more than high performance results, regardless of how inspiring they might be.
It is important to invest in equine education, awareness, and exposure. This will result in a new generation of “horsemen” that, while certainly differing from those of the past, will provide an important ingredient for a viable industry going forward. This has certainly been the case in other industries and professions. Ours is not exempt. Strategic and sound investment in technology, communications, equipment, sport science, bio-security, and marketing all would positively contribute to a healthy evolution and long-term viability.
The horse industry, no matter where one falls within it, should be approached as a long-term play. Like all industries, it requires leadership, planning, management, performance, understanding the market and the competition while delivering sustainable results.
Ian Allison has been with Spruce Meadows for 43 years and has been a long-term member of the Spruce Meadows Organizing Committee. He has served on the FEI Nations Cup and Jumping Committees, and is currently a director of the International Equestrian Organisers’ Alliance, the President of the Alliance of Jumping Organizers, a member of the Steering Committee of the Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping, commentator for Spruce Meadows Television and CBC Sports, and a member of International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.