Every time I buy Horse and Hound, I promise myself it’ll be the final time. Because recently, all it has done is make me angry. Two weeks ago, I was suckered in by an interview with Jock Paget being promoted on the cover (this was prior to the results of testing on Clifton Promise’s B sample), but before I could turn to the relevant page, another cover story stopped me in my tracks.
I pay little attention to the Showing world usually, but the piece in question caught my eye. The article describes the reaction among the Showing community to the decision by Sports Horse Breeding of Great Britain (SHB(GB)) that, from 2014, all judges and competitors would have to wear a hat or helmet with harness which meets current safety standards. For those who aren’t in the loop, equestrianism’s international governing body, the FEI, finally ruled last year that safety headgear would be compulsory as of January 1 2013. The FEI doesn’t govern Showing, and it was a surprise when even they, who are notoriously slow to act or react, or change traditions, made this ruling. But if the FEI move slowly, the Showing world does not move at all, and their reaction is a classic example of this.
Two highly successful competitors are quoted in the article, and their words angered me. Lucy Killingbeck chose to compare riders being asked to ditch their traditional headgear (such as bowler and top hats) for helmets to telling supermodels that they would have to walk the runway in flats rather than heels – they “wouldn’t look as elegant”, she says. I think Killingbeck has missed the point somewhat: the risk of supermodels sustaining devastating injuries as they parade for the crowds is far lower than it is for anyone getting on a horse. The second quote which I found offensive is courtesy of Simon Charlesworth, who states that riders, “would look like a bunch of idiots” if they were to wear helmets with straps as part of their show ring attire. I put these questions to Charlesworth and Killingbeck: how much of an “idiot” would you look if you injured your skull? How “elegant” are spinal injuries?
The reality is that all sports are having to adapt to survive in the modern world – equestrian and otherwise. This means recruiting youngsters, broadening sports at grassroots levels and simply getting people started. Particularly when it comes to children, many participants are concerned with the safety of an activity, as well as the cost of undertaking it. A sport which refuses to move with the times and update safety protocols will not gain the uptake of other sports.
One suggestion in Horse and Hound’s article is that headgear should be the competitor’s choice, and riders should be free to wear helmets with straps if they wish. In my mind, this won’t work: the sport is judged upon looks, and I think that there would be a herd mentality that riders may be marked down for bucking the trend and wearing helmets, therefore discouraging any riders from making a change.
At the end of the article, SHB(GB) chairman Liz Morley is quoted as saying that the committee were trying to, “take the lead on safety”, having realised that Showing has fallen behind the other equestrian sports in this regard. I would urge SHB(GB) to follow their instinct and ignore the protestations of their old-fashioned members. I applaud this governing body for being forward-thinking where some membership associations – equestrian-related and not – would stick with tradition for tradition’s sake. I’m all for the continuation of a good thing, of sports such as Showing being offered a place in our world far into the future. But in order to do so, they must realise that changes need to be made. Rather than waiting for the bad press which would come from a series of devastating experiences – have other sports learned nothing from what Eventing has taught us? – be bold, make the first positive move and get yourself some positive coverage.