When I promoted last week’s blog post on health and safety via #EquineHour on Sunday, I was quickly asked whether it was written as a reaction to British Eventing’s last-minute ruling on helmet cameras. The answer was no, it wasn’t, but this post is.
I’d heard mutterings a week or two ago that Michael Schumacher’s injury was being partially attributed to use of a helmet-mounted camera. It had been something which ran through my mind when details of his accident originally came out earlier in the year, but reporting has been unreliable to say the least. Whenever I hear of a friend who bemoans ruining their beloved GoPro on the ski slopes, I usually have to bite my tongue in order to point out that it’s a good job they didn’t ruin their skull or neck. Cameras can be replaced, you see, whereas vital body parts often can’t.
BE clearly took the same stance – interestingly, it was several days before British Showjumping followed – and, slightly controversially, decided during the days prior to one of the last major competitions of the 2014 season that helmet cameras would not be permitted. In order to compete at a BE event, riders must wear approved helmets (riders must present their helmets for inspection, and have them tagged as suitable for use) during the jumping phases. It’s still optional to wear top hats during the dressage phase in the upper echelons of BE competitions, but I don’t think that any rider would wish to compete without a helmet in the jumping phases anyway.
The fact that helmets must be worn isn’t what some riders took exception to. Eventing, more so than the other Olympic equestrian sports, is a poor earner. It’s not just a case of there being a huge gap between the amount earned by the handful of elite riders and those competing for fun at a grassroots level – whilst, for example, there’s a big problem in sports such as tennis, where the top four to ten players earn an absolute fortune and everyone beneath them struggles (purely because it’s incredibly difficult to dominate equestrian events, thanks to the participation of our furry friends) – it’s also the fact that eventing rarely generates media coverage (so doesn’t earn in advertising and marketing revenue) and is limited to being a “summer” sport: the prize money just doesn’t exist, and even the elites with their sponsorship deals and supportive horse owners can end up losing out thanks to the exorbitant fees involved in a sport which doesn’t reimburse competitors with decent prize money.
Over the last few years in particular, some enterprising riders have chosen to get creative in order to supplement their incomes. There have been some less-surprising developments, such as an increase in sponsored kit (such as the seat of one’s jodhpurs or breeches), and some very canny uses of technology, thanks to the increase in popularity of social media engagement. Which brings us to helmet cameras. Some broadcasters have used them, particularly in horse racing, for a number of years, and recently, riders have begun to use them as an additional interaction with their fans, sometimes available via a subscription service on their websites. And who can blame them? Equestrians aren’t 20-something toned and tanned Latin dancers, famous thanks to prime time TV, who are able to earn a quick buck with a scantily-clad calendar. Lots of them have families to feed, as well as their horses, plus grooms on the payroll and yards to maintain. Those who can often teach, but during the competitive season when trying to keep horses fit and ready for competition and travelling around to said events, it’s not always possible to rake in the cash giving lessons to eager clients.
So why not kill two birds with one stone? You’re completing a cross country course anyway, why not record your exploits, then quickly and easily share it online with those who are either interested to see and quasi-experience something that they may never do themselves, or help to educate those who might follow in your footsteps? Because it might be dangerous, BE say, that’s why not. Well eventing’s dangerous anyway, cry the riders. Ah, but it doesn’t have to be that dangerous, counter BE. And the argument rages on.
But just as I said last week, if it does turn out to be conclusively dangerous, what position would BE be in if that detail were subsequently released at an inopportune moment? If they are aware of even a possibility of injury, they have a duty of care to the riders, horses and fans to care for those they govern. To not legislate early would be to leave themselves open to a lawsuit later on.
Eventing and equestrian sports have a classic history of being reactionary rather than proactive, and slow with it. I think it’s time for some fast but thorough action, and here’s what needs to happen: BE needs to decide prior to the start of the 2015 season – possibly in collaboration with British Showjumping – what their stance on helmet-mounted or otherwise-worn cameras is. Once the decision is made, two other things need to happen: riders need to be compensated fairly for the effort and performance they put up at events, and top hats must be banned – fastened helmets should be worn at all times and at all levels of competition. Because just as new technologies could seriously injure someone if not carefully managed, so could hanging on to outdated traditions. I won’t deny that top hats look good and helmet cameras make for interesting media opportunities, but head injuries are never pretty and spinal injuries certainly aren’t entertaining.