By Suzanne Bush
Just in case there are still some placid souls who have been unaware of the economic storms raging across the globe, here's some news. In the world of equestrian sports and equine expositions, the news is…well…not so bad, and okay. Those wishing to decamp in a zone that's not so squishy might have a problem. This is not so much a case of the glass being either half full or half empty. It's more like the glass is twice as large as it needs to be; and therein is the story. Because looking at the first months of 2009—and the opportunities for the economy to whack equestrian sports—you will find victims. But you will also find victors.
And you'll find Vicki O'Hara. She runs the annual Equine Extravaganza in Virginia and North Carolina. She surveyed her vendors after the 2008 show in Virginia, and started doing a lot of soul-searching. "Last year's show was a really good show. Ironically our show was right after the market tanked. At the end of the day on Sunday our aisles were still packed with buyers. We had good buyers. Vendors were very happy. We had a trailer dealer from Ohio that sold in just three days a lot of trailers. So it was a really good show."
But outside the arena, market forces were reshaping the landscape. And as the market plunge continued, so did the optimism of O'Hara's key vendors. She said she tried to "take the temperature" of her vendors, who seemed eager to commit to the 2009 show. But when she asked them about making deposits on space for the show, reality intervened.
"I had to go through a process of trying to decide what was best for the show, our vendors and attendees. It would be in everyone's best interest if we just took a break. I had to make a very difficult decision. The economy had not started to level out." Faced with loyal vendors who were extremely worried about the economy, O'Hara decided to make Equine Extravaganza an every-other-year event, canceling the 2009 shows.
As she considered her options, O'Hara saw that, while the 2008 show had been successful, there was evidence of trouble. "We had a couple of vendors who were already starting to experience the economy. They had paid for their space, but didn't come to the show," she says. O'Hara recognizes that the Equine Extravaganza is a business, but she built that business on the strength of her commitment and loyalty to her vendors and customers. She doesn't have any magic window through which to see the future, but she's ready to adapt to better economic news. "If the show grows more we might go back to an every year format. It gives us more time to put into developing the program."
Beacon Hill Grand Prix Cancelled
In New Jersey, trouble arrived in the lush rolling hills of Colt's Neck in the form of evaporating sponsorship dollars. The seventh annual Beacon Hill Grand Prix was cancelled just weeks before its June opening date. Oliver Kennedy, the show's manager, says the economic crisis in the finance and luxury goods sectors were the key villains. "Basically we lost our major sponsors because of the economy. One of them was Wachovia. One was Budweiser. When they were bought out by InBev, their sponsorships were cut from eight a year to six a year. We had another company that made luxury yachts. We had probably $120,000 in sponsorships we couldn't replace. We tried. We scrambled. We just couldn't do it."
He says that the sponsorships are a major part of the show equation, but he also sees changes among competitors. "The bigger shows will be big," he suggests, maybe just not as big as they once were. And those who compete in them are seeking ways to reduce their expenses. The intensity of the gravitational pull of the major shows will still draw attention and attendance, keeping them in the spotlight. Even though these larger shows might have the same number of competitors, those competitors will choose fewer classes. "I think people are still showing, but when you're at the horse show what you're seeing is people who have more than one horse, they're not showing all their horses."
"I think people are going to pick and choose where they're going. I was in Palm Beach all winter working. People who used to show four weeks a month, showed two weeks a month. I was just in Kentucky, and the big shows were down 20 to 30 per cent." He says that it's clear people want to show; but they're being much more selective about where and how often they'll compete. He says that one of the troubling aspects about the future is the financial health of some of the traditional sponsors of major shows.
Jersey Fresh Loses Sponsors, Gains Entries
At the Horse Park of New Jersey, a different story unfolded at the Jersey Fresh horse trials. "We had as many entries as we ever had," says Lisa Mackintosh, who works on developing sponsorships for Jersey Fresh. "These events are incredibly expensive to run. We had very good entries. We added two divisions this year, a CIC*** and a young horse division. But the event can't run on entries alone. We definitely lost some sponsors over the last couple of years." The traditional sponsors, car dealers and construction companies, mired in economic turmoil, were not available to support the event.
"What really helped, and if it didn't close the gap for us completely monetarily, it helped to inspire people—we ran a sponsorship program where groups of individuals—the smaller guy—could sponsor cross country fences, etc. It certainly didn't put us over the top, but it helped a lot." Mackintosh says that, in addition to inventing these new ways to bring in sponsor dollars, they took a look at every part of the event, to see where they could reduce costs.
"We cut back on expenses wherever we could, and we made it work, and we're cautiously optimistic for next year. The riders and the participants were thrilled. Everything that affected the actual competition was completely up to snuff. The little kinds of perks that go along with these things were missing this year, though."
Garden State CDE: Was it the Economy?
Heather Walker says the Garden State Combined Driving Event remains an important part of the competition calendar, despite its cancellation this year. The CDE has been run at the Horse Park of New Jersey since 1992, but this year donations as well as entries were down, and Walker feared the event would wind up losing money. "It's a fairly important event. It was the advanced divisions where it appeared we were going to have fewer entries," she said. "People were donating half what they had in the past. We don't get big corporate sponsorships."
As much as money, though, Walker says other factors are affecting the future of the Garden State CDE. "The northeast used to be the hub for driving events, but it has moved south, to Florida. People can work their horses year round. It's just a friendlier climate for working your horses. The World Championships take place in late August, early September in Europe. People who are really serious about competing go to Europe in May." She says that the shifting center of the sport has created more opportunities for competitors in the Southeast. "If you can do the number of events you need to do in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, it's a lot easier getting around than coming up to New Jersey."
She said that is one of the factors that hurt them this year. "With the World Equestrian Games coming up, we expected a lot of international competitors. It turned out that they had done as many competitions as they needed to do in the South, so they didn't need to come up to New Jersey."
Is it the proverbial "perfect storm," sinking an event with a long, successful tradition? "One of the things they brought forward in that book (The Perfect Storm) is that it takes three things going wrong to make a disaster," Walker says, considering the parallels. She counts three major issues affecting driving events in New Jersey. "The economy, the migration, and the fact that people are picking and choosing what they're going to do instead of competing in all events."
Reasons for Optimism Abound
So, are we looking at a bleak picture for upcoming equestrian events? Even the people who had to cancel shows this year are not pessimistic about the near future.
O'Hara, who cancelled her 2009 Equine Extravaganza, is convinced that she made the right decision, and she's already hearing from vendors eager to sign up for 2010. "I do think that everybody needed a little bit of breathing room. I feel very optimistic. But, that said, I think everybody can use this year to build their resources. For us for 2010, the really good thing is that vendors that I've never even heard of, who were not on my radar screen, are calling me."
Kennedy and his wife operate a training stable in Maryland, and he, too, is sensing a positive change in the air. "All of a sudden people are starting to look at horses again. They're trying horses again. Still not a lot of stuff is getting sold. But they're thinking about it now."
Learning From the Economy
Mackintosh says that the economic storms forced them to take a new look at Jersey Fresh, and figure out how to reduce costs without compromising safety or the overall experience for competitors. "I think we learned a lot this year. We learned where we can cut corners and not affect the great parts of the competition. There were some lessons to be learned from that. We can take into next year that approach to things. There are things we might never bring back—nothing that affected the riders' safety or the face the public sees at the event. You learn what you can do without and what you can't do without. We certainly learned how to run this thing pretty tight."
The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is the governing body for equestrian sports, and USEF-sanctioned events are penalized if they cancel within three months of an event. USEF Competitions Director Leigh Anne Claywell says that due to this year's extraordinary economic climate the USEF has waived penalties for some cancelled events. They're considering economic hardship an act of God. Claywell says that they can't waive penalties, though, when they don't hear from event organizers. "There are people that cancel, but it doesn't have anything to do with the economy, but they don't let us know," she explains.
Despite what looked like a lot of bad news this year, Claywell says she believes the tide is turning. "Just looking at numbers," she says, "based on the numbers of horses that were reported as showing, it does appear in the last few weeks that the numbers are getting more consistent with last year. We are still down versus last year, but things are looking better. I know there are several eventing competitions that are reporting being oversubscribed."
Everyone, it seems, has been forced by the economy to examine their lives and their businesses and look for ways to change and improve. Walker, who had to cancel the Garden State CDE, and who recognizes that forces that are reshaping the sport are often beyond her control, still has faith in the future. "I think this shakeup we're going through is going to be good for the country. Some of the changes that are going to result from this mess we're in are going to be good for the country."