Growing the Grassroots

The past few posts have outlined ideas about fostering a broader grassroots to engage the public … I’m working on a dedicated site, and will share any developments…

One of any sport’s best tools for crafting a public connection and igniting interest is to have a national competitive structure that makes sense and is both inclusive and encourages top standards. It is an advantage for students to have goals and excitement to anticipate.

A standard sporting city/state/regional/national elimination structure could allow local initiative to thrive and foster community through established annual events.

A grassroots League could offer a simple, single-round Qualifier that conforms to the level the rider has entered … clear rounds scored in a Qualifier automatically earns the horse/rider participants entry to the city/area season-end championship.

Good news: the equestrian grassroots are evergreen …

As the grassroots offers an enjoyable horse experience along with fair and education-based competition, it finds success and helps preserve the connection between horses and humans.

There is a lot of good horse news today, including things we didn’t know until recently. For example, we know there is continuing interest in horses. We know that organizations will find support to advance humane issues. We know horsemanship is still alive and growing, inviting new roles and benefits for modern society.

In today’s words: we know there is a sustaining market.

This is a different outcome than a member of society of 100 years ago would have likely expected. Farmers seem to have abandoned the horses as quickly as tractor ads began … the rapid loss of millions of draft horses made it seem our relationship was doomed.

That was before the cavalry disbanded and the middle-class recreational explosion. There are more horses now than ever before. Today we know horses can have a modern future, and it is worthwhile to give thought and effort to it.

People don’t need to know … they WANT to know

One item to re-evaluate is what the average person might seek in grassroots horsemanship.

A shouting cavalry riding instructor doesn’t provoke the awe of yesteryear: riding well does not earn higher ranking these days. It will not help one’s marital prospects in most instances. In fact, the dangers of horsemanship do not have to be faced, nor its frustrations or fears. Although very rewarding and enriching, riding is no longer a needed skill.

The establishment horse world has responded to this change of world relations with the useful perspicacity of a green thoroughbred encountering a blown plastic bag flapping on its hind leg. This metaphor overstates only the energy of the response. It opens a question of whether the ends justify the means.

However the end is hopefully not yet, and plastic bags can be held up and examined. There is good news in this reality too.

It is a different world today … but the horse world is different too

In the pre-motorized world, horsemanship was another kind of business … today it is educational recreation based on quality animal care and partnership. The good news is this is a road to the future.

There is no bad news, either, except as this isn’t understood and capitalized upon. The old way isn’t enough–for the grassroots, excellence is associated with outreach.

Many local events already do this, of course. The grassroots have grown to fill a need beyond competition events, and they can grow more. Providing an enjoyable experience around horses demands a whole other dimension than the technical demands of holding show classes … another of the arts that attend all equestrian pursuits. The grassroots have a bright future because they fulfill an ancient need, and serve a timeless connection.

The objective beauty of Show Jumping

Horses have been associated with elite establishment since civilization began. Chariot empires held rumbling sway for the (dusty) 1st half of human society; cavalry and kings continued the association. The tradition still echoes.

As an equestrian sport, Show Jumping shares in the image–and baggage–of that tradition. In its short history, the sport has provided popular occasions attended by heads of state and celebrity. Yet the sport has very humble beginnings.

Horse Showing has an elite origin … Show Jumping does not

Formal jumping of obstacles is a recent dimension of horsemanship, made possible by the renewed equine partnership that heralded the modern age. The new sport came from the elemental soil of a new society, more egalitarian and merit-based … it came from the soil of strong grassroots.

FEI_WC10_Oslo_Pius-SchwizerShow jumping may clean up well for a fancy setting, but it was born in rutted fields and muddy back pastures. The sport was sparked in farmers’ fields, the equine equivalent of baseball sandlots.

Horses that jumped cleanly were prized for the hunting field, which set a market price. Contests naturally arose. Just as skillful grooms of lower classes were used as jockeys in early flat racing, keen riders with a knack for jumping were needed to pilot the valuable mounts, regardless of their social background.

A Sport for the Masses … in theory

Horse showing has inherent physical limits: for one thing, judges cannot be everywhere at once. There is a natural limit on availability and occasion which bring inevitable expense. However, a 2′ or 3′ jump can be made any time or any place of suitable footing (jumping low height requires only average footing). The standard is universally and objectively available, without cost.

We know that rider skill and experience must improve in order to jump higher obstacles with acceptable safety. Since different baseline abilities can be correlated with objective measures (fence height/course difficulty), objectively-measurable levels can be established to serve as guideposts to learning and grassroots competition. This is something significant.

Many local organizations support fair and objective competition at the grassroots level, over small fences that compose the aspirations of many busy riders of today. These organizations are not unified, but their purposes are basically universal. Objective standards could bring about a more coherent competitor experience.

Sustaining Connection

Horsemanship can continue to benefit both horses and humans if widely favored and supported by the public—but it’s also true that the history of horse sports does not include a great deal of participatory inclusion of all classes and backgrounds of people.

girlwithribbonThe horse industry is adapting to sustain itself in the modern era. Something new is needed, and it’s available.

Objective standards and scoring make it possible to develop show jumping into a publicly-accessible equestrian sport. The horse show world has nurtured the higher ranks of competition, but the grassroots element is a new frontier–and laboratory–for connecting the public with horses and the sport.

If developed with the public in mind, grassroots show jumping has the potential to help preserve and sustain benefits of the horse’s connection with human society. This connection may be worth more than the public knows … or remembers.

The equestrian grassroots … are different

100 years ago, it was easy to get horse experience. Horses delivered the mail, took the family to church, carried you to battle and helped on the farm … horses were everywhere. Horses entertained you too: variety-based horse shows dealt with highly-skilled horsemanship, providing competition that delivered standards to achieve.

Today’s official equestrian competitions developed from this tradition, and their success serves the important purpose of seeking excellence. Yet horse shows were only one segment of what made up the horse world 100 years ago.

The Change

A century ago, you could let junior ride double on the neighbor’s old farm horse until he got some balance, and bring Dot home from Grandpa’s for the twins. There’s almost nothing left horse-wise of that world. Modern horse sports were officially organized in an era that knew many opportunities to learn about horses that are now gone.

On the other hand, the new segment of low-level equestrian competition (jumps below 3’6) provides a new opportunity for the public to gain experience with horses.

The “grassroots” are more than another set of equestrian competitions. The focus is different. One purpose unique to the equestrian grassroots is to provide an opportunity to learn about horses.

The Opportunity

The grassroots have been neglected over the past century … horse organizations often adhere to a traditional outlook formed when grassroots didn’t exist. The source of its energy may have been misunderstood: as horse-opportunities died out, the grassroots have become a primary channel for the public to gain experience with horses.

Society went from a horse-based to a machine-based culture in the space of a generation. Only a few areas survived the shock to provide traditional ways to learn about horses. Today’s ranches and riding schools and carriage rides and equestrian venues are increasingly important connections to our ancestry … storehouses of something we’ve sometimes forgotten but still love, and maybe even need.

Freedom finds a way

Because their goals are not necessarily the same as the official show world, the grassroots have a certain freedom from conventions. The grassroots can provide a horse experience that is educational, economical and enjoyable … and with this focus in mind, can find new–and even old–ways to succeed.

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