For a rider, turning a horse is one thing. But for the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), changing directions at the Olympic level of the sport is akin to turning a battleship: a process, rather than an event.
But following a key meeting of the FEI General Assembly in Tokyo, the lead is changing, according to an article in Inside the Games.
As a result of a vote taken at that meeting, several proposals will be submitted to the IOC regarding changes to the formats for the three Olympic equestrian disciplines at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (The format for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo are also up for discussion.)
All of which begs the question: Why?
According to the FEI, the purpose of the changes is “to make the equestrian events more readily understandable and packaged in a more compact format, engaging new fans through enhanced presentation of the sport.”
As a side note, equestrian sport has been included in the Olympics since 1912, and among all sports, it might be the most rigidly steeped in tradition and resistant to change. But FEI is determined to bring horse sports to TV viewers, which means helping it be more readily understandable to those outside the stable and pony club set.
The key proposals for change will take effect across the three Olympic disciplines – Jumping, Dressage and Eventing – and Para-Equestrian Dressage at the Paralympics.
It’s all part of an effort to attract more viewers. Back in May of 2016, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s chief marketing officer, Colby Connell, told SDM that one of the USEF’s goals was to become more open and more transparent to the larger audience.
“We are working to be very media- and spectator-friendly; in fact, that’s something that comes up a lot for us. I’m passionate about making the sport more accessible to people. In some ways, it seems like a secret society. We want to help people understand it better and be able to enjoy it, the way they enjoy so many other sports. It’s hard for a lot of people, for example, to understand eventing because they don’t understand dressage. So we need a way to make it – and other aspects of equestrian – understandable and interesting.”
And it’s not surprising, after all. Pundits have long referred to “the big ones” at the Olympics, meaning the sports of track and field, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, soccer and beach volleyball (although there are certainly plenty of others) – which get plenty of coverage throughout the day and particularly during prime time.
Sometimes, these sports have become popular simply because they are visually appealing or easy to follow, but the aid of commentators has allowed audiences at home to understand the more complicated scoring of others (such as gymnastics).
The problem, however, was that many other sports fell by the wayside, ratings-wise, because they lacked the ability for viewers to follow if they weren’t in the know.
All of which brings us right back to equestrian sports and the opportunity to make changes that could result in increased appeal. One of the proposals approved by FEI (which now moves to the IOC) is to have three athletes per team. The drop score, which previously allowed for a team’s worst score to be discarded, would be removed. The role of the reserve combination would become be even more important and according to the FEI, would be a key element in ensuring horse welfare.
Inside The Games noted the following changes would also be made:
Showjumping will now feature 20 teams, resulting in 60 horse and rider combinations, while there will be a further 15 slots for nations who did not qualify a team.
The individual event will take place before the team competition, while penalties for elimination or failing to meet the cut-off point are still yet to be finalized.
One individual per nation who is not represented by a qualified team will be able to compete in dressage, while team medals will be decided on the Grand Prix special results, meaning the Grand Prix will no longer be included.
The top eight teams from the Grand Prix will qualify for the special round, while a heat system will qualify 18 individuals.
The top two from six heats will advance, as well as the next six best overall results.
In eventing, if a reserve combination is substituted in the team will incur a penalty, while two individuals will be allowed for nations who have failed to qualify a team.
The schedule will remain unchanged with dressage, cross-country and show jumping taking place in that order, although dressage will be reduced to one day.
Dressage and showjumping will have the technical level of four, while cross-country difficulty will be ranked at three.
FEI President Ingmar De Vos provided details of the timeline for implementation of the Olympic formats prior to Tokyo 2020:
February 2017 – FEI’s agreed-upon proposals will go to the IOC Executive Board
May 2017 – The IOC Program Commission will make recommendations to the IOC Executive Board
July 2017 – The IOC Executive Board meeting will decide on events and the quota in November 2017 – FEI General Assembly in Montevideo will finalize the proposal for qualification procedures (quota distribution and eligibility)
It wouldn’t be the first time the sport of equestrian has made the effort to create relevance to today’s viewers.
“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘How do we show people equestrian sports? How can we help them understand?’ What’s interesting is that FEI (the international governing body for equestrian sport) has made an investment to help bring equestrian to people?’” Connell said to SDM. “FEI launched its Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League qualifiers in 2015, and they started carrying those events on their video platform, FEI TV. Competitions leading to the qualifiers were also livestreamed on the FEI’s YouTube channel, so people had another opportunity to watch and learn what was going on. People can stream things on demand and it’s set up in a split screen to show the two top riders, and you can see who did what, how they’re making up time and how it dictates who wins in the end.”
Throughout the past few years, FEI has continued the mission of bringing horse-related sports to TV viewers (whose only contact with them, after all, might be when the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes are broadcast in the spring.) Reforms included changing the name of Three-Day Eventing to Equestrian Triathlon, in order to help individuals outside the equestrian world understand the competition.