Eventing as a sport is constantly evolving mainly through safety improvements, course designs and horse breeding. One influence though that may not be immediately apparent is how the sport is evolving due to the internet and in particular social media.
10 years ago social media was still very much in its infancy and had minimal impact upon our sport. If you wanted to know about an event you could ask on a forum such as Horse & Hound online where if you were lucky another member may have previously competed there at some point within the last 5 years and be willing to give you a basic event description.
But now in 2014 the impact of social media is massive which can only be further emphasised by the Equestrian Social Media Awards (the ESMAs) which grow year on year. You want to see the course you will be jumping at the weekend? Well the likelihood is one of a few sites will have course photos up and online soon after the course opens for walking, and if you’re really lucky the venue itself will have posted preview photos in the weeks leading up to the event. You can also easily access large back records of photos from previous events, in addition to more recently video footage both from competitor head cams and on site videographers, which allow you to see fence by fence how a course rides.
So firstly social media has allowed riders to better prepare themselves for individual events, but has it led to fussy spoilt eventers or is this the ultimate future for the sport? Whereas previously riders may have chosen to enter or avoid an event solely on their trainer’s say so, now they can make more informed opinions but may find themselves intentionally avoiding certain events due to its potential to expose a weakness in their training. Originally the beauty of a cross country event was not knowing what you would face until you arrived on the day. Now being able to know in advance what a course may contain a horse (and rider!) no longer needs to be quite as brave as long as they are adequately exposed in advance to the appropriate obstacles and questions.
So. is this a bad thing or not? It is easily argued that this trend has opened up the sport to new horses and riders and in particular we see horses climbing up the ladder who maybe previously would not have been bold enough. Although 4* is the pinnacle of the pyramid, eventing is ultimately supported from the base by grassroots competitors and not only will the sharing of course details allow a greater and stronger base, it can improve safety as riders better prepare themselves for the questions they will be asked.
On the negative side it only takes one person to write something negative about an event to cause a chain reaction which will discourage numerous other potential competitors from attending an event. One person’s rude volunteer who wouldn’t let them cut in infront of numerous waiting riders after turning up late is another rider’s godsend, but if only the first person comments publicly it is impossible to get a balanced view. It is therefore vital that it is always remembered that one view is not necessarily entirely correct or representative of reality.
Possibly the biggest evolution of the sport caused by the internet is instant entries and instant results. You can enter numerous events on the ballot date without worrying whether or not Mr Postie has safely delivered your entry form. Results are now available almost immediately and affiliated records are normally updated the same evening, and can be seen by whoever chooses to view. No more hiding that test run at an event far from home, because it will be on your record for all to see. Large events offer live updating results on their websites and some even offer live video streaming, so you can watch the action from the comfort of your own home, which for many is fantastic – but I would be interested to know how many events have lost paying spectators as those people now watch the live footage instead? It is also now possible for Joe Public to know the final (provisional) result of an event in another country before the rider has even left the arena after completing their round; who would have thought that possible only a few years ago?
Without the internet we wouldn’t have e-Venting itself or many other websites which provide information for riders to learn and develop, and access information that previously they would not have been able to, and the vast majority of that information is free to the viewer.
Returning to social media we must focus on its very name ‘social’. It is no longer considered strange to have ‘internet’ friends in fact it is now the norm and offers many advantages. Travelling to an event alone? No problem, you can now meet up with fellow eventers from far and wide. A group of riders who regularly used twitter to converse about their eventing exploits have now set up a group know as ‘Twitter Eventing’, a group where questions are asked and advice is given, and a unique camaraderie is shared. As the group has developed they have even set up their own points league with prizes donated by several major equine companies and negotiated special discounts with various companies on a group buy basis which have proved highly successful. This year when out eventing keep watch around you and you will see how wide and varied this group has become. Many members wear personalised base layers with their Twitter names (most handy to avoid those awkward ‘are you so in so’ moments) and this year lorry stickers have been produced, so look out for them. There is even a plan afoot for a Twitter Eventing camp at Badminton, as several members have qualified for the Grassroots finals.
With the rise of social media there has also been a notable rise in the professional amateur riders. Previously sponsors were the domain of professionals only, but now it is fair game for amateurs and professionals alike. Companies want exposure and who better than a hard working amateur who is their target market? For some, sponsors are the new results, you needn’t have good actual competition results but a well written and designed website in addition to great self-marketing skills can result in a rider gaining notable attention, and fair play to them and long as not misrepresenting themselves as more than they are. Although tax laws mean amateur riders can’t normally accept payments, sponsorship agreements can include training bursaries and free products, which can be very valuable riders trying to compete in the increasingly expensive sport. Sponsorship competitions are in turn becoming more regular and more valuable, you only need look at the Horseware Grassroots competition which offers a prize with a value of €10,000, the winner of which is due to be announced tomorrow.
The internet and social media do not just affect the sport as a whole but also individuals whether they be owners, riders or sponsors. Lives become increasingly on display and a reputation can easily be destroyed with just one comment, action or photo.
The question though is how will the internet affect eventing next, and will it be a positive change?
We will next discuss how riders and owners should use social media to their advantage and not risk their reputations and more seriously their safety.