National Post Stop subsidizing the horsey set (National Post, August 18, 2004)

National Post - Wednesday August 18th, 2004

Several commentators have noted that Canada spends far less on sports than many other nations. Rather than spending more, as is generally suggested, we might be better served by simply cutting unworthy sports from our modest $62-million Olympics-targeted budget.

The horse is a noble creature, but horse sport is ignoble. And that is my "good riddance" nomination.

Money, money, money. Horses eat it like oats. Of the 234 support staff accompanying our 267 athletes to Athens, nearly 7% -- 15 grooms, vets, chefs d'equipe -- are horse-generated. A Canadian Equestrian Federation (CEF) spokesperson's estimate puts transport costs alone at nearly half-a-million dollars.

The lavish outlays might be justifiable if we got results. But Canada's history in the three Olympic disciplines of dressage, show jumping and three-day eventing is hardly inspiring. Jumping and dressage are dominated by Europe and the United States; eventing by England, the United States and former British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, whose riders train and compete in England.

Show jumping draws crowds and rewards sponsorships, true, but a decent Olympic-ready horse can cost millions. This year we sent one jumper rider -- Ian Millar -- and even Millar, Canada's perennial best hope, is unlikely to prevail against the European juggernauts.

Top flight dressage horses also cost a bomb, and only dressage geeks who thrill to the nuanced esoterica of the compulsory figures can stand the tedium of the endlessly duplicated tests.

Then there's three-day eventing. The heart of this discipline -- the long, gruelling cross-country race over fixed and natural obstacles -- is performed far from the Olympic campus and attracts comparatively little interest. Even the ultra-patriotic CBC is bouncing its Olympic equestrian coverage to the Country Canada digital channel.

Eventing originated in temperate zones. I have seen the cruel toll exacted from horses racing in North American heat waves -- some have died. And I know that in the far more oppressive furnace of Greece -- however the issue is stonewalled by promoters -- it's animal abuse pure and simple.

Western riding is an organic outgrowth of the ranching tradition here, which is why rodeos are so popular. But "English" riding -- the Olympic disciplines -- are an imperial graft from the U.K., and of them show jumping alone has achieved a tenuous hold on Canadians' interest. Of 202 participating nations, only about 40 send horses to Olympiads. The vast majority of them are European nations with cavalry traditions, such as England, Germany, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, France and Belgium, or colonial offshoots, such as Brazil, Mexico and Bermuda. All three Olympic disciplines derive from exercises designed to test the submissiveness, power and courage of war horses.

Unlike the U.K. and Europe, where horse sport has historical roots, popular backing and many training and competition sites, Canada is too huge and thinly populated to support a solid competitive base with sustainable depth. Both our horse and rider talent pool are extremely shallow and unlikely to grow. Wealthy sponsors are few and fickle. Almost inevitably, mega-wealthy Americans offer a price that can't be refused for our occasionally brilliant mounts.

Apart from these practical concerns, horse sport is elitist, physically and culturally disconnected from community life, brutally expensive at the competitive level, and riddled with professional conflict of interest.

Am I biased? Decidedly. I became a keen observer of horse sport and the logjam of CEF Old Boys and Girls who dominate the sports' politics during my eight years as eager competition committee volunteer and Manager Mum to an ambitious equestrian daughter. One of my daughter's "mentors" tried to rip me off once too often, and we renounced horse sport forever.

My experience is far from unique. The horse sport industry is unregulated. As I found during a bout of maddening and, ultimately, unsuccessful litigation, one has more recourse under the Consumer Protection Act buying a $5,000 used car than a $1-million horse (not that mine was worth anywhere near as much). Coaches who palm off second-rate horses on clients, saving first-rate horses for themselves (which they use to compete against those same clients) are never held to account by the CEF. Equestrian amateurs are reluctant to speak out or seek legal redress for the sport's myriad iniquities from fear (legitimate, alas) of losing favour with the tiny clique at the summit who can and do influence their team aspirations.

In the larger scheme, horse culture is simply unrepresentative of our nation's cultural profile -- it's overwhelmingly WASP -- or our preference for universal access to tax-supported resources, and is by nature exclusionary. As Michael Korda says in his memoir, Horse People: "In countless ways the horse signifies rank, class, money, and has done so from the very beginning of history ... The horse stood, among other things, for social superiority ... Horsemanship was the common bonding factor between the upper classes of almost every civilized nation and culture."

Since there is limited money to disperse for elite athletes, let's fund athletes who can act as role models to hundreds of thousands of children in urban communities, not the few hundred privileged children who can progress beyond backyard riding lessons. Let's spend on sports in which the average Canadian kid can gain real proficiency cheaply or using community resources that get them involved in fitness-promoting activities at an early age -- soccer, swimming, track and field -- and let's eliminate a sport with no more relevance to Canadian life in 2004 than the four-horse chariot races of the first Athens Olympiad.

© National Post 2004