Can Competition Be More Than Just Scores'

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I spent last week at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, working in the Media Center, as I've done for the last five years, and I've come home with two observations after watching the reining competition, a new and very popular addition to the event. More than 6,700 people came to watch the two nights of reining, which isn?t that much compared to the 62,000 who came to watch the four days of eventing. Except that the Alltech Arena, where the reining was held, can only hold about 5,000 fans, while the cross-country course can easily accommodate much more than the 29,000 fans who enjoyed that phase on Saturday. It took 25 years for the three-day event to reach those numbers, after a lot of work to develop the competition into the truly spectacular event that it is and a great deal of (continuing) marketing and public relations. Reining?s debut, though, was basically sold out for the freestyle on Saturday night, and I suspect that people are going to have to buy those tickets early from now on. Four event riders?2000 Olympic individual gold medalist David O?Connor; his wife, four-time Olympian Karen O?Connor; 2008 Olympic silver medalist Gina Miles; and Australian Hamish Cargill?borrowed horses to ride in the freestyle, and afterwards they and some of us eventing press types pondered reining?s appeal to the fans. We were impressed by the way the crowd?s enthusiastic cheering had created an electric atmosphere rarely seen in equestrian competition.? ?I think there is a lot we could learn from reining,? said David, who's been the U.S. Equestrian Federation president since 2004 and has seen a few reining events. The biggest topic we pondered was what we could borrow from reining to increase the connection fans feel to the competition and to the competitors' Reining is presented more like a concert or a stage show than a serious competition. The announcer plays country music or beat-driven rock music during the gaps between competitors, and even during the FEI-sanctioned event on Friday night, every horse performed with music selected by the show manager at only a slightly lower volume. And on both nights the announcer introduced each horse and rider with a tone and excitement that was closer to a monster-truck show than a golf tournament. As a result, the crowd did lots of cheering and screaming?before during and after each ride. These aspects showed in stark contrast to the dressage phase we'd watched (and Karen and Hamish had ridden in) on Thursday and Friday. There, the atmosphere was hushed, rather like a putting green, as the British-accented announcers serenely introduced the horses and riders, with no music playing. Nevertheless, the fans in the Rolex Stadium?10,962 on Friday and 6,810 on Thursday?did cheer mightily at the end of each test, often seriously surprising the horses. We weren?t quite sure what eventing (as well as the other two Olympic sports of show jumping and dressage) could borrow from reining. A particular challenge is that international-caliber horses in these three disciplines are almost always high-octane horses who would become unhinged by pounding music and cheering during their tests. Plus, reining?s atmosphere would be outrageous to many Europeans and to many dressage riders, European or American. But why couldn?t show managers and announcers raise the bar and borrow from the managers and announcers of reining and rodeo' Play low-volume music; tell the folks something interesting?with excitement?about the horses and riders. Anything to make it less like watching a chess match. We also noticed how relatively little the scores seemed to matter, in comparison particularly to dressage and eventing dressage. I think this lack of reverence for the scores begins with how they're presented. Reining is, in essence, Western dressage, and like its cousins, events like this have five judges sitting around the ring. But, instead of painstakingly reading each judge?s score while they flash on the scoreboard, the announcer just exclaimed, ?Scores coming in now?and it's 123.5!? At events like Rolex Kentucky, the announcers always attempt to explain how the horses achieve their scores, and riders analyze where they gained and lost points, to themselves and in response to journalists? questions. The scores the judges give are a major point of focus for everyone, and riders often question or criticize those scores. But in reining, the scores seem to materialize out of thin air. I've probably covered or worked at half a dozen reining competitions, and I've yet to hear a reiner question or criticize a judge?s marks. Nor have I ever heard them talk about needing to get more points in the spins or the fast canter circle. They'll say the horse needs to spin or gallop faster, but I've not heard them talk about it in terms of judges? marks. These differences are, I think, largely a matter of culture and personality, but they're manifested in the different sports? public presentation. After last year?s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, there was tremendous debate about the relative merits and faults of a Spanish Andalusian who performed an expressive and hugely popular freestyle test?finishing to waves of cheering?but didn't get a medal. Dressage purists, including the judges, pointed to technical deficiencies they saw, and analysis of the marks showed that the horse had scored clearly lower on the technical side than the medalists. Meanwhile, others cried, ?How can dressage ever be popular if the most engaging and popular performance doesn't win, doesn't even get a medal' People won?t watch what they don't understand.? In the reining freestyle on Saturday night, the winner wasn?t the showiest or the funniest. His freestyle was done to a more melancholy song, and while beautiful, it didn't have the same flavor as those done to more raucous music with showier choreography and costumes. And he did spin better and galloped faster than everybody else. I'd say that in the aftermath he got a bit overwhelmed by the eventing ?celebrities? and by the two more entertaining performances, but I didn't hear anyone complain that it was a blot on reining?s reputation that he got the highest score. I seem to be suggesting that those of us in the Olympic disciplines pay too much attention to the scores, but I don't think it's anywhere near that simple. How do you have a competition if you don't keep score' You can't?then it's just a demonstration or a social event. But maybe we could make it just a bit more fun' If these thoughts seem a bit scattered, it's because they are. The atmosphere at the reining freestyle is something I've only rarely experienced in 30 years of covering equine competitions. That it's fun and popular and that we English disciplines should glean some sort of ?take-away message? from that experience feels obvious, but it's hard to figure out exactly what that message should be. But I'd certainly pay good money to see a dressage freestyle with a horse is wearing an Afro wig and sunglasses and the rider wearing a psychedelic, thigh-length mini-dress and white go-go boots.