Urban or rural competitions?
Some competition organizers want to bring the sport to the city and open it up to a new audience, while others continue to develop them in outlying facilities. Accessibility, the well-being of the horse, tourist visits and the evolution of equestrian sport, what do stakeholders really think? This is our question of the month!
To answer it, we asked to Elsa Fau, Christian Ahlmann's groom, Patrick Borg, head of Borg Events and stable manager at the events, as well as British rider Emily Moffitt, a regular at the Winter Equestrian Festival and Global Champions Tour.
She does know a fair bit about competitions: Elsa Fau travels the roads of Europe, even crossing continents, to attend a new event almost every week. She doesn't hide the fact that "Most of the competitions in town allow you to spend sporting weekends in totally unusual places. I’m thinking particularly of Paris, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Port Hercule in Monaco, and even on the beach in Miami. These are fantastic competitions, bringing the sport to big cities allows equestrian sport to reach a wider audience. For the grooms, it's nice because you can visit the area, go to restaurants, and have more accessible supermarkets. We are always on the road and never really have time to access these things." Yet while these competitions are meant to sell the dream on stage, behind the scenes things are a little less rosy. "In my opinion, they are events that must be experienced, but they favor the public more than the groom or the horse side of things. Accessibility is always going to be more complicated since you have to consider the traffic or the small streets, even though the organizing team does its best to put us in the best conditions with our trucks," she underlines.
Regarding the facilities, "There is little room to take the horses out since there is only the arena and the warm-up ring. These competitions require the grooms to get up very early to get their horses out properly before the start of the events. Everything is calculated down to the inch regarding the facilities and sometimes we have very little space to walk them. For the horse side, it’s better to be in rather rural facilities like Chantilly, Dinard and Grimaud where there is a lot of space to walk them, to graze them with secure wash-down areas and several arenas to work in at any time and lunging rings."
"In no case should the competitions in town be withdrawn."
A short-lived event also means that it has to disappear quickly to give the space back to the city. "When it's time to leave, we often have to leave the competition at night after the events. This is not ideal for us grooms who have worked all day, nor for the horses who have just jumped. Some grooms feel exhausted and take more breaks than expected to sleep and avoid accidents while the horses stay in the trucks, if things are not done in stages." Elsa Fau’s feelings remain mixed: "In no case should the competitions in town be withdrawn, the organizers do everything possible to help the grooms and the horses. I still think that they can improve so that it goes as well as possible for everyone. When the Borg teams are in the stables, it's really night and day compared to others! They really do everything they can for us."
If there is one person who knows a thing or two about facility design, it's Patrick Borg, who has been a stable manager at numerous world competitions, including the Tokyo Games. He begins by telling us that his job is not the same when it’s in a rural area as opposed to an urban one. "They have two completely different approaches. When the location is well thought out, we know how it works because it’s designed to host a competition. To make it simple, the competitions in the countryside are composed of permanent facilities, the area is ours. The arenas are built, the truck outlets are laid out and the stalls are often permanently standing with the possibility of adding portable ones." When competitions come to town, the organizer must adapt. "Temporary events are set up from scratch and we have to work within the constraints of the city while doing our best for the safety and comfort of the horses. We have to ask questions like: how do we bring in electricity? How do we install a wash-down area and what do we do with the drainage? We have to secure the FEI area - international stables - and make sure that there is an unloading area near the boxes and a parking lot for trucks." To prepare for an event in town for the first time, Patrick Borg explains that "You have to plan six months to a year in advance. Once it's done, we get back on the files three months before, then adaptations and developments are made."
Once everything is in place, the horses arrive. "We do everything to facilitate grooms’ lives. I’m particularly thinking of the competitions organized in London, which are very complicated and even more so now with Brexit. The trucks must have references and depending on the area around London there are taxes to pay depending on which sticker they have. For this type of event, we do a lot of work. Today, at all 5* competitions, we publish a "rider guide" in which everything is explained. We have set up applications so that we know when the grooms will arrive to manage traffic flow. In cities like Stockholm, Rome, Monaco and Saint-Tropez, we can't afford to have ten trucks arriving at the same time. The grooms register according to their estimated time of arrival. They go through the first checkpoint and are then sent in small groups to the stables and/or taken in a convoy as in Monaco."
"We work for the horse."
While animal welfare is at the center of the conversation today, Patrick Borg affirms that each day his requests are heard a little more. "Honestly, we do everything we can for the horse according to what we are offered at the event space. It’s something that is important and considered by all the organizers. You must be able to take your horse for a walk and give it fresh air. Some competitions also put lunging rings in place and misters that are used in hot weather, but all these little things add up. Rural or urban, the purpose is the same, we work for the horse."
Finally, the stable manager told us that he doesn't have the time to visit these cities that he goes to every week, or even to watch an event. "My teams and I are on site on Monday to get ready for the arrivals that are scheduled for Tuesday. Unfortunately, whether we are in town or not, we don’t have time to see anything. We are so focused on the event preparation, the comfort of the horse throughout the weekend, and their departure that we can't get away from the stables. Only after those competitions where the horses travel by plane and don’t leave straight after the Grand Prix can we look around. I'm thinking of New York or Shanghai, for example, where you have time to go see the major event of the weekend or go for a walk in the city."
Twenty-three-year-old Emily Moffitt, a regular CSI5* starter, says she loves competing in the city. "We can explore the area, especially since we have competitions in beautiful cities nowadays. If I had to choose, I would say I prefer city competitions, but for my horses, I prefer them at rural competitions. They're much better off in large facilities in the country," she says. Regardless of where the competition is held, the British rider says it's easier to get there when the airport is close to the event, not to mention the traffic that a big city can add to the equation.
"In Wellington, I can go to competitions and have a normal life."
For the Podem Farm rider, Wellington is a city that is 100% horse-friendly! "It’s truly a ‘horse town’! All the estates around the Winter Equestrian Festival facilities are built to accommodate horses or families with members competing. Everything is well maintained with large stalls and arenas. The horses don't travel far to compete. I only go to the U.S. for a small part of the year, but I love going there. In Wellington, I can go to competitions and have a normal life. I still have to be consistent, but I can do little things like go to the gym or see friends. These are the things that you can't do when you change competitions every week. I say that I live out of a suitcase," she adds with a touch of humor.
Being able to combine high-level sport with daily life can clear the rider’s head, but not recharge their batteries, according to the pupil of Olympic Champion Ben Maher. "I think it's important to be able to spend time in the city, to walk around, to discover it, to be enriched by the culture, but we often get caught out by the time. We have to ride our horses and then fatigue sets in, whether it's at a competition or at home. To really recharge, I think it's important to take a break when you have the opportunity, which is very rare," says Emily Moffitt.
Featured photo: Sportfot.com