Is talent and hard work all you need to get to the top levels of equestrian sport? After all, we’ve seen it time and again, those kids from a non-horsey or disadvantaged background who rose up through the ranks, despite the odds being stacked against them. But in the days of increasing entry costs, prohibitively expensive horses and ever more competition for sponsors and owners, are the days of such breakthrough riders truly numbered?
These days, if you want to reach the pinnacle of our sport, all you need to do is have the good fortune to be born to rich parents. They should have two houses minimum, and take holidays in exotic places like Antigua and Verbier. They should think nothing of providing you with a string of top horses, the best tack on the market and a horsebox so vast and gleaming it should come with its own zip code. They can easily stretch to a team of grooms to add to their sizable household staff, plus a luxurious barn complete with every facility imaginable.
But if you really want to be successful, you’d better opt for the next level: uber-rich parents. Not mentioning names here, but think Russian oligarch rich, European Royalty rich, rock star rich or party-line politician rich. And those horses aren’t going to train themselves you know, so ideally you want to buy them at their peak age and price. Don’t mess around with the boring youngster stage, you want them already produced to the top and winning international medals. Then you’ll need a trainer on hand, a retired Olympic medallist is best, who will be on call for constant coaching and support.
Got the rich family? Well, you might be all right in dressage and showjumping, but eventing is a sport for old money. Are you or your family listed in line to the throne? Check. Do you have an unusual upper-class nickname like Minty or Buffy, plus a double-barrelled surname? Check. Jog-up outfit that makes you look like you’re about to go grouse shooting? Check. There’s a reason all those event riders look so at home at all those country estates every weekend. They probably grew up in one.
Being from an equestrian dynasty helps too. Your parents or grandparents might have hailed from an ordinary background and fought tooth and nail to make it in this sport, but now you can relax, sit back and reap the benefits. The yard full of top horses at your disposal, the decades of experience that they have gained and can pass on to you, the doors that swing merrily open thanks to your family name. Easy.
So there you go. Forget talent and hard work, just hail from a rich upper-class family with a history of top level equestrian success and you’ll be sorted. And how interesting it will be for journalists to interview such riders, whose stories are filled with wealth and privilege. How remote and ridiculous our sport will seem to outsiders.
And how sad for future generations of children who won’t be inspired by the dealer’s son who won Burghley and Badminton, but will instead learn the lesson that riding is a sport for the wealthy and very wealthy alone.
With rising prices and increasing elitism, have we seen the end of stories like Oliver Townend’s? Will we no longer have those kids who rocked up at a riding school, worked in return for lessons, and one day represented their country? Who will be left to inspire us if not the London girl who asked for a job with Carl Hester and went on to become the World and Olympic champion, or the son of a builder who would grow up to win the Rolex Grand Slam?
Even at grassroots levels, horses are changing hands for incredible sums. Will those quirky bargain horses with extraordinary talent disappear altogether, replaced by ready-made Olympic champions with a price tag to match? Talent and hard work should and will always be enough to get to the top – but it’s going to get tougher than ever to make it there, and that’s a very sad thing for our sport.