Participation in horse sport at international level is on the up, with more countries involved in the 2014 World Equestrian Games (WEG) than ever before. Figures suggest that international equestrian TV coverage is also increasing — even though in the UK, Hickstead, Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) and our top horse trials have all been cut back or moved to the red button.

Since the last Olympics, equestrianism has been demoted from category C to D, despite its popularity at London 2012. This is just one up from the bottom rung, from where sports go in and out of the Olympics.

The biggest influence in the International Olympic Committee’s decision on categorisation is television audiences (40%), followed by Internet page views and social media mentions (20%).

Increasing equestrian TV coverage overseas

Overseas, Eurosport has increased its coverage of equestrian sport — from 113 programmes (4,765min) in 2011 to 191 (8,475min) last year, a growth of 77%.

The FEI has just renewed its longstanding broadcast partnerships with the European Broadcasting Union and IMG through to the end of 2022. These agreements — worth “eight figures” — will generate “markedly increased coverage of the world’s most prestigious equestrian events” globally, to help secure horse sport’s position in the Olympics.

The FEI has also secured a six-year agreement with Sky Mexico to broadcast in Central America, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

FEI president Ingmar De Vos said that it is “looking at continuing unprecedented growth in the global coverage of our sport”.

“The fact that we had so many bidders for the process [24] shows that equestrian sport is seen as a really valuable property by the market’s key decision-makers,” he said.

The FEI says that series like the World Cup jumping and dressage and Nations Cup jumping have airtime on major international sports networks, and in Britain Olympia remains a Christmas favourite on the BBC.

But despite the drop in category, British broadcasters claim that coverage of horse sport has remained constant or is increasing.

“BBC Sport’s coverage of equestrian events has increased significantly in recent years, both in terms of hours and range of events,” said a spokesman.More than a million people watched WEG on the BBC earlier this year.”

The BBC has added the London leg of the Global Champions Tour to its coverage of Badminton, Burghley, Olympia and some European competitions on BBC Two.

Where are Badminton and Burghley?

However, Sky Sports has cut its coverage of the Hickstead Derby meeting from three days to one. HOYS likewise, is now down to just two days on Sky Sports, due to budgets and lack of demand. And where are the top three-day horse trials? Badminton and Burghley are now reduced to the red button and FEI TV for live coverage, with just 2hr of highlights on BBC2 on the final day.

A peak of 0.8m viewers tuned in to watch Burghley in 2014, down from 0.9m in 2013, while Badminton was up to 0.8m from 0.6m.

Despite growth in some areas, notably overseas, can horse sport do something radical to up its viewers and remain in the Olympics?

Finding the appeal

Some experts believe that the kür has revolutionised public interest in dressage.

“We should make our disciplines even more attractive and universal, to prevent them from disappearing from the Olympic programme,” said former Olympic showjumping champion Pierre Durand in an outline of his vision for the FEI presidency. “[Dressage’s kür] is the path to follow when thinking of new, more artistic evolutions.”

But recent innovations in eventing such as the Eventing Grand Prix and Express Eventing have proved short-lived.

Olympic categories

A: athletics, aquatics, gymnastics
B: cycling, basketball, football, tennis and volleyball
C: archery, badminton, boxing, judo, rowing, shooting, table tennis and weightlifting
D: canoe/kayaking, equestrian, fencing, handball, field hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon and wrestling
E: modern pentathlon, golf and rugby

Ref: Horse & Hound; 8 January 2015