Anna Ross: Will Love Island improve the public’s perception of dressage?


  • International grand prix dressage rider and trainer Anna Ross on riding as a job and the portrayal of dressage in popular culture

    OUR weekend helper at Elite Dressage, Emily, was recently told by her schoolteacher that riding “wasn’t a profession”. On hearing this, I had an initial grumble along the lines of, “What the hell have I been doing all these years?”, but then I started to wonder how dressage sport in the UK can be better recognised as a serious occupation.

    It takes years to train, requiring courage, nerves of steel under pressure, resilience, talent and business acumen. It is entirely possible to make a living from doing it.

    But in the UK, it’s quite difficult to describe what being a dressage rider is, as the general public often think it’s a glorified hobby for the landed gentry. There are always the inevitable references to whips and boots, or the line everyone dreads: “I rode a horse once,” which is always the cue to a boring story of how someone fell off.

    I’ve never, in 30 years, been asked if I’m qualified to ride. But in Germany, there is a recognised pathway to qualification as a “Bereiter”, the professional term for a horse trainer. Positions are available in studs and production yards, and hours and wages are comparable to “normal” jobs.

    More divisive than Brexit

    IT’S possible that junior international rider Gemma Owen has done more to raise awareness and bring the job title “international dressage rider” to the UK public in one episode of Love Island than the entire annual marketing budget of British Dressage (BD). But even she – when a tattooed hunk, so resplendently orange in his fake tan that I wondered if he was a member of the Dutch team, enquired what she “did” – struggled and said, “You know, when the horse flails his legs around.”

    Hopefully she’ll have time to educate the general public while appearing on this spectacularly popular platform. Her appearance on Love Island has split the dressage world more decisively than Brexit, with the “must-watchers” desperate for TV reception at shows and sucking up to anyone with a satellite dish, versus the ardent “watch-nots”.

    It’s a shame the show has such strict protocols when it comes to product placement, as a few strategically placed BD logos could have tripled our membership…

    Social licence

    THE impact of social media and modern culture cannot be underestimated, as the public perception of the sport has bearing on our social licence to continue. If the general public view dressage as a positive outdoor pursuit with the love of the horse at the centre, we can cement our place on the biggest sporting stages.

    Scott Rowley of SR PR, who represents Gemma and other top riders in their equestrian pursuits, has been advising riders on the World Class training weekends, saying, “It’s becoming more important for riders to develop their skills to support their careers. Representation on social media is an inevitable part of any modern business. Love it or hate it, it’s here to stay.”

    I thought Laura Tomlinson’s latest column was spot on in regards to her comments about trolling. There will always be those who weaponise social media, but as the anti-bullying movement grows, they will become marginalised.

    Management companies such as Scott’s are becoming more popular with busy riders and those with a large social media reach can attract great sponsorship regardless of their riding prowess.

    Indeed, anyone who thinks Gemma is just a pretty face would be mistaken – as she has plenty of business acumen. As well as being a talented rider, she has a swimwear range that she is now modelling to perfection on prime-time TV.

    Fellow international rider Steph Croxford and I are considering applying for the show next year, and sacrificing our precious time to raise further awareness for the sport we love – maybe we’ll ask Gemma for sponsorship!

    • What do you think about Gemma Owen’s appearance on Love Island? Let us know at hhletters@futurenet.com

    • This exclusive column will also be available to read in full in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 16 June

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