British Eventing CEO Helen West: ‘Staying the same is not an option’


  • British Eventing’s chief executive Helen West shares her vision for the sport’s future

    IF Carlsberg made first days in jobs, mine was it. I started as British Eventing (BE) chief executive on the day the British team won two medals in Tokyo. I was all packed up to go to head office when I received a phone call asking me to do a live BBC interview and it went on from there, with three TV interviews and one on radio.

    The radio interview, where I was alongside the chief executive of British Weight Lifting, highlighted some of our accessibility and inclusivity challenges. He said anyone could pop to the local gym and sign up to get started, which isn’t quite so simple in equestrianism.

    Four weeks later, I was lucky to go to Avenches for the Europeans. This was special because I have competed with and against many of those riders – Piggy March and I were on a gold medal-winning young rider team together in 2001.

    In terms of top-level sport, we’ve never been in a better place. The future is bright for the short Paris Olympic cycle and on to Los Angeles 2028.

    IT, people and money

    IT’S no secret there are challenges at BE. The IT set-up has been a disaster, a lot of money has gone down the drain and we have diminished reserves. Covid has been challenging. IT, people and money are our three big issues. We have a plan to move the organisation forward into a stronger position.

    A membership drive at grassroots, to reverse that downward trend, is key. I’m staggered that 73% of members never compete above BE100.

    We have to start listening to what the membership wants and work collaboratively with organisers, who deliver the product. Historically BE has been able to subsidise the sport, but financially we can’t do that now, so events have to be sustainable. In the future I’d love to say BE can support events in difficult areas to keep a wide geographical spread.

    My vision is for a more dynamic sport. We’ve become bound by process, protocol, red tape and bureaucracy and it’s made us slow, clunky and unable to adapt. On fixtures, I understand why organisers want the security of knowing dates years in advance, but Covid proved how flexible we can be.

    We need to empower organisers to offer what works for them, in consultation with BE to serve the membership. I’ve been a younger, ambitious organiser and at the moment there’s no incentive. It feels like there’s no point knocking on the door because you won’t get an opportunity.

    It all comes back to balance and keeping the integrity of the sport. I don’t want eventing to become confined to purpose-built facilities. We need to keep variety and utilise the right venues at the right time for the right classes.

    Compete more, pay more

    EVERYBODY acknowledges changes are needed, but people are terrified of change. We’ve certainly seen that in the reaction to the membership restructure and changes to the abandonment insurance.

    There are constraints – financial and IT, particularly – but doing nothing is not an option. We’ll never keep everyone happy but we have to do what’s best for the majority.

    Price is a major factor that puts people off eventing. The new introductory membership, for those at BE90 and below, brings cost down by a third. And the pay as you go option works at every national level to allow the one-horse rider to have a go.

    The average number of times members compete in a season is eight for those at BE80 and BE90 (new introductory membership), 12 up to novice and two-star (new standard membership) and 34 at intermediate and above (new premier membership). It’s right that those who compete more, pay more.

    I appreciate this hits the one-horse rider who wants to try a three-star. We haven’t had the time, resource and IT to add in extra layers of membership to capture everybody, but this is ongoing – there is more to come in 2023.

    There is a lot of work to do, but with change comes opportunity. We’re not always going to get it right but we need to be brave and try different things, then admit what’s wrong and make tweaks. But staying the same is not an option.

    • This exclusive column is also available to read in Horse & Hound, 6 January 2022 magazine

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