A chance to build back better
Just before Christmas British Dressage CEO Jason Brautigam issued a statement about the effects that Covid has had on BD’s income. Under the heading “A chance to build back better” his recovery plan for the sport’s governing body included reducing the number of BD regions from eight to six with just four New Development Officers.

I believe it would help British Dressage to re-engage members if it took steps to bring the dressage competition structure and its support network back closer to its geographic Regional markets. This would give members a greater feeling of ownership and involvement. Even before Covid struck, many senior riders and trainers, new young professionals and judges based in the South East felt that BD could improve on how they supported their interests.

These are my ideas for re-regionalising dressage and using them to support local venues. I believe they could be the basis for a workable solution. However, they are firstly intended to provoke more ideas and discussion about the issues.

Who are the South East’s top riders?
‘Regional’ competitions are no longer truly Regional contests but a series of semi-finals. For example, who are the South East’s top Silver and Gold riders and our rising stars? A couple of decades ago BD changed its Rules to allow competitors to qualify at so-called regionals anywhere to go through to national championships. Consequently, the title Regional Champion at the various levels has lost significance and prestige. People can relate to a rider who represents their county or a region; it’s harder to remember who won a qualification at a semi-final.

Consequently, the current qualification process throws the spotlight on a very small number of elite riders who are successful at national championships rather than identifying and applauding a greater number of the best riders within a region.

Re-introducing truly Regional championships will provide a shop window for local trainers and riders in their home market and more effectively spread the inspirational message of performance excellence to local riding communities. It is more likely to encourage local businesses to support competitions with their advertising, trade stands and prize money.

National competitions are frequently too far away to enjoy a day’s outing to watch good dressage live and to socialise live. And spending several days away from home is often impossible when there are horses to care for.

Competitions promote careers and business
Three decades ago dressage was a minority equestrian interest, it is now a Professional Sport and BD encourages the dreams of new generations of young people for careers within the equestrian industry. Professionals earn their living riding horses for owners and by training other riders — most of whom will be based in their home area.

BD runs successful Youth programmes and offers young talent opportunities to rise to prominence through Youth competitions. Post 21, these young people should be able to find on-the-job training placements within their region with the region’s top riders to equip them with the skills, knowledge, experience and contacts to establish themselves as the paid professionals of the future.

Support for local venues
Different BD regions in the UK have different populations of members with different needs. The existing BD Southern has a large population and is itself a very diverse dressage market — from Kent in the east to Hampshire in the west. At the moment in the South East (Kent, Surrey and Sussex) there is a lack of venues willing and able to provide competitions with good access, all-weather parking, good surfaces, refreshments and personal comforts (decent loos).

Dressage professionals will often load up a big lorry and make long motorway journeys to compete in semi-final qualifiers — an option not so readily available or cost-effective for people with non-equestrian jobs, family responsibilities and possibly only one horse.

Re-regionalisation would support local venues by encouraging people to compete locally. The loss to the South East of its Dressage at Hickstead showcase venue, which ran fortnightly shows for all in the summer on international quality surfaces, came as a severe shock and it is a wake-up call. Many riders do not seem to be aware that Dressage rather than making money for showground proprietors has to be supported by show-jumping, arena hire and non-equestrian activities — and sometimes their personal enthusiasm and purses.

If we can encourage more people to compete locally, local venues will benefit from their entry fees. Riders will enjoy better competition by being part of busier classes. Winning a red rosette will mean more!

A regional competition environment could be created by:

♦ Establishing a system of Regional points
By this I mean riders must gain points at venues within their home region to qualify to compete for Regional Champion titles. If a rider’s favourite venue is over the border in another region, they can still achieve semi-final qualification for the National competition but points gained would not contribute to their eligibility to contest the region’s standard-bearing Regional Champion title.

A blunt rule that insists riders compete exclusively at their home region’s semi-finals would not work as many professionals have a number of different owners to please. 

Rider-selected regional title horse contenders
Riders would be allowed to select, prior to entries closing, their regional points-eligible horse or horses that they wish to ride as their Regional title(s) partner(s) — while allowing them to take any other horses they wish to qualify for Nationals to alternative semi-final venues.

♦Regional Champion acclaim and prizes for riders and owners
Regional Champions are a PR and sales marketing opportunity and should be used to provide better prize money. More should be made of prize-givings to provide acknowledgement of sponsors, riders, trainers and horse owners.

♦Regional semi-finals
In BD Southern, which last year acquired Hampshire, we have two Winter semi-finals, Merrist Wood and Wellington Riding. Both shows are always heavily supported which underlines how many competitors there are in the southern Home Counties. This offers the opportunity to run a Southern Gala Winter Championships Final that could alternate between the two locations. Or perhaps the South and the South-East regional boundaries need to be redefined to reflect member numbers?

A ‘viable venue’ network strategy
I believe South East dressage riders as well as show proprietors would benefit from a venue network tailored to demand in specific areas. It must ensure that one venue’s show dates and classes do not compete against each other for entries. Venue proprietors currently come together to avoid date conflicts but they still occur.

Having a show to go to any day of the week, just down the road, seems attractive but this is short-sighted because too many show dates inevitably dilute rider support and organisers’ rewards.

The allocation of show dates and classes could be re-engineered in a way that more successfully supports a commercially viable tiered network of affiliated venues based on their geographic location, the quality/extent of their facilities and their market. For example, some venues might welcome the opportunity to run more than two classes at the lower dressage levels, rather than a higher-level class that will attract only one or two riders. Riders at such higher levels would need to travel a little further to find a sustainable class.

If the broadly-based dressage community — the professionals as well as the amateurs — support local dressage we can hopefully arrive at a future where venues thrive and are better able to develop and offer locally that ‘good day out’ social occasion that the majority of riders, horse owners and spectators wish to enjoy.

Celia Cadwallader, 2 January 2021
Out and About Dressage Ltd

Tell Out and About, in total confidence, your thoughts on the benefits of Re-regionalisation and supporting venues by completing posting the website’s secure Questionnaire: https://outandaboutdressage.co.uk/a-chance-for-bd-to-build-back-better/ 

Image top: The magnificent facilities at the Hickstead Showground, the site of a Premier League event, 21-23 May 2021