Is it still a show if no one is watching?

Beezie Madden
One of America’s best riders, Beezie Madden, navigates a grand prix course in front of a lot of empty seats at the 2012 Lexington Classic. Photo: Leslie Potter

Over the weekend, the Horse Illustrated/HorseChannel editorial team spent some time at Road to the Horse. For the uninitiated, this is a competition amongst horsemanship trainers—mostly top level clinicians—in which each competitor starts a colt from the ground up and is judged on his or her progress at the end of three days.

This year was the first time that Road to the Horse was held here in Lexington. When John Nicholson, the director of the Kentucky Horse Park, was quoted in the local paper as saying that he expected it to be the biggest spectator draw to the park’s Alltech Arena since the World Equestrian Games, I was skeptical. But when I arrived on Friday afternoon and started hunting for a parking spot in a sea of vehicles, I conceded that he might have been right.

The arena seats about 6,000, and it was packed to the gills all weekend. And it was an enthusiastic crowd. When the competition was running, everyone was in their seats watching. They yelled and cheered. They even coached the competitors during their obstacle course on the final day. This was a prime spectator event.

We got to talking about it in the office this morning, and wondered why this event was so wildly popular while other top-tier events often struggle to fill seats. For example, the Alltech National Horse Show is a prestigious and well-promoted event, and it seems to do okay at bringing in spectators for the big grand prix. But otherwise, there aren’t huge crowds there.

Last year there was a grand prix held at the Horse Park’s Rolex Stadium that served as an observation event for the Olympics, and nearly all of the U.S. team contenders were there. The weather was good. It was held in the evening, so no conflicts with work or school for most people. And yet…the place was deserted.

The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is an anomaly as far as this goes. Cross-country day is always on a Saturday, and it draws plenty of spectators. People bring their families and their dogs and make a day of it. Even without the somewhat novel thrill of cross-country, Rolex draws a pretty big crowd for stadium jumping on the final day year after year. And that’s not a crowd that shows up just to enjoy the fresh air; they gasp and cheer and ride along with the competitors through the course.

So what is it that makes some equestrian events so wildly popular while others could be taking place in a secret location in Siberia and see just as many spectators show up?

When I lived in Maine, which is not exactly the center of equestrian sport, I would make a pretty big effort to go to an unrecognized show an hour away just to see some horses do something. When I first moved to Lexington, it was almost overwhelming to have so many equine events to attend. I was out at the Horse Park nearly every weekend just to see whatever was going on. I still do drop by pretty frequently in the summer, but since I know each weekend will bring another horse show—usually multiple horse shows—they don’t all feel like must-see events anymore. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why something like the National Horse Show doesn’t sell out. Around here, we know there will always be another jumper show to see. Why go to the one with the pricier tickets?

Do you attend horse shows in your area, and if so, do you see full houses or is it usually a small smattering of spectators? What would entice you to attend a show as a spectator? Pyrotechnics? Free coffee? The Rolling Stones playing a halftime show? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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  1. It usually depends on what type of event is going on the more exciting like rodeo speed events is what I like to see I also enjoyed Road to the horse it was new and exciting to me

  2. What would entice me to attend equine competitions! Lower, more reasonable, ticket prices.
    Publicity in “non-horsey publications” to let those who love horses, but do not own any, know where and when the events are taking place.

  3. Think it comes down to a matter of how someone wants to spend their hard earned $$. I went to Road to The Horse in TN. last year and loved it. Also, while in the south rode with a friend in AL. Would of loved to return this year, but am going to try to make Mustang Event in NJ in August, or QH Congress. Am trying to do more things on my hit parade with my dollars, as well as horse camp and ride.


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