One of the most discussed topics in the horse world has got to be spectators. Does your event have spectators? How do you get spectators? Will spectators pay to come watch my cutting/reining/reined cow horse event? What do spectators need? And, more importantly, do we need spectators? While the issue is oft discussed, the questions, it seems, are rarely answered.

The sad fact of the matter is few Western performance horse events draw a crowd. Not including the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity, National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Futurity and National Reined Cow Horse Association (NRCHA) Snaffle Bit Futurity and a haldful of others, the stands are normally empty as horses and riders showcase their talents in the arena. And that’s a shame, because some of these horses and riders are simply amazing to watch.

One of the cuttings I have been to that actually draws a crowd is the Augusta Futurity. Each January, residents of Augusta, Ga., fill the stadium seats at the James Brown Arena on the show’s final evening, when the Open and Non-Pro finalists battle it out for the big money. They go because the Augusta Futurity is an event. They go for the same reason you or I go to baseball, football or basketball games – to be entertained. And they are. The Augusta Futurity does a fabulous job of keeping the action moving, utilizing the two-minute and 20-minute clocks. At cattle changes and during settling, spectators are entertained with opening ceremonies, award presentations, raffle horse drawings and speeches by people such as the city’s mayor. From start to finish, it’s entertaining.

Think about the last sporting event you attended. Me, I’m a baseball fan. I love the experience of going to the ballpark – buying an overpriced hot dog and sitting in the right field seats, near the bullpen. I love to hear the crack of the ball against the bat and watch an outfielder make a diving catch that defies logic. I am Major League Baseball’s perfect fan, because I love and understand baseball, and I’ll gladly give up my hard-earned money to be entertained as a spectator.

Then there is hockey, a fast-paced sport considered by many to be infinitely more exciting than baseball. Unlike baseball, where I understand all the rules, I don’t know a lot about hockey. (I know more than my friend, who once said she didn’t want to be late or we’d miss the “puck off,” but not much more.) Still, hockey interests me. I should be the National Hockey League’s target market. Live hockey already provides the entertainment. If they also provided live education at the game in real time, I’d be hooked.

Those two factors, entertainment and education, go hand in hand when it comes to spectators, in my opinion. Charity events that rely on ticket sales and spectators, such as the Careity Foundation’s Celebrity Cutting and the NRHA’s A Slide To Remember, utilize expert commentators to emcee the event and explain the action on the arena floor. They educate and entertain, and they draw big crowds.

If you had the chance to attend the NCHA Futurity in the late 2000s, you might remember the “Smart Bugs.” (The same Smart Bug has been used by figure skating, gymnastics, basketball and even the Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show.) Each spectator at the Open finals received a small radio and earpiece that was tuned in to a live broadcast. As each horse and rider competed, experts offered insightful commentary on the run and the scoring system, which not only entertained the crowd, but helped educate casual fans. The “Smart Bug” was one of the most innovative and best ideas I’ve seen used to promote the sport of cutting, and I was sorry to see it end a few years later.

Spectators want to be entertained and they need to be educated. Simply putting on an event and opening the doors has never been, and is still, not enough.