show horse walking through an arena

For the Fun of It?

Have you ever heard of the “bait and switch” method? Simply put, it is the tactic of attracting a person (oftentimes a customer) by promising one thing, but then changing the game once they’re hooked. The “switch” can come in the form of pressuring a customer to spend more money than was originally expected or building up expectations that are outside the realm of the normal results, just to name a couple.

We’ve all seen those commercials for weight-loss drugs that can take you down six pants sizes in two months. The key word is CAN, with the caveat of “results not typical.” While most of us can’t read the white disclaimers at the bottom of the screen, we instinctively know there’s more to it.

The bait and switch is much more concerning when the potential consumer isn’t knowledgeable enough to realize the telltale signs of the ploy. They don’t have the background for their instincts to kick in and say, “That sounds too good to be true; proceed with caution.” Not all “opportunities” seem as clearly flawed as those pitchy TV advertisements.

So, what does all this have to do with the Western performance horse industry?

Quarter horse News letter to the editorIf you flip to page 18, you’ll find a letter to the editor from Darwin Crenshaw. Near the close of his message, he wrote, “Associations die, but only if they continue to take the fun and joy out of it.” It’s a profound statement I believe many in the industry find sobering and true.

Darwin’s email really got me thinking. We all talk about how the enjoyment has left our sports in exchange for ruthless competition that doesn’t allow time for trivial matters like fun. But why? They may be more competitive than ever, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t take it just as seriously decades ago. I pondered this concept for a while and came to a tough conclusion.

In many ways, our industry is guilty of a bait and switch. Our well-meaning grassroots programs and those who advocate for growth in our sports have (unintentionally, in my opinion) “sold” our product in a way that doesn’t represent our world for what it is. We promote the Western performance disciplines in a way that sells “the fun of it,” but we no longer function that way. The demands of large purse sizes to compensate participants mean it’s no longer all about fun.

Instead of selling fun and delivering it, we sell fun and deliver top-notch competition. Sure, most of our newcomers get started with a healthy love for good-hearted rivalry; however, we create an illusion. The big purses of limited-age events are waved around as an incentive, as if the winnings will offset the expense. In reality, our sports are expensive and the stars align in a way that a horse pays for itself, its training and its show bills for very few people. It does happen, but RESULTS NOT TYPICAL.

Have you ever been to a dressage show? High-dollar investors spend plenty of money in that industry and in most cases, the only things on the line are ribbons, trophies and bragging rights. What about an Arabian Horse event? The grandeur is almost unimaginable, the competition is fierce and those folks have more fun at shows than anyone I’ve seen. While we struggle to get young riders involved, a friend’s eventing barn regularly turns prospective students away because they are too crowded. When people join those industries, they go in knowing what they’re getting. Unfortunately, I think we have gained a reputation for not delivering on what we’ve promised.

I am not so naïve to think that there aren’t folks out there who like what we deliver, nor do I believe the majority of industry members mislead fresh blood on purpose. There are many different types of owners and competitors out there, though, and they’re all important. It’s nearly impossible to please all of them with one style of competition or one kind of trainer, but what’s the solution? That’s a question we should all contemplate. I can’t help but think creating a better market for older horses and supporting the shows in which they compete is an important part of the equation. If the weekend, ancillary and horse show classes are meant to get folks started in our sports, we should give them their due.

Another factor in the solution is transparency — and I’m not just talking about at the association level. You know that feeling you have when you make a purchase, but the advertised price is a small piece of what you’re actually charged? The bait of a good deal gets you committed, and the switch is a nickel-and-diming scheme.

I find it hard to believe that we don’t have owners/competitors in our industry who feel the same when they pay a bill — for training, show entries, etc. — and see the list of additional fees for all manners of “extras” that are standard practice.

Perhaps more of an all-inclusive fee would soften the blow and make participants feel like they’re getting more bang for their buck, rather than like they’re being taken for a ride. It’s all about delivering the product in a way that doesn’t alienate their loyalty. Personally, I’d rather pay upfront than feel like I have to pay for each thing individually. It’s just psychology; packages feel like a better deal.

Our industry has seemingly flattened, going from a 3D world with options to a narrow path. If that is the direction we wish to follow, I believe we must accept that and market our sports accordingly. If not, it’s time we make the change. It’s time we practice what we preach and find a way to support those who truly just want to compete in our industry for the fun of it.

This article was originally published in the February 1, 2019 issue of Quarter Horse News.