As we entered the arena on Saturday morning, there was a nasty fall. My children gasped in horror as a 13.2 hands palomino pony with a young rider attempted what seemed to me to be an overlarge spread, and ended up like a starfish on the ground. The rider appeared to be hurt, for an agonising few minutes, but then remounted and continued. My daughter's friend spent much of the day averting her eyes.
Throughout the afternoon the commentator was plugging the excitement to come that evening with the introduction of the now infamous Bank. This is a cross- country device, while Wembley is an indoor arena with a very different atmosphere, and artificial surfaces.
The reason for this attempt at novelty seems clear to me. The arena, when I was there, was hardly half-full. The stalls surrounding the event were pretty deserted. The hospitality suites opposite me were largely empty.
The British Show Jumping Association, which underwrites the event, clearly has a financial problem. I was sitting in the second best seats, and the tickets, which excluded the big evening events, cost me pounds 65. With parking ( pounds 6) and programme ( pounds 4), taking the total to pounds 75, even before drinks and burgers, the event is not cheap.
The Horse of the Year Show has always fallen between two stools. It is a place for the seriously horsey: the contestants in key events have been through many qualifying rounds before being admitted to the spotlights. But it takes place in a relentlessly urban, ugly setting. It also knows it is in the entertainment game, hence the heavy horses who turn out for regular events, and the various mounted troops who put on wonderful displays. What happened on Sunday was that it was tempted a mite too far.
But again, I can see why. More than three million people ride, many more love watching horses, but televised show jumping is not a ratings puller any more. Horse and Hound magazine, in its Show issue, is deeply upset at the way the BBC has been down-grading the event, preferring to screen only edited short excerpts on Saturday and Sunday, rather than the nightly coverage it once gave.
The magazine is, to my mind, unpleasantly snooty about the way that Sky Sport is taking up The Horse of the Year Show, saying that the sort of people who watch show jumping don't like satellite television. Well, my family does, and we enjoyed Sky's coverage. One of its three expert commentators was also, thank goodness, a woman: the BBC sticks with David Vine.
But the BBC is surprisingly poor at devising pony or horse- based programmes for children, allowing Channel 4's If Wishes Were Horses . . . to lead the way. Yet both Channel 4 and the BBC have been spicing up their coverage of three-day events. The Burghley horse trial coverage on Channel 4 was excellent. Mark Phillips, the course designer, explained the cross-country element in a helpful manner, and there were excellent maps. The next weekend, at Blenheim, the BBC showed what it is like jumping one of these fences by putting a camera on the rider's hat. These sorts of devices can spice up events for armchair viewers, without endangering anyone. Why don't they do it at The Horse of the Year Show?
But above all, the horse world needs to improve its image, fast. Why are the show ring commentators so heartily plummy? Why is it assumed that horses and military go together? Why not more information about the horses, and the courses, and what we are watching? It would help too if horses had nice names, like Foxhunter, instead of Everest Rides Again. The company sponsors are far too intrusive: every event is topped off by women in expensive suits tottering on unsuitable heels over to the winning horse. The horse is usually so alarmed by the invasion it jerks away.
Show jumping and top-class eventing lacks stars who can talk well to camera. At the Olympics the British team, which might have used the event to become national heros and heroines, performed disappointingly. Where is the Pat Smyth of the 1990s? Or the Nigel Kennedy of the show ring? Many of the leading names, including David Broome, Michael and John Whitaker, are fantastic professionals: if only they could also do a Gazza for the sport, and enthuse about the joys of riding.
The irony is that most of the contestants, if you can get near them, are friendly, down to earth, and happy to have their mounts patted and petted. This year we attempted to go behind the scenes and visit the stables, only to be turned back by the security guards. I think on balance I will be at the Horse of the Year Show next year. I hope it will still be there. I am beginning to have my doubts.Reuse content