My first visit to the BETA trade show at the NEC was in 1996, twenty-one years ago. By then, I’d been to the ‘Travelling Fair’, I’d already met many of the industry’s luminaries, attended several fairs in other markets; and spent a childhood punctuated by the county show circuit, celebrating my birthday at the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley.
My first BETA, therefore, wasn’t quite the revelation to me that it might have been but if it’s true to say I was born into this industry, my initial immersion into its annual gathering was certainly akin to a baptism…of tweed!
Despite the impressively forward-looking venue (you can’t deny it, ‘proper’ industries have their trade fairs at the NEC), it seemed to me to be a collective populated overwhelmingly by a certain ‘type’: white, middle-aged, land-owning men – mostly decent chaps of course but very much of a particular sort. Yes, if you looked hard enough, you would find a Lucy Carr-Seaman, a Vanessa Roberts or even an Oliver Skeete breaking the monotony but even then the tendency to tweed remained. As the members of the dance group were themselves back then, ‘diversity’ was a concept in its infancy.
I agree, it’s an easy stick with which to beat anyone’s history, especially an industry built around an animal which has been domesticated for millennia and which became functionally obsolete decades previously. Tradition has always been and will always be a potent selling point and, this being Britain, the compulsion to embrace the past is powerful. It’s therefore understandable that an industry such as ours was unlikely ever to have been at the forefront of inclusivity.
Back then, I was determined to survey this familiar world anew with more objective, more professional eyes. I suppose I was mostly amazed by the apparent presumption that ‘horse’ equals ‘country’ and vice-versa – forever and ever, Amen. I’m not saying that the two are unrelated – we can all agree there is significant overlap – but coming from a Northern town set between two of England’s biggest (and at the time, grimiest) cities, it jarred with my experience of burgeoning district shows in which children of scrap metal dealers competed with their suburban friends on ponies provided by their parents’ hard work and social mobility.
Two decades later, it still jars a little – even though I hope I’ve gained a much wider understanding of the complexion of the market we’re here to serve. I can’t deny that in ‘the Shires’ (wherever they may be defined), that rather cosy relationship pervades but it still seems little more than a continuing stereotype to the majority of the rest of the country.
Perhaps these days, it’s really a case of two separate niche industries deliberately combining to create a more sizeable entity, capable of punching together at a heavier weight. Or it’s just a sign of the inertia that comes with the involvement of ‘The Establishment’. Maybe it’s now being perpetuated by new consumers actually ‘buying into’ the well-spun image that ‘horsiness is next to rural-ness’ or possibly it’s got something to do with the ongoing debate about hunting. I don’t know.
I accept ‘the countryside’ is a fertile area for new participants and I realise we mustn’t overlook that, for the sake of the future but I’ve always felt it’s not the only area worthy of attention if equestrianism is ever going to flourish as much as it can.
I therefore attended BETA 2017 (my twenty-second) wondering whether the pace of change had increased much beyond the glacial, being careful not to set my expectations too high…
I can report that we are still disproportionately comprised by a brigade of such ‘chaps’ but nowhere near as much as we were. Fate, the passage of time and commercial opportunity has seen the old patriarchy loosening its grip and becoming increasingly replaced by new people in a variety of shapes, colours, genders and outlooks.
This is important because difference refreshes the thinking of the companies with which we do business – and that invigorates our product development, our marketing strategies, our operational processes, our employee policies and everything else. A former BETA Council colleague, whom I respect hugely, once told me “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I won’t embarrass him by naming him – or by pointing out that he’s one of the very ‘chaps’ I considered back in 1996 – but that’s the very essence of the need for diversity and the main danger of consistency and traditionalism for its own sake. As he’s proven, it mustn’t be presumed that patriarchs are incapable of embracing change but I’m sure he would be the first to agree that fresh thinking is a much more elusive commodity in an environment which displays a reluctance to evolve.
What else remains? The tweed – although now it’s a badge of hipster fashion as much as a uniform of the traditionalists. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, you might conclude – but these days, you’re just as likely to hear it said in French.
- Look out for my next column, about the impact of criticism, in the April issue of the ETN, out April 1st.