25 years ago | River Thames, London, UK | c.29th April 1998
In April 1998, we are invited to attend the Your Horse magazine industry awards in London. In their fourth year, they were to be presented once again aboard a pleasure cruiser which set off from the Royal Festival Pier, sailing down the Thames almost to the tidal barrier and then back. It was a full day out, and quite ‘liquid’ in more ways than one…
In addition, we’d been nominated for an award: ‘Best Mail Order Company’, with the winner voted for by the readership With more readers than any other magazine in the UK (even the more widely-known Horse & Hound), it was quite an accolade. It seemed to be as close as it was possible to get to an ‘Oscar’ ceremony for such a relatively small industry.
I took the train down to Euston and then the tube to Waterloo. Not being familiar with this part of London, ‘south of the river’, and before the advent of the mobile internet, I expected to need to take a taxi from there. When I got to the front of the taxi queue, I was surprised when the cabbie claimed not to know where The Festival Pier was. Even an out-of-towner from the North knows that every taxi driver has to do ‘The Knowledge’. It made no sense.
It started to make a lot more sense a couple of minutes later when I spotted a sign nearby, advising that the Royal Festival Hall was only a two-minute walk away. So, obviously, was the pier and clearly, the cabbie hadn’t waited for so long in that taxi rank just to get a thirty-second fare.
To tell you the truth, I wish I could remember as much detail about the day itself. The sun shone brightly as we wound our way downstream, showing London’s famous sights, as it often tends to do, in their most flattering light. I think we were already on the hors d’oeuvres as we sailed beneath Tower Bridge. The main course arrived at around the same time as building site of the much-anticipated Millennium Dome. After dessert and drinks, we arrived at the Thames Barrier, where the boat turned around and our hosts started to announce the awards.
As the title to this post suggests, we won the award in our category and I stepped forward to accept the framed certificate and pose for a picture. It’s important here not to get too carried away: winning at one’s industry awards is hardly comparable to collecting an ‘Oscar’ in front of the world’s media but I have to say, it’s a whole lot closer than not winning one. It was still a genuinely thrilling experience and a lovely way to gain a bit of positive PR for months thereafter. Nowadays, the social media value can make the value of such occasions exponentially higher.
Anyway, I’m pleased to have had that experience. It was a lovely day, with good food and good company and it involved a highlight to my career that not everyone can say they have had. That we went on to win this award for a number of years made it even more special.
20 years ago: NEC Arena, Birmingham, UK – 11th October 2002 For two years, we were the main sponsor of the Prince Phillip Cup, the most prestigious competition in the sport of Mounted Games, with the final held at the Horse of the Year Show at the NEC in Birmingham. Helen and I were asked to present the prizes at one of the evening performances, hence the formal attire. I was due to do the same thing a year later but circumstances intervened and I had to decline the invitation – which effectively meant that I ‘stood up’ Princess Anne. Not many people can claim to have done that!
25 years ago | Robinsons Superstore, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK | 13th September 1997
Yes, that’s right, twenty-five years ago, I stroked a celebrity, repeatedly and in full view of the watching public. And I think the celebrity liked it. Okay, this isn’t as creepy as the headline suggests. ‘The celebrity’ was a world-famous horse, ‘Milton’, a former European Showjumping Champion, who’d represented Great Britain at the 1992 Olympics. and he was, at the age of 20, making something of a career out of personal appearances….
If you were re-opening a feedstore for horse feed and bedding in the 1990s, there was no bigger equine celebrity to perform the grand opening than Milton, one of the most famous and successful horses in British showjumping, who’d famously won over a million pounds over the course of his career. Having obligingly ‘cut’ the ribbon (actually two ribbons tied to a tempting carrot, an idea of mine that I’ve since seen copied elsewhere), we invited customers to ‘meet’ him and have their photo taken by him.
We only had him for a few hours and he was marvellously well-behaved throughout. As our time with him was drawing to a close, we posed with the VIH himself.
We’d planned the day meticulously throughout August 1997 and then, following the death of Princess Diana in Paris, we were suddenly aghast that if her funeral was to be scheduled a week later than it was, it would eclipse this once-in-a-blue-moon in-store event. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Thanks also to Adrian (main picture, left) for sending me this photo, earlier this year.
15 years ago: Skipton Horse Trials, Carleton-in-Craven, UK – 25th June 2017 Helen and Nigel take on a cross-country fence at the top of the hill, before turning for home. Of all the events that Helen has ridden at, Skipton was always one of my favourites; the dramatic Yorkshire Dales backdrop added great scenery to whatever level of action photography I’ve been able to conjour. This one isn’t your classic ‘front-on’ jumping pose but the hills in the background and the valley below seem to suit the unusual angle.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to wish a friend “good luck” as they compete at the Olympic Games, so I had the very great pleasure of sending my very best of wishes to Carlos Parro of Brazil – as he competed with his ride, Goliath, at the Tokyo Olympics.
With a young horse against a formidable field and an almost all-conquering Great Britain team, Carlos and Goliath battled the heat, the fences and the occasion to finish 32nd on a score of 62.90.
The effect of the year’s delay on this Games means the next shot at Olympic glory will be in Paris in just three years time – meaning Goliath should be a much more mature prospect by then. Of course, any eventer would add to that, ‘injuries permitting’ because this is such a demanding sport and very little can be taken for granted, even from one month to the next.
It should be safe for me to assume that you have some idea of the existence of BETA. It may be something of a leap to expect that, as a consequence, you’re reading this as a representative of a BETA Member company. I hope you are but you may not be. You may not even know, one way or the other. Whether member or not, do you feel confident that you know enough about the body that represents your industry?
I sat on the BETA Council for over twelve years and, to me, it’s a quintessentially British institution that manages to combine world-leading expertise and professionalism with a noble, amateur ethos. Like Schrödinger’s cat, it exists simultaneously in a competitive environment and the realm beyond mere commerce. It’s a benefit-laden private members’ club, an upholder of safety standards and a powerful lobbying force for an entire industry. It stands up for the interests of the retailer and also those who would supply them, even when the two positions can seem incompatible. BETA is, in many ways, a litany of contradictions that defy simple definition. For all of these reasons, it seems that it has an unrivalled capacity to polarise opinion, “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t”.
I’ve met non-members who’ve claimed it’s an ineffectual body that’s happy to charge for membership but offers little value and questioned if they’d done enough research to justify that position. I’ve also encountered staunch members who were frustrated at the limits of BETA’s influence or what they deem to be its over-inclusivity and wondered if they think they’re paying to be part of a cartel. Like the BBC, BETA only seems able to demonstrate its impartiality by displaying an uncanny ability to court equal dissatisfaction from all sides – which, when you think about it, takes some doing.
To me, it’s a telling comparison because there are lots of similarities between the two institutions. I love the BBC but I’m well aware that there are many who do not. I’ll be the first to admit the Beeb is not perfect but I wish it wouldn’t spend so much time justifying itself to those who happen to dislike paying for it. Of all the taxes I’ve ever paid, my ongoing contribution to maintaining it is the one I make the most gladly. Having done so, I still accept that merely buying a TV licence gives me no divine right to complain the second the schedules include something I might not want to watch, however expensively-produced. The BBC is consistently included in independently-compiled lists of the world’s most-trusted brands and it seems to command a level of affection overseas that’s wholly disproportionate to its reach and appeal. Does any of this sound familiar?
There’s also the issue of ‘mission creep’ in a changing world. Yes it’s important to have a clear vision of one’s raison d’être from the outset but robust self-definition can be a hampering factor when changes occur that the writers of the constitution couldn’t possibly have foreseen. The BBC’s website has undergone several culls of material since deemed ‘non-core’ to its Reithian principles in order to demonstrate value and retain overall relevance. Equally, BETA has had to exercise some re-enlightenment from time to time to accommodate an explosion in the number of forms of selling. Both institutions must also tailor their offering to a changing demographic, continually challenging all the safe assumptions of the past. In the case of ‘Auntie’, it’s all about ensuring minority communities are commensurately given a voice. Similarly, today’s less stereotyped horse world must be more effectively understood and represented. I remember one particular late-night debate at which I argued about the dangers of BETA aligning itself too closely with the pro-hunting lobby simply because that’s what it had always done.
And then there’s the issue of what BETA doesn’t do. When commercial disagreements occur between parties, I’m afraid “it’s business”, governed ultimately by the law of the land. There’s obviously a limit to what BETA can do in such disputes. It can advise its members but don’t expect it to stand in binding arbitration. BETA can’t enact any level of direct enforcement beyond rescinding a membership – and even then only where clear infractions have occurred.
I suppose the most easily-thrown hand grenade is the belief that BETA is somehow a secret club, more interested in its own self-enrichment than fulfilling any greater purpose. Again, just like the BBC, BETA’s stakeholders are entitled to regular disclosure of all the finances, something that, oddly, most conspiracy theorists seem not to have taken the trouble to establish. When I was first invited onto the Retail Committee by BETA’s founding father, Antony Wakeham, he promised me no benefit from my involvement beyond “altruism” and, I have to say, he was true to his word. For each meeting attendance, I was able to claim the princely sum of £35 in expenses – if you think that’s a sign of a gravy train, try getting from Wigan to London and back for that amount!
We live in an age where information has never been more freely available so there’s really no excuse for not knowing more about BETA and what it can do for you. As this is an opinion column, I’ll end by giving you mine: BETA is run by a dedicated team of talented, knowledgeable people, led for almost twenty years by, Claire Williams, who, I assure you, is nothing less than an absolute star. It is guided by a broad selection of highly-experienced, poorly-rewarded Council and Committee members who, above all else, care deeply about the future of your industry – perhaps occasionally, a little too much. BETA may not be perfect, it may cost a little more than you’d prefer and it won’t ever be a panacea to cure all ills but it’s what we have – and, I might add, it’s an asset much-envied by those in many other industries. Please don’t ever take it for granted.
For Christmas, we bought our 12 year-old son a course of riding lessons at an Equestrian Centre operated by friends. He’s grown up around horses and, as my wife Helen is a keen BE 90 and 100 eventer, he’s always enjoyed a day out at the events at which she competes.
We’ve always encouraged him to participate in sport. He’s played rugby league for one of the top amateur clubs in Wigan (which, as it’s the home of the World Club Champions, is a pretty big deal) and he’s the reigning U-13s ‘Bowling Award’ recipient at our local cricket club. He’s a useful goalkeeper and in June, he’ll participate in the Great North Swim (half-mile) in Windermere. You can safely say he knows his way around a changing room.
This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to harness his equestrian talents – and the last attempt (at a different yard) didn’t end well. In fact, those few lessons might have represented the entirety of his riding career. Highly-recommended as it was, the place was small, poorly-lit, lacking in basic facilities, held together in part by baling twine and surrounded by pot-holed, muddy surfaces.
Of course, we’re all familiar with ‘the horse world’ – we use that phrase, don’t we, as if we inhabit a ‘Harry Potter’-style otherworld but in reality, it’s mostly a shorthand for ‘lower your expectations’. Back in the ‘muggle’ world, some of the parents of the other children present must have wondered what on earth they were doing there. I imagine they were initially thrilled to explore this rather glamorous world of horses and all its stereotyped allure of power, wealth and mystery. If so, it wouldn’t have taken long for their preconceptions to crumble. If they went, hoping for Jilly Cooper, they found the reality was more like Henry Cooper.
“I won’t remember your names, I shall just refer to you by your pony so each of you remember your pony’s name” shrilled the almost comically Blytonesque instructor. Her instruction, while technically adept, was delivered in militaristic fashion, schoolmarmly in the extreme. Was this a lesson for beginners or an initiation test? With such uninspiring surroundings and questionable levels of encouragement, it didn’t take long for the magic to fade to our then 9 year-old and eventually, after one unfortunately-executed flick of a lunge whip had connected with his buttock, not the pony’s, there was no going back. Literally.
It wasn’t that he disliked horses or riding, just that the positives of the experience weren’t sufficient to sustain his interest in the face of so many negatives. Speaking from my own experience, I’m tempted to conclude that this is a particularly male reaction. For girls, the horse or pony always seems to represent more than just the means of conveyance but also a companion to look after, to form a bond with, to understand. I’m not saying boys are neglectful or uncaring but in general, riding to them is primarily another form of experiencing the thrill of motion or, more basically, danger. Everything else it involves is merely a means to achieve that end. Ergo, if boys are denied the fun and left only with the sense of connection with the animal for their motivation, I’m afraid it’s safe to conclude that most will opt out.
How do I know? I remember being thrown (and trampled) at a similar age and reaching the point that I wondered why I was doing this. The fact that I chose not to pursue riding any further was not due to it being wholly negative but that other sports entered my world, sports that were lower maintenance, less punishing, more fun and infinitely more cool.
In the thirty-odd years since then, it seems equestrianism has hardly progressed in its attitude to boys. Maybe there’s even less incentive to even try to include them today, in the face of the efforts of football, rugby, cricket etc. to recruit their stars of tomorrow. Perhaps the status quo is just too comfortable.
About twenty years ago, I read an opinion piece in an American riding magazine which argued that, confronted with the combined marketing efforts of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, was it really a surprise that so few boys wanted to take part in a sport that required them to dress in attire that had hardly changed in centuries? I’m sure you could re-print that article today and it would be no less challenging or relevant.
And here lies the essence of the problem: it’s a vicious circle. Riding is simply not welcoming enough to boys, therefore it’s unpopular with boys, which inevitably skews it towards girls. This has the effect of marking it out as “a girls’ sport” to the mainstream, which acts as a further disincentive to any boy who then dares to cross the Rubicon. I’m thrilled that our son is learning to ride but I’m well aware that indiscriminately posting pictures of his lessons on social media would mortally wound his peer credibility.
I know we mustn’t take for granted the number of girls coming into the sport but in comparison to boys, it’s always been a far easier sell. The 2015 BETA survey reports that while 26% of all regular riders are male and that 27% are under 16, there’s no published data to suggest how those under-16 riders are split, boys to girls. Anecdotally, I’d suggest it’s far more skewed to girls than the 26:74 we might like to presume. Can we afford to believe that we’ve done all we can to make riding accessible to boys just because it’s a little more difficult to attract and maintain their interest?
One sacred cow to consider sacrificing is the supposed attribute that equestrian sport has greater value because both male and female riders compete together. Swedish academic Birgitta Plymoth produced a paper in 2013: ‘On the Difference Between Masculine Needs and Feminine Practices in the Context of Swedish Equestrian Sports’ and cited the story of the Zetterman Stars all-male showjumping team as an example of how gender segregation can help to restore the appeal of the sport to male audiences, thereby increasing male participation. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m imagining a cross between HOYS and ‘Robot Wars’ and already, it’s appealing to my inner 9 year-old. Is equestrian sport prepared to be so bold in order to maximise its future participation?
Or should we just re-print this article in the 2037 ETN?
Look out for my next post, about the pros and cons of producing a catalogue, in the July issue of ETN, out July 1st.
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.
‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’, as the old saying goes but in the world of recycling, such a sentiment is little short of a mindset. Any form of consumption or manufacture that produces a by-product or other waste is simply an opportunity to provide a benefit elsewhere. If it can’t do that, then it truly is an ‘ill wind’.
So it is the case with JeeGee bedding, made by J&G Environmental, a member of the CSG family of companies. For eight years, it has successfully turned waste cardboard into an effective bedding for stabled animals, mainly horses. Highly absorbent and producing very little dust, as any horse owner will tell you, makes it an ideal bedding substance for any equine.
In recent months, J&G Environmental has agreed a contract with a manufacturer of egg trays to make an even softer, almost dust-free variant of JeeGee bedding from their rejected, unused egg trays. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of shredded egg trays to make up a 20kg bale of JeeGee bedding but they’re made in such vast quantities that even a tiny proportion of rejected trays soon requires that they’re put to some use. To the manufacturer, even their rejected goods can still have a value and to J&G, it’s an exclusive source of materials that are perfectly suited to the purpose.
Of course, horses are well used to sleeping in the recycled waste goods from human civilisation. For as long as recorded time can tell, straw, that well-known by-product of harvested grain, has provided warmth, comfort and sewage absorption to domesticated horses all over the world. Being a biodegradable product itself, it then goes on to fulfil a third role after its use on a stable floor as a base for plant fertiliser. It’s a ‘circle of life’ thing, you might say. The only downside to this centuries-old arrangement is that straw can be quite dusty and for some horses, this can be a problem.
In more recent times, many horse owners have preferred another by-product, wood shavings and sawdust, to do this job. Generally more absorbent than straw and usually producing less dust, shavings offer a more effective option, even if they tend to command a higher price.
Compared to these more traditional alternatives, JeeGee bedding continues the evolution, being described as even more absorbent and almost dust-free. One customer even remarked that her pony, who suffers from laminitis (a condition in which an inability to tolerate carbohydrates and sugars can result in severe foot soreness), found the softer surface much more comfortable to stand on. Another advantage over straw and shavings is that it’s much less likely to stick to your clothes when you spread it around the stable. When you have to do this several times a week, such a minor thing can become a real annoyance!
Bagged at J&G’s site in Blandford, Dorset, JeeGee bedding is sold locally in the area via JeeGee’s Facebook page. As the previous level of cardboard recycling did not require the products to be sold any further afield, there hasn’t been any wider distribution than that. With the success of the egg tray product, it’s likely that that may have to change. J&G will be happy to provide a quote to deliver any quantity of either bedding to any address – obviously the further away from Dorset, the more expensive it’s likely to be.
To coin a new saying, ‘you can’t make top quality horse bedding without breaking up a few egg trays’…
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