Ever taken an Uber, donated to a GoFundMe campaign, or posted a photo on Instagram? Highly likely. Those services are widely used and integrated into our mainstream culture. Yet all three companies aren’t even ten years old.
Now, name a technology that has fundamentally changed equestrian sport or culture in the last decade.
The one that comes to mind are air-vests. They were introduced to the equestrian market in 2009 and have become a staple in eventing.
We could consider the use of helmets in dressage, prompted by Courtney King-Dye’s traumatic brain injury after falling from a horse in 2010. It sparked a change in culture but it wasn’t a disruption by a new technology.
Helmet cams? Virtual riding simulators? Not widely used.
Since I’ve been in the equestrian industry (late 90s), several companies have come in with an innovative product that looks as if it’s going to take over the world. Then, after the initial marketing push, it’s unable to get past the small base of early adopters.
Businesses have had more success modernizing products equestrians already use rather than requiring them to adopt a new behaviour. Riding apparel made with moisture-wicking athletic fabrics, saddles incorporating new technology, eco-friendly grooming products. Evolution (gradual change) rather than disruption.
To penetrate the market in a significant way, it takes an innovation that solves a real problem for many people, combined with a sustained marketing investment. A good example is SmartPak supplements. The individual pre-packaged doses not only save time but they reduce the risk of over-supplementing horses. Every horse owner worries about their horse. Combine that with SmartPak’s marketing might and you’ve got a winner.
I can’t pinpoint the reason why disruption is so difficult in the equestrian market. It’s a combination of factors that make it challenging.
One: The market is extremely fragmented.
If you get Serena Williams to endorse a new racket brand, every tennis fan on the planet is going to know about it. That sponsorship is not going to come cheap, but one top player in that sport can make a significant impact on the bottom line.
In horse sports? Take Steve Guerdat, Tim Price, and Isabell Werth, who are currently ranked number one in show jumping, eventing, and dressage, respectively. You can get them all to endorse a brand, multiply their combined reach by ten, and you probably don’t get to influence 0.01% of the market. Top athletes in our sport have a limited scope of influence.
The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) has ranking lists in eight different disciplines. Then you add non-FEI sports: hunters, polo, horse racing, etc. Neither the athletes nor the competitions cross over, so you have to go after every slice of the market individually. It’s a marketing nightmare.
Two: Habits and routines are ingrained.
Getting consumers to change their behaviour is a challenge in any market but riders’ habits and routines are ingrained from years of training. They’ve learned to do things a certain way, buy certain products, and that’s how it is.
Knowing everything we know about concussions, there are riders who still will not wear a protective helmet unless they are absolutely required to do so. Science and common sense are irrelevant.
Three: Tradition is extremely valued.
I asked a group of sixteen-year-old show jumpers whether it was time to do away with show jackets and ties and introduce an athletic look to the show ring. I thought ‘Teens! They’ll be for breaking all the rules, right?’. Wrong. They were horrified at the suggestion. They wanted them lighter, stretchier and cooler but they all wanted to wear show jackets.
Four: Rigid rules oppress risk-taking.
Riders live in constant fear that they’re going to break an actual or unwritten rule if they try something new. And that’s just regarding the colour of their jacket. Navy? Safe. Plum? Gotta check.
That is not an environment that rewards self-expression and creativity. Therefore, it’s less conducive to embracing innovation.