LEXINGTON, Ky. – Much has been made of the improvements to the Kentucky Horse Park and the central Kentucky region leading up to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The arenas and infrastructure are ready, but does the United States have the fan-base to support disciplines such as dressage, show jumping, and vaulting? Brenna Angel has more on the popularity and accessibility of equestrianism.
Before it was announced that the World Equestrian Games were coming to Kentucky, did you know about the eight disciplines that will be featured at the horse park? Had you seen the delicate maneuvers in dressage, the sliding stops in reining, or the acrobatics of vaulting? Perhaps, but even in horse country, many equestrian sports are foreign to local residents. That's the case for Keith Ball, who lives in Nicholasville.
"No not at all. I mean, I like horses, I'll ride em, but I don't know."
Prior to this year's event, the World Equestrian Games were only held in Europe. Ed Young, head of the U.S. Combined Driving Team, says there's a reason for that equestrianism is a big deal over there.
"I would say equestrian sports in many of your countries like Germany, Hungary, Holland are right up there with soccer. Certainly it has not reached that pinnacle in the U.S. at this point. In Europe I think there's much more corporate sponsorship of equestrian sports. I think there's much more certainly media coverage, television coverage."
But organizers of this WEG are changing that, starting with the huge role Alltech has played as the title sponsor. The company has hired staff specifically to market and promote the games. Their efforts piqued the interest of Keith Ball, who went to an informational meeting hosted by Alltech called "Horse Sense."
"I feel the buzz in the central Kentucky community, I feel that buzz. And it's enough to make me look at it and go, Alright well I just want to be a part of it.'"
That's the viewpoint event organizers hope many local residents will take. World Games Foundation CEO Jamie Link isn't a horseman; his background is in accounting.
"Obviously the endemic horse world, the equestrian enthusiast, they these sports and they know this world. But for the casual or even the non-equestrian fan, it has been a bit of challenge to educate them, so that's why we've also tried to really push hard that this is not just a horse event."
So commercials have focused on other activities to take in at the games besides competition: the food vendors, the garden designed by Jon Carloftis, the live music and exhibits. And sports figures John Calipari and Muhammad Ali -- two names Kentuckians are very familiar with -- are also promoting the Games.
It's unlikely that equestrian sports in the United States will ever come close to the popularity of the NFL or college basketball, but interest is growing. Jan Weber says she caught the equestrian bug, and is now a discipline manager for vaulting at the World Games.
"I'm actually not a horse person; I'm allergic to horses. So doing show management is something I can do and still enjoy the horses. I went to my first World Equestrian Games in 2002 in Spain and said I would never miss another one. So in 2014 there in Normandy, France, I'm there."
Weber says you don't have to compete in the sport or even own a horse to appreciate the grace and athleticism of the best horses in the world. And as for media coverage, the NBC Sports will broadcast 8 hours of live coverage of the World Equestrian Games, something officials say is unprecedented for equestrian sports in the United States.