So you want to be a “living, breathing, walking, talking advertisement?” That’s what a sponsored rider is, asserts equestrian sports marketer Connie Sawyer. She’s the agent for Olympic champion show jumper Beezie Madden and has worked in the thick of equestrian sports marketing at its highest levels for many years and in various roles.
Successful sponsorships are mutually beneficial relationships. Each entity reflects positively on the other and has authentic appreciation for what the other brings to the table. It’s a fair trade of products, services, publicity and, sometimes cash, for the rider’s ability to convey quality and engender trust within their sphere of influence.
The bigger that sphere, the better.
In the english disciplines, cash is usually reserved for the most elite equestrians, often as a performance bonus attached to international medals. Complimentary product in trade for endorsements and promotional efforts are the norm for most arrangements. These range in dollar value from significant — high-end saddles or thousands of dollars in apparel, feed and equipment each year — to discounted product and one-off freebies.
The rider’s genuine belief in a company’s product is critical to all mutually beneficial sponsorship arrangements. Beyond that, “sponsorships take many forms,” says Susan Alcala, Ariat International’s Vice President of Partnership Marketing. “I encourage people not to be so quick to assume what a sponsorship would look like. Riders should think about what is important to them long term. Then, think about what products they genuinely use and love and go for that. The goal is authentic, meaningful partnerships.”
Some riders are focused on their riding career. Others look beyond that. In those cases, a potential sponsor’s commitment to building their profile might be more important than cash. Think about what the brand can offer in exposure and experience, Alcala urges.
Good character is essential to Ariat and other brands. Companies in the horse health sector also prioritize hands-on horsemanship and knowledge. Across all sectors, medals and big fan bases are nice, but neither will outweigh a potential ambassador’s reputation.
Good character is attainable for riders anywhere on the accomplishment scale. When LEG Insurance Services started looking for young riders to help promote its then-young brand, LEGIS chief Marnye Langer sought juniors whose integrity, reputation and horsemanship approach aligned with the company’s.
Idaho-based Rachel and Kayla Long and Californian Trent McGee caught her notice as hard working kids who were “young and hungry like I was at their age.” Polite and respectful conduct at shows, coupled with horsemanship skills and a hard work ethic, fit her bill.
“When a round doesn’t go well, don’t you dare take it out on your horse or other people,” says Langer of what she looked for then and now. “I like to see riders with passion. And good manners.” An amateur jumper competitor, she finds time to write thank you notes to show sponsors and she expects LEGIS ambassadors to maintain similar habits.
Credit toward Langer Equestrian Group competitions, “a little cash” and being featured in ads and social media campaigns are among the perks of being a LEGIS-sponsored rider. Career advice is often part of the deal, including business basics like understanding a sponsorship contract, upholding promises agreed to in it and social media monitoring and coaching.
Despite several years of sponsoring young riders, Langer is surprised that none have resulted from riders approaching LEGIS first. “I’d be so impressed if someone said, ‘I’ve seen this and would like to know what it takes? And would you consider me?” She’s had mothers do that on their kids’ behalf and was not impressed.
Frankie Thieriot Stutes, founder of the equine marketing firm Athletux, is all for riders reaching out to brands on their own, but suggests they get some advice first. “It’s easy to come across as unprofessional.” Approaching one clothing company for a sponsorship when your social media feed features pictures wearing another brand will negate interest, even if your following is big and active.
Put some effort into pitches. Most companies get many inquiries. These range from reflecting zero knowledge of the company’s product to riders who’ve researched it online and talked about it with their peers and/or veterinarian. Both are memorable: the former for being insulting and the latter for being compelling.
Budget and marketing priorities may cause a business to decline a sponsorship for reasons unrelated to the rider’s character, accomplishments or potential. Handling a rejection graciously can turn a “no” into a “maybe later” by leaving a positive impression. Consider it a connection to nurture over time, brand reps advise.
Be Mindful: Be Real
The first step in representing brands is to become a carefully cultivated brand yourself. “It’s important to put a positive spin on yourself and on the horse industry,” says Hope Glynn, an ambassador for Ariat and others. “Nobody wants a rider who is arrogant or doesn’t have a good social media appearance. By that, I don’t mean beauty. I mean being a positive person.”
Authenticity is modern marketing’s holy grail and it’s key to building an active follower base. Politeness and professionalism are important to that pursuit.
Perfection is not.
“It’s good to have a sense of humor on social,” Glynn continues. “You don’t have to be perfect all the time. Post the good and the fails. Sponsors want content that is real: to see you using the product at shows or in your everyday routine at home. They don’t want just the pose.”
“There is so much pressure to be perfect and polished,” notes Entrigue Consulting’s Kelly Artz of the biggest mistake she sees young riders and young professionals make on social media. “I think those who come from a place of learning and are willing to share that have more value.” It’s a balancing act, she acknowledges. “A lot of young professionals either under promote themselves or they promote themselves in a way that is kind of cocky, and that’s not ideal either.”
Be mindful of what’s in the background of a video or photo post, advises Athletux. Poop in the paddock behind the main subject — however blurry — could project a lazy horsekeeper to a prospective sponsor.
Audience engagement is as important as size. “People get hyper focused on the number of followers,” Artz says. “Companies want to know that your followers are interacting with your accounts.”
Ice Horse founder Julia Garella-Williams isn’t interested in the rider with 20 sponsors. For the company’s science-backed therapeutic products, “I want a person who has hands-on involvement with the horse’s care and is really focused on that.”
Glynn, an Ice Horse ambassador, prides herself on being able to explain why a sponsor’s products are more effective than those of its competitors. “Companies want ambassadors who know about their product, who are out there representing it in a knowledgeable way,” Glynn says.
Think about what products you are comfortable representing. For riders representing horse health brands, authenticity might entail discussing something about a horse that could lower its re-sale value. Lack of candor, however, can make for dull, generic testimonials that are less convincing and less likely to convert to sales.
And think about what segment of the equestrian audience you are most capable of delivering for the sponsor. Young East Coaster Ella Doerr parlayed pony hunter success and hands-on horse care to bring LEGIS, Haygain and other brands to the attention of her fellow young riders. They don’t control the family budget, but they influence their parents who do. Demo-ing Haygain hay steamers for friends at shows and writing for the Chronicle Of The Horse are two examples of this hard working teenager’s ability to bring her sponsors to wider audiences.
Think Big Picture
Artz encourages big picture thinking in her client riders. Targeting the Olympics is a terrific goal, she acknowledges, but most who have it should broaden it to ask themselves: “Olympics…and then what?”
With or without Olympic ambition, riders should target sponsorships that provide value beyond free or discounted product. Her client Sarah Lockman exemplifies that approach. Prior to earning Individual gold at the Pan Am Games in 2019, Sarah already had a large sales business in Southern California. Lockman’s use and endorsement of her sponsors’ products influenced those who tested and/or purchased horses from her. Now, her sponsors have that inroad with new horse owners along with the credibility that comes with an international medal.
An open mind is another of Lockman’s assets. Several years ago, she responded positively to a stranger’s phone call. It was a man interested but inexperienced in dressage, asking if she’d take on a Friesian he’d bought sight unseen.
“Some trainers don’t give newcomers the time of day,” Artz notes. Lockman said “yes.” The caller, the late Jerry Ibanez, wound up backing her international pursuit on a large scale. He purchased several horses, including her Pan Am gold partner, First Apple.
Business guidance, industry introductions and educational opportunities are non-monetary benefits some companies provide sponsored riders.
“Sometimes the really savvy riders, often the more experienced riders, value PR and advertising over anything else,” says Ariat’s Alcala. For those looking to careers after riding, “the more awareness, publicity and credibility they can build, the better.”
More May Not Be Better
Thieriot Stutes advises young riders to be careful about sponsorships in which the company provides only slightly discounted product or an occasional freebie of modest value. They can be a good way to learn the ropes of brand representation and earn the notice of bigger brands. “It can also backfire,” she says.
“Some young professionals underestimate their worth, especially those who have a big following.” Working hard for very little can dilute the value of what other sponsors are willing to provide, now and in the future. “It’s better to work with fewer companies and do a great job for them,” Thieriot Stutes says. “Think about the time it takes to do a good job for each brand.”
Ariat’s ambassador line-up includes Olympians Beezie Madden, Will Simpson, Boyd Martin, Phillip Dutton and Gina Miles, hunter stars Hope Glynn and John French and their peers in western disciplines. However, young riders and those with less experience should not consider Ariat and other big brands out of their league, Alcala asserts. That’s especially true for young riders with long term goals in the sport.
“If someone starting out in the sport genuinely loved Ariat, built a decent following and did a good job with their user content and tagged us, we’d see it. I’d keep an eye on them.”
Glynn estimates spending three hours a week on sponsor related activities. That includes talking with reps, sharing marketing ideas, creating and editing social media videos, etc. She meets with her sponsors twice yearly to strategize how they can work together and learn about new products, etc. “That’s what being an ambassador is.” Glynn also helps her daughter Avery maintain her growing presence as a brand ambassador.
The time commitment should correspond with the value of what the sponsor is providing. It never hurts, however, to exceed expectations.
For all her equestrian accomplishments and sizable social media following, Glynn credits communication skills and the knowledge she gained earning a business degree as critical to her effectiveness for her brands. “I understand how products should be marketed.”
Staying in regular touch with sponsor liaisons is important. Responding to email and phone messages promptly are highly valued business basics. It takes time. If you don’t have it, consider working with an agent or appoint a trusted team member to be the regular point person for your sponsors. “Inform and train your staff to know and understand who your sponsors are,” says Sawyer.
Written, signed agreements stating what the rider and the company will provide in the partnership are critical. Following and engaging with social media accounts, posting authentic content about how the product is being used, providing photos with appropriate usage permissions, and availability for interviews and photo shoots are common expectations of a sponsoring company. Riders should revisit the contract frequently throughout its duration to ensure delivery of promised assets.
Fulfilling or over-fulfilling the deliverables is a good way to ensure renewal at the end of the contract’s term, possibly a more lucrative arrangement after proving what you can deliver. Equestrian is a relatively small industry in which people talk to each other. Word of mouth endorsements from one company rep to another can open new doors.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article, Kim F Miller, is ambassador liaison for Haygain, manufacturer of Haygain High-Temperature Hay Steamers and ComfortStall Sealed Orthopedic Flooring.