South African equestrian Victoria Scott-Legendre almost did not make it to the Tokyo Olympics, not because of a lack of talent, but money.
The Olympic organizers pay for flying in the hundreds of horses competing in the Games. But in the Games’ most expensive sport, it’s up to the athletes to cough up the money for grooms, animal feed, airport accommodation and vets for the horses.
“Our sports federation and our equestrian federation can’t afford to give too much to the sport like some of the other federations do, so of course it’s a huge expense for us personally to get here,” the 32-year-old said.
In the end, she took the reins to get to Tokyo in an unconventional way. She cut back her team to one coach and one groom and did not bring a vet.
She also resorted to crowdfunding.
“We were really, really stressed about it and someone proposed to us to do a GoFundMe,” Scott-Legendre said. “We proposed 8,000 euros ($9,455) and we actually got there with worldwide support.”
Equestrian sports are known for their high-society adherents, such as Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Anne who competed for Britain at the 1976 Montreal Games. This year’s Olympic competitors include Jessica Springsteen, singer Bruce Springsteen’s daughter, who is representing the United States in show jumping.
Two horses of the Swedish team, who are also show jumping medals contenders, are owned by Charlotte Söderström, daughter of Stefan Persson, billionaire shareholder of fashion chain H&M.
Others, like British dressage superstar Charlotte Dujardin, have worked their way up from stable hand to become well-paid top athletes. But it can be a financial struggle.
The German Olympic committee for equestrian sports trains young riders so they can support themselves financially within five years. Julia Krajewski, the first woman to win individual eventing gold at the Tokyo Games, benefited from this program.
Riders typically do not own their horses, which may sell for five figures or higher depending on their level of training.
Many riders teach horse riding and train other people’s animals and rely on prize money to help with the thousands of dollars for horse and equipment transport and accommodation.
“Most of the time we don’t recover our expenses just to enter (an) event. So we rely on sponsors or owners. And being a smaller nation I really battle to get both of those,” Scott-Legendre said.
For some, a lucrative day job is the answer. Argentinian show jumper Jose Maria Larocca is a top oil trader at global commodities giant Trafigura and owns three of the four horses his country is competing with in Tokyo.
“I need the job to be able to help me support my sport. Argentina is a little bit removed from the center of the sport that is in Europe, it’s not so easy to get horses and it would be a bit harder [without my job],” he said.