Sponsorship: a game of give & take

Sponsors are the lifeblood of equestrian sport, but like any relationship, it has to work both ways

In the age of social media, you don’t need to be a top professional athlete to secure sponsorship. Many companies are starting to use everyday riders to promote their goods, as they are possibly perceived as being more ‘authentic’. 

However, being a sponsored rider means much more than just getting free stuff. Sponsorship is essentially a business transaction: companies expect something tangible in return for their investment. A generic ‘thank you to my sponsors’  Facebook post on Monday morning is no longer anywhere near enough.

So, just how do you attract a sponsor and, once you have one, how do you keep them happy? Here’s our guide to sponsorship: how it works, what to expect, what you should (and should never) do.

A matter of trust

The general manager of Weatherbeeta New Zealand, David Jones-Parry, has sponsored riders for decades through the company’s Weatherbeeta, Dublin, Collegiate and Bates brands. Dressage rider Louisa Hill and eventer Bryce Newman have each been riding in sponsored Bates saddles for more than 20 years, and David has stood by them through all the highs and lows.

David Jones-Parry of Weatherbeeta NZ (image: Libby Law)

“That’s one of the things we look for in sponsorship of riders and events – we want long-term relationships, rather than just a quick flash in the pan. We like to think that we are very loyal,” explains David. 

The other Bates-sponsored riders are Emily Cammock, Anya Durling, Scott McKenna, Janet Shaw, Bill and Anya Noble, Chloe Phillips-Harris, Anne Watts, Kirsten Hence and Bundy Philpott. David says there is nothing like having reasonably high-profile riders actually using the saddles; however, they must truly believe in the product.

“I remember years ago we had a stand at the Taupo three-day event and a prominent rider approached me, saying they would love to ride in Bates saddles. They were using another quite well-known brand at the time, but told me that was only because they were given them for free. That would be our worst nightmare from a company perspective, and I’ve never forgotten it. That’s why I’ve always chosen people who are genuinely passionate about our product – that’s been the real key.”

Trust between sponsors and riders is crucial. David had one sour experience, when a Bates-sponsored rider appeared on the cover of a magazine clearly using a different brand of saddle. Needless to say, that ended the relationship. “We had no idea it was coming until the magazine landed on my desk. It was thoughtless.”

Every week, the company receives enquiries for sponsorship, both from individual riders and from event organisers. Many of these requests for goods, money or services don’t stipulate what is being offered in return. There are a few factors that will make a rider stand out from the dozens who seek support.

“It could be a rider that people want to associate with because they give a lot of lessons or are winning all the time; then it becomes aspirational. We also tend to look for riders who are very active on social media. And they must be good communicators,” says David.

The Dublin-sponsored riders receive clothing to wear and are asked for honest feedback; they include Kelsey Leahy, Chloe Phillips-Harris, Kirsten Hence and Danielle Simpson, who are all well-performed, although not necessarily household names. 

Dublin-sponsored rider Kirsten Hence (image: Libby Law)

“Dublin is not aimed at a high-end market, but it represents excellent value for money, so it’s about getting riders who fit into that,” explains David. He selected Kelsey partly because of her strong social media following, but also for her business acumen.

“Kelsey is such an open, bubbly person and she is blessed with a commercial brain. She thinks about it from a business perspective – not just what’s in it for her. She is a great communicator, and so genuine.”

David is also behind Bates’ 22-year-long sponsorship of the National Dressage Championships. “Event sponsorship enables us as a company to give back to the sport. Again we look for long-term relationships and our relationship with Dressage New Zealand is another one that we are extremely proud of.”

The sponsored rider: Kelsey Leahy

Kelsey Leahy

Q: Are you a professional rider?

A: No, I’m am an amateur with only one horse, but my husband and I have a racehorse training business, so I ride track work every morning.

Q: How long have you been sponsored by Dublin? 

A: This is my fourth season. I saw they were advertising for an ambassador on their Facebook page, so I sent in an application and hoped for the best. It was the first time I’d ever applied for sponsorship, so I was delighted.

Q: Do they send you free clothes on a regular basis?

A: I have a set budget per year, but luckily they are very generous and I often get extras!

Q: What are you expected to do in return?

A: I have to do a monthly report and a certain number of social media postings. I attend their yearly conference in Auckland and try to get to their seasonal product launches as well.

Q: What else do you do to keep your sponsor happy?

A: I showcase their products as much and as well as I possibly can. I keep in touch regularly.

Q: Do you have any tips for riders about how to approach a sponsor?

A: I think a really good proposal is key, with clear goals. State how the partnership can mutually benefit both parties. Stay in touch, supply photos whenever possible and always act professionally on social media – you don’t want to be one of those keyboard warriors!

Stand by the product

Top dressage rider and coach Vanessa Way has a long list of sponsors. But when she was still a relative unknown, Vanessa ‘stalked’ the companies she’d like to have an association with, including her first and longest-lasting sponsor, feed company NRM. 

“It started with a $500 feed voucher. Now I am their number-one sponsored rider,” she says.

“I’ve fed NRM feeds ever since I could afford hard feed. I really believe in the product, so it’s neat that I’m still in a relationship with them all these years later.”

Vanessa is also sponsored by NSC Saddles, Vetpro, Syncroflex HA, Waikato Equine Vets, Zilco, ORO Equestrian, Haygain Haysteamers, New Plymouth Vet Group, Saddlery Direct, Marsh Insurance, M&J Farrier Supplies, Laine Cameron and Equissage NZ. 

Vanessa Way: it’s all about relationships (image: Libby Law)

“The majority of my relationships are from years ago, when I was on the bones of my bum,” she says. “They’ve stuck by me, some of them for 25 years. 

“It’s funny how things change – now people approach me. But my top tip is that you’ve got to stand by the product. I’ve had opportunities in the past that I’ve walked away from, because it wasn’t a good fit.”

Initially, Vanessa found a professional-looking CV was helpful in securing sponsorship – she included dressage statistics and lots of photos. “They want to see a horse and a face. You have to sell yourself,” she believes.

Vanessa runs busy teaching clinics around the country, which she feels gives her a distinct advantage. “Some of my sponsors, like NRM and Equissage, have joined my clinics and used them to promote their products. I’ve also given them lessons to use as promotion. And my horses always look good and go well, which is an advertisement in itself.”

She is active on social media through her Facebook page Dressage Vanessa’s Way, and posted a popular series of ‘top tips’ videos, even donning a Santa suit at Christmas. When she was overseas, Vanessa also wrote a newsletter regularly, to keep her sponsors in the loop. “You need to keep communication going. You are part of their company, so they’ve got to feel that you’re working as a team.”

Finally, it seems, good manners get you everywhere. Vanessa is careful to acknowledge the sponsors of shows and classes she competes in, both on her Facebook page and personally. “I always try to have a special talk with them. Dressage is very small and we need to look after everyone involved in our sport.”

Spelling matters

As the equine nutritionist at Dunstan Horsefeeds, Gretel Webber is regularly approached for sponsorship. Her top tip? Spelling is important! Sending an email in text language is an absolute faux pas – yes, that really does happen.

“A proposal should be professional and well thought out. It doesn’t have to be extensive, but it should include accurate details about what you do, highlight successes and be well written. We’d also like you to think of how you can promote our business in an original way. Saying you’ll wear our branded jacket or put our logo on your horse float just doesn’t cut it. A well-known brand needs more than just brand recognition from sponsored riders. They must also have been using the product for some time and believe in it – that is a given.”

Dunstan’s Gretel Webber

Dunstan sponsors a small group of riders: Melissa Galloway, Rebecca and Tyler McKee, Olivia Robertson, Christine Weal, Nakeysha Lammers and Mathew Dickey. They also have a special relationship with Jeff McVean, who has been associated with Dunstan for almost 30 years.

“We keep the numbers smaller so as not to cheapen the brand, and also so we can do the right thing by the riders and provide them with quality jackets and other merchandise. We’ve got close relationships with all of our riders, which you can do if you’ve only got a few of them,” explains Gretel.

Dunstan’s riders are allocated a certain amount of feed each month. However, Gretel points out that it’s not all about getting free stuff. Many riders like to be associated with a leading company like Dunstan because it’s good for their own brand.

Being a nice person also counts. “Our sponsored riders are really easy to get along with. Although they are very successful in their own right, which is fantastic, it’s not all about that. It’s also about being able to educate the market. For example, I get a lot of referrals from Christine (Weal) because she is in my region, so she is actually leveraging our brand for us. We don’t expect our riders to do a hard sell, but if they see an opportunity, they’ll take it.”

Finally, Dunstan do a huge amount of event and national series sponsorship and sponsor Event Stars and the Dunstan Ex Factor/Beyond the Barriers. “That’s phenomenal for us, because it’s life after racing and we are trying to support these horses right the way through their careers,” says Gretel.

Building relationships

Waitemata Show Jumping has an innovative approach to sponsorship (image: Libby Law)

It’s getting harder than ever for shows to make ends meet and even major flagship events struggle to find and retain sponsors. One show committee clearly doing everything right is Waitemata Show Jumping, which consistently attracts fabulous sponsors; though unfortunately due to issues with resource consent at its Woodhill Sands venue was unable to host its flagship World Cup Final in 2020.

Show Jumping Waitemata’s president Emma Buckingham says many of their sponsors have been long-term partners. Continental Cars Audi have been naming rights sponsors of the World Cup Festival for the past few years, although like a lot of major shows, Waitemata is constantly having to adapt. “We have become more successful, and with success people do want to come on board, but we’re currently going through a change in some of our sponsors,” says Emma.

The committee offers a number of packages, but is flexible in adjusting them to suit individual sponsors. One huge drawcard to the World Cup Festival was the VIP High Tea, with a number of sponsors signing up purely to be a part of the professionally-catered occasion.

Another popular innovation was the Sponsors Charity Challenge, which paired companies with a rider who then took part in a speed class wearing their branded gear.

“It’s really exciting, and whether or not they know their rider, the sponsors seem to have a great time following them. The crowd really gets into it.” 

In addition to prizemoney, the winning rider is given $1000 to donate to the charity of their choice. In 2019, the show supported the Breast Cancer Foundation, and donated $100 for every rider that cleared a special joker fence; sponsors also got on board and the show raised around $8000 for the charity.

Emma and Waitemata’s vice-president Tony Bult also recognise the importance of providing extra entertainment, to ensure their sponsors aren’t bored, and to draw the crowds. “We have found that just watching horses jump around isn’t that appealing to people who don’t know horses. We’ve had things like dog agility, dressage and the Wilson Sisters, just to keep it interesting. 

“If you want to attract sponsors to give you the big money, they need to be able to see that lots of people come to enjoy the event, so they are happy they are reaching their target market.”

Event sponsorship: it’s not a donation

Lucy Collings and Nigel McCoard, owners of the Invercargill-based company Jump 4 Joy, have experienced varying treatment as sponsors, from receiving gifts and free food, through to being more or less completely ignored. Lucy says they are now much more selective about who they choose to support, and warns some show committees need to wake up fast. 

“A name credit on the programme and a mention over the speaker system doesn’t cut it. How is that going to enhance brand awareness or drive sales for us? It doesn’t.”

In the past, Lucy says that certain shows have been happy to take their money, but when they turned up at the event with their trade stand, it was as if they were a nuisance.

“I understand that the majority of the show committee are volunteers, but if you want us to spend money on a sponsorship package, we expect to get something in return. If you’re not going to give us some value, then just ask for a donation – at least be honest about it.”

In stark contrast, Lucy has found other shows treat their sponsors ‘like gods’. “The South Island Pony Club Show Jumping Champs is an absolute stand-out – they could not do enough. And we are supporting Dressage New Zealand with our Kiwi Rakes brand, through sponsoring the Premier League series. They are fantastic to work with, proactive and treat us brilliantly. They should give lessons in how it is done.

“We made sales directly from activity on the Dressage New Zealand Facebook page – we probably sold five units within the first 24 hours. Riders were saying they would support us because we supported their sport, which blew me away.”

  • This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of NZ Horse & Pony