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December 14, 2011

The Future Of U.S. Show Jumping, Part 2: How Will We Find Our Next Olympians?

How will we find the riders who will take the place of team stalwarts like McLain Ward in the next 20 or 30 years? Photo by Mollie Bailey.

Who will represent the United States on the show jumping team at the 2034 Olympic Games? That year might sound far-off, but it’s only 23 years away. Most likely, the riders who will be on that team are showing in the junior ranks right now.

But what’s their path from junior classes to the Olympics? According to many of the top show jumpers today, the difficulties encountered along that path are worrisome. At the open show jumping forum hosted by the U.S. Equestrian Federation on Nov. 7, many of the sport’s leaders spoke of the lack of a “feeder system” to develop young riders into international stars. The traditional avenue of junior hunter and equitation divisions leading to international show jumpers isn’t as defined as it was in the past.

“In decades past, the show hunters were the cornerstone of the American system and developed our riders' skills and future team riders. But that system is broken now. We need a feeder system for developing our horses and our riders to become the horsemen and riders that we have today and had more of in the past. We need to install a good pipeline to develop the kind of riders, horsemen and horses that we need greatly to affect where we go over the next 25 to 50 years,” said Peter Leone. 

Apprenticeships

In Europe, many top riders come up through the ranks as apprentices or assistants for top-level riders. Current German star Marco Kutscher got his start breaking young horses in Ludger Beerbaum’s barn and worked his way up to competing young horses and eventually riding in top classes.

But U.S. grand prix riders argue that the expenses associated with showing in the United States prevent that from being a viable option. “Before my time in the sport, most of the professionals had a young rider with them, a student. There's no possible way I could do that now,” said McLain Ward.

“I can't spend $2,000 or $3,000 a week for a young rider to make a mistake, which we all do. I can't afford that cost. It's much easier to just do it myself. If I could send that kid into the junior jumpers or the young horse classes, and it cost me $500 a week or a more realistic price, I might be willing to take on the kid who won the Maclay Finals or another young rider who I'd be glad to support. But I don't see anybody doing that anymore; it's very rare. It's too expensive,” he continued.

Jay Land, a former grand prix rider who now has two daughters competing in the junior jumpers, spoke of the need to give junior riders access to the top riders in some way. “When I was a kid, I rode in the schooling area with George [Morris]. We saw Katie Prudent and Anne Kursinski and Joe Fargis, and we rode with them. The only place we get to do that now is when we go to Spruce Meadows [Alberta]. That's the only place my kids get to see Eric Lamaze ride Hickstead,” he said.

“For those of us in the sport, that's what it's about, to get to see those partnerships and understand what it takes to get there and how difficult it is to stay there. If you don't see that, how can you know what you want? And if you don't want it, you're not going to do it. Ultimately, you have to be able to put the kids who have the desire in proximity to the top people in the sport, whether that's through mentorship or if you have a young rider event where they ride a horse someone provides to them as an opportunity. Those up-and-coming riders have to have opportunities, but you can't just give it to them. They have to have the incentive to go out there and make it happen,” Land continued.

Sink Or Swim

There was also much discussion about the need to distinguish between failure and success instead of catering to the lowest common denominator to make every rider happy. “Back in the day, you went from equitation to junior jumpers, and you either made it or you didn't. And if you didn't make it, you went home and trained harder and came back,” said Leone.

“Now, there are so many incremental classes that we've lost that. We sometimes don't recognize the truth when we're trying to accommodate every little kid with different classes. The honest truth is that some will make it and some won't. That's evolution—survival of the fittest. We have to keep going in that direction as well,” Leone continued.

Land pointed to the need for horse shows to uphold their standards in order to allow junior riders to succeed or fail. He’s based out of Atlanta, Ga. “Our kids come from a little bit of a different area of the country than a lot of the top athletes in the country have come from. We’ve worked very hard for the last five or six years to increase the standards of show jumping for juniors in our area—to make it more difficult and to the standard instead of below it. Dumbing down the sport is not the answer,” Land said.

“We need competitions that allow younger riders to compete and test themselves. If they fall off or don't do well, then they have to decide what they're made of. They go home and they decide, 'Am I going to do the work that it takes?' Because this sport is so difficult and so painful, and it's so hard to stay at the top, that you have to want it like nothing else. Or, you're not going to do well,” Land continued.

They Need Goals

Suzanne Porter, whose sons have bypassed the hunter and equitation rings and are competing solely in the jumper ranks, spoke of a need for more incentives for junior riders to excel in the jumper rings. “We bucked the system by not having our kids go [the hunter and equitation] path, and I'm sure it'll take a bit longer for them to be the riders they need to be, but we're spending all our money on jumpers in an effort to get them to be better jumper riders as teenagers and young adults and not lose them because they're a senior in high school, and they got their medal ribbon, and they hang up their stirrups, which I think sadly happens way too often,” Porter said.

“There are all kinds of goals for a junior hunter or equitation rider in this country. Lots of finals, lots of championships, the $500,000 hunter derby, all these unbelievable things that if you listen to junior riders now, they say 'That's what I want to win.' And the parents and the money then follow that. There aren't enough things for show jumping riders to aspire to. Yes, there’s Prix des States and [the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships]. But as a show jumping rider in England as a junior, I had 10 finals to aim for. They were things that motivated you to keep getting better and better as a show jumper. If we could add some more of that to our indoor shows, and more formats, and Prix des States at lower levels, that will generate a whole new group of young riders that love show jumping as much as they love the equitation ribbons they are chasing right now,” she continued.

Give Them A Division

Michelle Grubb, a former grand prix rider who has served as chef d’equipe on multiple USEF young rider tours to Europe, pointed out that a significant flaw lies in the amateur-owner division of shows. Show jumpers of limited means who graduate from the junior ranks, where they can show horses owned by others, suddenly aren’t able to compete in the amateur-owner divisions without owning a horse.

“I think that that principle is a little bit elitist. You have to have a great deal of money to fund yourself,” Grubb said. “In my era, and I'm a product of George [Morris] in the ‘70s, I was very fortunate. My father bought me great horses, mostly American Thoroughbreds. I was very lucky to have wonderful success with those horses. But riders such as Anne Kursinski, Katie Prudent, Beezie Madden, Lauren Hough, Laura Kraut, Chris Kappler and McLain Ward, they have found ways to fund themselves. I think for this younger group, if there is a way to create a class for young riders, say the under-25 that's a grand prix type class, that's just an idea.

“Our riders have to come out of the juniors and compete for rides against Todd Minikus and Beezie Madden and the like. It's very difficult, that transition. There's still got to be some way that we can pull riders who are not of millionaire means up into the high levels of the sport.

If we had a class at our bigger events, to have a grand prix event for 25 and under, it would make an economic impact and possibly allow our top riders to keep a horse for those riders to be able to compete. And from the owner's perspective, I think that young rider may have the ability to say, 'If you buy this horse for me, I have somewhere to go to show it other than the major Sunday classes against all the top people,’” Grubb continued.

Show Me The Money

Murray Kessler of the North American Riders Group spoke of how the costs of showing limit the pool of potential professional riders. “The current system of horse showing in America is designed with a priority on business and making money. This system encourages mass-market horse shows that maximize profits for show managers and trainers alike. While this system has many merits, it makes it virtually impossible for someone to make a living as strictly a rider. This is in stark contrast to the European model, which is designed for riders to make a living first, and put sport first ahead of profit,” Kessler said.

The financial difficulty of existing as a professional rider at U.S. horse shows has led to a severe lack of depth of top professional riders. “We can't continue to rely on a handful of people to carry the team year after year. We have some of the best young riders in the world, but very few convert to professionals. For most, the end of the junior years is a departure from the sport. What a waste of talent,” Kessler said.

“For those who don't want to be trainers and want to ride for a living at a professional level, we need to break the current paradigm and design a system here in the United States that makes being a professional rider legitimate and provides sufficient economic incentive to make it viable. For those who make the transition to professional, and we have a number of talented young professionals, we must give them experience. In essence, we [at NARG] believe we need a triple-A team to compete at various levels, if nothing else than to build bench strength and developing future chef d'equipes for our big league team. The European young riders tour is a good step. More can be done. We also need to hold our own championships here in the United States to provide the right experiences,” he continued.

Read the first installment of this series, an introduction to the issues discussed at the Nov. 7 forum.

Read the third installment of the series, which discusses bringing attention back to U.S.-bred horses.

Read the fourth installment of the series, which discusses strengthening U.S. horse shows.

The entire open forum on Nov. 7 was broadcast on the web and is archived for viewing at www.usefnetwork.com. More open forums on the subject are planned, including one that took place on Dec. 5 during the USHJA convention.

USEF officials hope these forums will inspire a blueprint for how to improve the sport of show jumping as a whole, with a 25-year plan for the future.

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