Our columnist wants a more practical U.S. system for getting our young horses the mileage they need to reach the top.
New efforts are underway on both the national and international fronts to look, in an organized way, at the future of jumping. Interestingly, the impetus to do this reached critical mass on both levels at almost exactly the same time.
Internationally, the issues tend to focus on how the newer, high prize money individual events and the more traditional and important national team events can both thrive within the constraints of the calendar. The Fédération Equestre Internationale always faces the challenge of encouraging a relatively small and varied sport as it exists in many parts of the world to grow, while simultaneously fostering the increasingly professional sport in Western Europe. Not simple tasks.
We’re fortunate that our own extremely competent John Madden chairs the small but influential FEI Jumping Committee. I don’t believe that this committee has ever been led from this side of the ocean. The FEI has scheduled a multi-day gathering in early May for discussion of issues facing the sport.
Finding The Horses
Here at home, Open Forums have been held, and much has been written of late, including excellent coverage in The Chronicle of the Horse, about how best to tackle the challenges we face. The issues at the top of our list sometimes resemble the international ones but are also specific to our historic, geographic and socio-fiscal circumstances.
The single most pressing issue facing our elite group of professional grand prix competitors is that, unlike their counterparts living in Europe or athletes in other sports, it’s virtually impossible to make a living based solely on one’s competitive abilities. A competitive format that seldom draws spectators and thus sponsors, along with high costs of competing compared with prize money, means most every professional must also coach and deal in horses to stay on the road.
Our elite riders also face the difficulty of developing horses. No rider is much better than what he’s sitting on, and top horses are always hard to find. Just as a surgeon, no matter how much fame might be in his future, struggles during his long years of internship and residency, horses from 6 to 9 years are unlikely to earn much even with a top rider aboard. These years are essential, however, for education and gaining experience toward reaching the big league.
Diamonds In The Rough
Some of the best horses weren’t the easiest during their formative years. During the press conference in Toronto following the untimely death of Canadian Olympic gold medalist Hickstead, Eric Lamaze made quite a point of how difficult he had been when he was younger.
The horse traveled and competed with Eric for several years with no one—including Eric—having any clue that this tough little stallion would turn into the best horse in the world. Only once the education was there for him to move into the biggest classes did all that fight and toughness become directed into conquering whatever course he faced. How lucky for Hickstead, and the world of show jumping, that the horse was with a rider like Eric and that he had backers willing to continue with him during the early years, until his greatness shone through.
A recent FEI press release related the story of a German girl who broke through from a sterling young rider career to finishing a close second in a World Cup qualifier. Her main horse is one purchased by her father as a yearling. What struck me was her description of the horse as not so special during his early years. Like Hickstead, he only showed his true abilities once those long “school years” were behind him, and he was ready for the big tracks.
Mileage Costs Money
This brings me to what I believe is the single factor that will hold us back from ever having the depth in international horses that we need for consistent success.
We have tough enough competition in our grand prix events to develop competitive skills in our riders. Prize money is good enough to permit an owner to keep a grand prix horse on the road. And we now have a good supply of raw material being produced by ever more savvy U.S. breeders. Yet we still see the majority of our elite riders purchasing horses who’ve had their early educations abroad. Why?
I believe if you ask those who are trying (or have tried) to bring horses up to the point that they have value to American buyers (i.e., when they’re ready to go to shows and pay their way or at least take a junior or amateur rider to some success), they find that it can’t be done in a way that makes sense from a business perspective.
The first handicap is our lack of experienced riders and trainers with a real interest in this part of the business. Pick any country in Western Europe, and you will find many capable riders with an education in the classical development of horses from 4 to 8 years. These individuals aren’t taking 12 or 20 students to shows every week or spending 40 weeks a year trying to break into the international sport; their niche is simply putting the appropriate kind of work into a small group of horses by riding them six days out of every week and taking them out for experience at one-day outings for young horses. The formula is five days at home training systematically and one day at venues geared not for competitive showing but for producing the best future jumpers—all at a reasonable cost. In general, it’s possible to put three years into a horse in Europe for about what six months of training and showing might cost here.