Show Jumping: An Inside Out Perspective

Apr 12, 2012 - 10:57 AM
Pairs showing in Young Jumper Championship classes, like Starbuck Equestrian’s Future Fiddler and Amanda Starbuck, sometimes face twisty, confusing courses, says Karina Busch. Photo by Meghan Blackburn.

The author wants a better system for breeding, raising, training and showing young jumpers.

I’m a full-time physician and currently show in the amateur-owner jumpers, and I also breed, raise and train young jumpers at my farm in Kentucky. After doing some hunter/jumper shows as a teenager, I competed primarily in eventing. But I returned to show jumping, my true love, about eight years ago.

As such, I feel able to offer some observations from the perspective of both an outsider and an insider in the hunter/jumper world. My primary focus is on the recent discussion about the availability of quality horses in North America. That being said, I feel there are many issues regarding the future of the sport in this country, none of which can be isolated from the others.

It Isn’t What It Used To Be

While I hold [current U.S. show jumping Chef d’Equipe] George Morris in the highest possible regard and agree with him on almost every point I hear him make, I must respectfully disagree with him on one thing: I do not think that the answer to our under-horsed U.S. Equestrian Team lies solely with the American Thoroughbred. The majority of today’s Thoroughbreds are bred to be precocious speedsters and sell for millions at the yearling sales.

The great Thoroughbreds of yesteryear (aka the glory days of the 1980s) were bred in the 1970s. Forty years is a lot of generations when they stop racing and start breeding at 3 or 4 years old. To be sure, there are still some Thoroughbreds who have solid bone, good feet, quick reflexes and an uphill build. They may be few and far between anymore, but they are certainly worth looking for and developing.

Personally, I think the most athletic, successful horses in show jumping today are Thoroughbred types but generally not full Thoroughbreds. The modern warmbloods have had so much Thoroughbred blood infused that many of them are 50 percent or even more. What we need are athletes, regardless of the registry they call home.

A Numbers Game

It’s not only a matter of elitism and misguided prejudice that drives buyers to Europe for their horses, but it’s also a matter of practicality. I don’t know official numbers for the United States, but I believe the number of warmblood foals born here each year is around 5,000, probably less. Germany alone had more than 30,000 foals in the various warmblood registries in 2010.

To put this in perspective, Germany is slightly smaller than Montana. This means that if a buyer were looking at 3- to 7-year-old horses—which is five foal crops—they would have 150,000 purpose-bred sport horses as a starting pool. Now imagine that they’re all in Montana. And we haven’t even mentioned Germany’s neighbors like the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Those countries also have exceptional programs.

It’s a staggering number, and it’s very difficult for American breeders to compete with from a logistics perspective alone. People are breeding quality horses here, but the concentration is obviously much lower. It may take a bit more effort for buyers to search (and for sellers to promote), but it’s a worthy effort to support our homebred horses and their breeders, lest we become even more dependent on Europe if all the U.S. breeders give up. 

In the same vein, it’s more important than ever for the breeders in North America to pay attention to the bloodlines that are consistently competitive, to only breed the very best mares to the very best stallions and to raise the offspring in healthy, natural environments. There is no sense continuing to cry “unfair” if we have substandard products, often coupled with unnecessarily emotional sellers.

Hunters Versus Jumpers

We also have the issue that, for whatever reason, hunters are infinitely more popular than jumpers in this country. As a result, many U.S. breeders either breed for the amateur hunters or even market their jumper-bred young stock in that direction to stay afloat.

You can’t blame them for trying to produce what sells, but to me, the idea of breeding for the amateur market is rather absurd. Breeding for the top will always result in more than enough horses without the scope for 1.60-meter classes to supply people with their lower and mid-level mounts. Just ask Europe.

Personally, I focus only on raising jumpers. I like a horse that is sensitive, catty, athletic and forward, so that is what I hope to produce. It is my opinion that a horse that will succeed in the upper levels needs to have intelligence and drive. However, if you breed (or buy) a horse with drive and sensitivity that ends up not having enough scope for the big ring, how many people can you sell him to? Very few people want a sensitive, athletic horse or know how to ride one anymore. Even the inherently quiet ones get longed and drugged half to death anymore. As such, many breeders here put more focus on temperament than athleticism, as though the two were mutually exclusive.

Now That He’s Here, Who Will Train Him?

It’s no secret that any Tom, Dick and Harriet can hang a shingle and call him or herself a trainer in this country. This is alarmingly evident, even at the big shows, if you stand ringside for long enough. Better yet, head to the warm-up ring.

What this means is that not only do we lack a consistent system to educate our horses here, we also have no consistency in the education of our riders. There are very few people in this country who are true horsemen and know how to properly start a youngster and get him a solid foundation in preparation for the show ring. To be honest, it’s probably not the end of the world if not every rider can start an unbroken 3-year-old. It is the end, or at least the beginning of the end, that so many riders and trainers expect horses to behave like automatons.

A horse is a living, breathing animal with a mind of his own. If you don’t enjoy that aspect of it, ride a bike instead. If every child on the circuit rides made horses his or her whole life, then where are the team riders of the future going to come from?

Do Authentic, Cedric or Romantovich Take One go around like quiet, made hunters or equitation mounts? Even if we had a Hickstead growing up in our midst, which child on our circuit is growing up with the talent, cojones and, most importantly, feel to ride such a horse? Talented young riders should be encouraged to reach beyond their comfort zones and learn to ride green, difficult or quirky horses. We shouldn’t just be putting them on made sale horses to clock around the hunters and make the trainers more money. 

OK, So He’s Finally Ready To Show

It’s prohibitively expensive to campaign horses in this country—particularly young ones. In Europe, most people are within one or two hours of multiple shows on any given weekend, and it does not cost them $1,000 per horse, per show. They go to the show, jump in some classes and go home.

Most well-known professionals in this country are showing nearly year-round. To take a 3- or 4-year-old horse on the road is not only unfair to the young horse, but it’s also financial suicide. Depending on age and maturity, a young prospect may take a year or more to get to 3′ or 3’6”, which is what a hunter buyer wants to see it jumping.

It’s an entirely different story to get a young horse confident at 4′-4’6”, which is when jumper riders start to take notice. There should be cost incentives for the young horses—with lower fees to encourage more riders to participate—and maybe even 4-year-old classes. Very few people in the “real” world are going to pay $500 to go show their 4-year-old in three jumper classes. There could be countless talented horses that nobody ever discovers because their riders are priced right out of the shows.

Aside from cost, few shows offer appropriate classes or, more importantly, appropriate courses for young horses. The shows I’m closest to usually have twisty, confusing courses for the local “turn and burn” sort of riders on older schoolmasters. I go anyway, because it’s inexpensive mileage for my babies, but it’s far from ideal.

I also show extensively at the Kentucky Horse Park and occasionally at some other Midwest or Florida venues. This year was my first summer showing in the Young Jumper Championship classes. The courses were hardly what I would consider “flowing and smooth tracks—encouraging young horses to jump clear” as recommended on the YJC website. The 5-year-old classes each week consisted of a speed class and a power and speed class, with a Table II, 2b (normal clear round/jump-off) class for the qualifying class on Saturday. Since only the last class is run under the guise of YJC, management is free to run the others as they wish.

This might sound like sour grapes from a disgruntled competitor, but my mare is very brave and did quite well in spite of only starting her show season in mid-summer. I didn’t object to the format and the courses because of my horse, I objected because of all young horses. And I was not alone.

Many people were commenting on the same things, and one prominent professional encouraged me to approach management with my concerns to try and help affect change. I was told that it was “not a speed class, it’s a timed first round,” which, as I understand it, is a class based on faults and speed. Anyone feel free to correct me here if I have it wrong. That was the end of the conversation as the person then turned and walked out. I never even got to my thoughts about the courses. So much for my valiant attempt at affecting change for the greater good.

The point has been made that one doesn’t have to go fast, that you can just ride at the speed with which you and your horse are comfortable. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. I don’t worry too much about getting ribbons, although of course it’s fun to win or place.

However, my horses are for sale, and the trainers and clients certainly care about placings. A buyer isn’t going to ask if your young horse came in last because you rode him conservatively to give him a good experience. In fact, they probably won’t ask you anything because they’ll check the show record and go look at the horses who beat him instead.

Talented, professional riders are often the ones showing in the YJC classes. While an athletic 5-year-old with a great rider can go fast and win against the clock over poorly designed 4′ courses, is that the best education for our future grand prix and hopefully Olympic partners? Are we simply producing 5-year-old horses who can be sold for six figures? Or are we producing horses for the future?

Show management must be on board, and the young horse classes can’t be treated like the redheaded stepchild of the show. We need to focus our efforts on developing consistency and uniformity in the young horse classes.

The Focus Should Be On The Horses

I understand that horse showing is big business, especially for the shows. That being said, the focus should still be on the horses and their tireless generosity. I hope that all, or at least most, of us got into this sport because of our love of horses. The huge show monopolies, the dishonest horse deals and the cliquish environment of the big shows are ruining this great sport.

What sponsor wants to support an elitist, shrinking minority, and what family wants to go spectate a sport where the participants and fellow onlookers will look right through you if you offer a smile?

Ideally we are a community—competitive with one another but ultimately in this together for the betterment of the sport and the animals. Horses are truly amazing, and watching a young athlete grow and learn is incredibly rewarding. If more people could appreciate that, perhaps we would be in better stead today.

Karina Busch, MD, is a full-time emergency medicine physician and owns and operates Halcyon Hill LLC in Elizabethtown, Ky. She shows in the amateur-owner jumpers on her stallion, Contempo, and also competes several sale horses. She is passionate about the proper raising, training and development of young horses and has ensured that the focus of her business is consistent with these goals. She also enjoys rescuing dogs and has re-homed several with her horse show contacts. You can learn more at

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Show Jumping: An Inside Out Perspective” ran in the April 16, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Columns

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