Show Jumping Needs To Continue Evolving

Sep 26, 2016 - 9:50 AM

Have you heard the discussion about changing the number of Olympic team members and tweaking the water jump? Our columnist breaks down what’s really on the table.

You have to look no further than Nick Skelton’s emotion on the podium in Rio de Janeiro to see how important the Olympic Games are to our sport.

This is a man who has won everything, and to culminate in that moment with an Olympic gold medal—it seemed like it meant more to him than anything he’d ever done before. That’s what I hope the young people get out of that: what the Olympic Games meant to him, what representing England meant to him, and how he’s devoted his entire life to that moment. You could see it in his face.

But after all the medals were given out, there was a lot of discussion coming out of Rio about two possible evolutions of the sport: changing to three-man teams and taking a hard look at the water jump. I’ll try to give you some information about these proposed changes, but keep in mind that a lot of this is still very much in the works. The Fédération Equestre Internationale General Assembly in Tokyo on Nov. 18-22 will host a vote on the three-man team proposal.

The concept of moving to three-man teams was discussed in depth at the FEI Sports Forum in April, where Swiss rider Steve Guerdat spoke against the change.

Word gets out about these rule changes so quickly, though, and spreads through social media. And the minute people start talking, a lot of the facts about the changes they’re trying to make get lost.

Personally, I’m in favor of the way it’s been done, and I like the current format of the Olympic Games. But I also think it’s important to keep equestrian sport in the Olympics.

The concept of transitioning from four-member teams to three-member came up last year, and we discussed it within the North American Riders Group.

A lot of these mandates come down from the International Olympic Committee, and FEI officials are trying to figure out how to keep up. It’s not just about losing equestrian from the Olympics, but also about keeping it current and interesting, having a viewership and gaining support.

They hire sports companies like International Management Group and others to figure out what to do; the IOC wants more countries involved. This has been quite an in-depth study for a long time from multiple angles. By reducing the teams to three members, more countries can be represented in the 200 horses that are mandated.

The IOC makes a certain number of demands, things they want to see happen to our sport. So through all of these avenues, we have to figure out which format of our sport we can live with.

If it was left to NARG, we all agreed that we like the traditional four-member teams with the drop score. However, if there is no choice, and three-man teams are the only option going forward for the Olympic Games, I think there are some interesting aspects to the change.

There has to be a traveling fourth who is part of the team and is also eligible to receive a medal. Right now, what’s on the table is that this fourth can only be substituted in for medical reasons. However, there is a push to make this fourth team member eligible to be subbed in at any point, which could add a certain strategy to the competition. It would still, in fact, be a four-man team.

Another proposed change is that for all major championships, if you have more than 16 faults, you’ll be rung out and given a score of 16 faults in the official results. And vice versa—if you’re eliminated for performance reasons, you get a score of 16. So with three-man teams you’ll always have a final score. They don’t have the wording for the rule set yet, but if a rider has two refusals or slips and falls on a turn, they’ll get a 16-fault score instead of an elimination.

This creates a different and interesting look. It involves more teams and more countries, which is what the IOC is looking for. And it involves a little bit of strategy.

What If Different Can Be Better?

Everyone looks at Rio, with the French and German teams using their reserve riders at the last minute, and says, “Oh, with three-man teams, that would have been a disaster.”

But if you look at things from Brazil Chef d’Equipe George Morris’ position, his second rider was eliminated for a spur mark. If he was one of three, George would have been able to switch him out for the fourth rider, and he would have come back with just as strong a team.

The same thing applies with Beezie Madden on our team: If she was one of three riders and her horse was unable to continue due to a veterinary reason, then the fourth rider would have been able to substitute in. Or with Jur Vrieling’s horse having problems, the Dutch chef d’equipe would have been able to replace him for Round 2 with their fourth team member. That would have been more of a strategic move rather than a veterinary necessity.

This adds a different element but could be an improvement to the sport.

In regards to how that works with qualifying for the individual final, which traditionally runs after the team competition, what’s on the table is that the individual competition would go first. Everyone would show on Day 1, then it would cut down on Day 2 for individual medals, then there would be two days off before the team competition. That might make the team feel even more prestigious because it’s the second of the two.

As I understand, they would like to experiment with the three-man team concept at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games as a trial run.

Many of us who are traditionalists are wedded to the four-man team, but we have to recognize that one of the things many spectators find confusing is the drop score. Almost no other sport really has a drop score.

The IOC is aiming to present the sport to the public in an appealing and interesting way. Everything is about staying current.

While our sport is essentially the same, so much has changed—the style of the jumps, the carefulness of the fences, the tightness of the time allowed. If you look at the Olympic Games now, that second individual round was so big and so difficult, and 19 riders had less than 8 faults.

The level of riding around the world, and how global it’s become, is really amazing. There are things we need to evolve to keep our sport popular and interesting and still retain a fair amount of our history and tradition, which is important.

About The Water

Unfortunately, news of many of these rule changes gets out before all the facts come with them. Case in point: the discussion raging about the most recent developments with the water jump.

People think the FEI is trying to get rid of the water jump. And yes, maybe there’s a small faction of people who are trying to see that the water jump is removed from the sport.

But most people agree that it needs to be changed in a way that is much clearer to judge. Everyone wants the water in the sense that it’s a bravery test. But it’s got to be presented in a way that it’s easy for the horse to understand what they’re trying to do and easy to judge.

It’s become controversial. When you see the permanent water jumps at Aachen (Germany) or at the Hampton Classic (N.Y.), they jump great. They’re deep, they’re in the ground, they really stand out against the grass, and horses jump them really well. But the water jumps in these new footings, they’re like pontoon rafts sitting there. The horses don’t perceive the same depth, and so they take them very casually.

The goal is to try to create the type of water jump that horses jump really well, where only mistakes cause faults. A lot of people ride the water jumps set into the sand footing really well, and they still have faults. Horses don’t understand. When they hit a pole, most top horses understand that they made a mistake. When they step in the water, they don’t know that they’ve done anything wrong.

I believe this rule change is getting tabled for another year because there’s been incredible outcry and a lot of misunderstanding about it. People have panicked, “We can’t get rid of the water.”

There will be a clear process to explain exactly what changes they want to make, so we can get everyone in agreement. Right now it’s so divisive that it’s really hard to push it one way or another.

Course designers love using the water. It could be used a lot more when it becomes more clear how it’s to be used and presented and judged.

We need to help more people understand exactly what each rule change is. When they do, they’re more likely to agree they’re for the better, which will be better for the sport.


Chris Kappler runs a training and sales business in Pittstown, N.J., and Wellington, Fla. A grand prix rider with U.S. and international wins to his credit, Kappler earned team gold and individual silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games aboard Royal Kaliber. In recent years, he’s focused primarily on teaching students. He also serves on the USEF Board of Directors and as the president of the North American Riders Group.

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