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June 12, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Show Jumping Then And Now

It was Melanie Smith Taylor's careful development of Calypso that allowed them to help the U.S. team earn gold in 1984, according to Linda Allen. Photo by Tish Quirk

In this Thowback Thursday post, we look at a column written in 2010 by Between Rounds columnist Linda Allen. Our columnist hopes we can regain the best aspects of eras past and merge them with the best of today’s sport.

It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve been writing Between Rounds columns here in the Chronicle, and in looking back over past columns one frequently recurring theme has appeared. Although some very good progress has been made, there remains a real disconnect between the breeders and most of those involved in competitive show jumping in North America.

I fear that we still lack an effective bridge to take young horses coming out of the field through a training process that will make them readily marketable to the largest segment of our industry. Until breeders and young horse owners across the country have access to those with the knowledge and experience to bring each horse bred in the United States to its potential, we will have a hard time achieving maximum growth and resilience within our jumping sport.

Let’s look at the history of our sport in the United States. Going back 40 or 50 years, we had both of the hunter and jumper disciplines at our shows just as we do today. Most shows were small, local affairs with only a handful of “big ones” around the country that took center stage in the late summer and fall.

Most people utilized the smaller shows to prepare themselves and their horses for those special shows toward the end of the season. Most importantly, there was an “off season” in the winter that provided time for starting new horses while the experienced ones got a break.

In those early days, horses that competed in the jumper classes were those that were too difficult or unorthodox to make it as hunters. A trainer’s skills were honed by dealing with a wide variety of prospects that were not usually bred to jump. Jumpers came from anywhere and everywhere: the legendary Snowman was rescued from a killer’s pen, while Snowbound (who went on to win our first individual gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games partnered with Bill Steinkraus) was a racetrack reject from California.

Even as late as the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, where our riders won team gold and individual gold and silver medals, two of the winning team horses were U.S.-bred Thoroughbreds (Touch Of Class and Albany). The other two (Calypso and Abdullah) were of European rather than Thoroughbred bloodlines but had been developed and trained from an early age by American riders.

None of these horses would have made it to this extreme pinnacle in the sport without horsemen who could first recognize talent in its raw form and then know how to develop it over time into the athletes who could jump some of the biggest and most technical courses ever seen.

Watching the two “small wonders,” Touch Of Class with Joe Fargis and Calypso with Melanie Smith Taylor, make those tracks look easy was something I won’t ever forget. The superlative horsemanship those two riders displayed with those horses in the years leading up to the Games is something I appreciate more each and every year.

Joe took a petite mare (who never did do flying lead changes), recognized what was in her, and then became her partner in conquering the seemingly impossible.

Melanie had found Calypso in Europe well before he was of an age to really show his talent. Also of small stature—in a day when size was seen by most as a necessity for a big-time jumper—Melanie recognized his latent ability and his attitude.

She brought him along in a way that let him learn all of the technique needed to master any trick a course designer could throw at them. Most importantly, she did it without ever letting him learn what he could not do. Calypso jumped with the heart of a lion, with total trust that his rider believed in him and would never ask anything of him that wasn’t within his ability to achieve.

Show Business

Today we rarely see a Thoroughbred jumping at the higher levels, and most horses come to our shores after spending several years being trained and brought along abroad. Despite the large number of horses bred from top European bloodlines available here, and the slow but persistent growth in U.S.-bred horses in our shows and amongst the winners, the fact remains that we still have a dominant percentage of foreign-trained horses competing around the country.

So why is that? What changed in our sport over the past few decades? What’s missing?

Mostly, it seems that everything grew. The number of shows, the length of the season, the number of riders, horses and trainers, grew dramatically.

Yet in many ways it seems that while the industry grew, the sport really hasn’t. The American demand for instant gratification forces the average professional trainer to find ways to get clients into the ring as quickly as possible.

Even horse-crazy kids usually have so much on their plates that riding is lucky to occupy a few hours a week in their busy schedules. With the choice between a riding lesson—or spending half a day just hanging out with their horse—and going to a show, the trainers would rather a client go to a show. Clients at some larger barns might find themselves doing much of their riding on the grounds of a competition.

With riding concentrated within the confines of a show grounds and the spirit of competition (and the reputation of the trainer) demanding ribbons to hang on the wall, trainers are only smart when they mount their riders on horses who have “been there, done that.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach; we have seen more than a few riders reach the international level this way. And many more enjoy every minute of the time they spend riding at the shows.

The downside of this “industry of horse showing” is that we no longer put much emphasis on the other aspects of horsemanship—the aspects that come naturally when more time is spent at home and with horses at all stages of the training spectrum.

Few of today’s upcoming professionals have a broad background in the sport, nor do they have available time to spend outside of the horse show realm. Professional trainers today excel on the basis of their expertise in instructing riders, mounting them and managing their competition schedules to achieve good results on made horses.

Unlike the professionals who started out years back, virtually none of the upcoming professionals have extensive background in training or developing a horse that has not already had substantial work put in by someone else. Those with skill and experience in training horses from scratch for our discipline are becoming harder and harder to find.

With our singular “rider-based” approach, we have failed to develop a system for developing horses for the sport or professionals with the knowledge and abilities to produce horses the other riders need. Our system not only focuses totally on the rider part of the equation in education, but it also judges all riders solely on the basis of what horses they are riding and what classes they are riding in.

No recognition is given for the ability to “make” horses, just the ability to ride a “made” one.

This is true for professional riders and also for amateurs and juniors as well. As an earlier column of mine (which resonated around the country according to the large number of responses I received) pointed out, opportunities are limited for those for whom the process is as important and gratifying as the final result.

In North America, those who are riding in the lower sections just aren’t considered as good as those riding in the higher ones. Yet the class one is riding in often has more to do with the ability and experience of the horse than that of the rider.

Put Rodrigo Pessoa on a 5-year-old, and he’s jumping 1.20 meters not 1.60 meters, yet he’s still the same rider. Put an average rider on an experienced 1.60-meter horse, and he not only can jump 1.60m, he can even win on the right day.

The mark of a great all-around horseman is the ability to first select the right horse and then ride and train it in a way that it will reach its full potential. Exam-ples such as Melanie Smith Taylor and

Joe Fargis mentioned before, or Rodrigo Pessoa, who brought a young (and not so easy) Baloubet Du Rouet along from a green colt to an individual gold at the 2004 Olympic Games and three consecutive FEI World Cup Finals titles, are the types of horsemen we need to be producing to assure a bright future for our sport.

Today’s U.S. system continues to improve in the aspect of training junior and amateur riders to compete. The new U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification program is going to serve an important role in our future, giving general structure to our excellent system of training riders while emphasizing important safety considerations.

We’ve needed this structure from the grassroots levels up for some time now. Every major equestrian country has such a system to assure that new instructors are following the principles of basic riding technique. Our system is widely admired and has taken our country to the high position it now holds in the equestrian community. Greater structure for upcoming professional instructors will only make it that much better.

Another important step in identifying and nurturing the upcoming generation of horsemen was initiated last year with the USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program. The large number of riders applying and taking part in these events all around the country is a great indication of the level of interest that’s out there within our younger generation.

It’s also gratifying that the program’s emphasis on horsemanship was taken seriously by so many of the riders. The desire to excel remains high, but all too often the means available to these riders to realize their dreams remain elusive. Many more of them will be able to reach a high level of horsemanship than will be able to pair their skills with the proper horse to achieve a berth on an international team.

The Missing Piece

Despite these two new programs I believe we’re still missing one crucial piece to the puzzle: the training of trainers.

We lack horse trainers for our discipline—not rider trainers, but horse trainers with the skill to take horses from 2 or 3 years of age and put the right start on them so that they’re ready for the larger American market as “going” horses.

Most every other country has its own system of identifying and recognizing horse trainers. In countries such as Argentina, Australia or Columbia, the sport itself still forces people to train horses. Few of their riders can afford to fly to Europe to buy a horse, so if they wish to compete they need to make their own horses.

The best horsemen hone their skills and go on to win on horses they’ve made and/or sell horses for good prices form others to ride. Those who can train a succession of horses that go on in the sport achieve recognition in their own right.

In the major European countries the system is far more sophisticated, with the whole sport recognizing the importance of a specially structured young horse program. There’s a long legacy of top horsemen who have little interest in teaching riders to ride but instead focus on training young horses. A lucky few start this way and go on to star in the competition arena, but many more continue to make a good living doing what they love—riding and training horses—and making a huge contribution to the sport while doing so.

In the years since the European market started supplying our growing industry with going horses, the interest in horse training, (and the opportunities to learn the skills involved) has declined markedly. Other disciplines have recognized this and now fill their clinics and symposia with those interested in learning more about the art of horse training, but our own offerings are generally limited to learning to ride in the competition arena.

From the 20 or so riding clinics I do around the country each year, I believe that there are individuals out there with the background and interest to begin to fill this gap. I’m making it my personal challenge for the coming year to work on offering some opportunities for interested trainers, riders, owners and breeders to learn training techniques from some of the best and most successful horse trainers out there [see sidebar].

Together with exposure to great horse trainers, I believe it’s almost as important to provide networking opportunities for breeders and owners to get to observe and meet the upcoming generation of horsemen—the ones who could become their bridge to the market.

Working together, breeders and young horse owners—in concert with a new generation of educated professional horse trainers who choose to focus on bringing on young horses—can close the gap be-tween breeder and competition rider. Perhaps we can regain the best aspects of eras past and merge them with the best of today’s sport.

We must discover and recognize all of those displaying a high level of horsemanship, no matter if it’s in the competition ring or at home bringing on our stars of the future. In this way we’ll offer opportunities for all of those with the passion and drive to learn even more about this great animal. With luck, we’ll also be bringing our sport back to a vibrancy that equals that of the industry. 

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Fillmore, Calif., and San Juan Cosalá, Jalisco, Mexico, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.

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