We’re Always Seeking A Balance In Show Jumping

Jan 30, 2012 - 1:58 PM

Our columnist discusses the events of 2011 in U.S. show jumping and emphasizes the need to pay attention to all levels of the sport.

The discipline of jumping in the United States saw the full range of successes and disappointments in 2011. The economy continues to take its toll, especially at the smaller and mid-level shows. However, the larger destination circuits such as Florida and Spruce Meadows (Alberta) seem strong.

Any of the sport’s leaders who are looking to the future must pay attention to all the levels. Healthy foundations best support the top rungs, while a ladder from the bottom encourages many to embark on the journey to the top. The process itself must be rewarding as well. All this is not as easy as it sounds!

For 2011 on the international stage, despite several big wins by individuals in the grand prix classes at Top League and other major shows, our country found itself in the bottom two at the end of the FEI Top League Nations Cup series. Somehow, nothing seemed to come together during the team events. There were no really highscore rounds—it simply seemed impossible to put together both the first and second round scores needed to finish above the middle of the pack.

Even a very strong group of riders at the final event couldn’t pull us out of the hole. It’s hard to say just how detrimental to our Olympic preparations the resulting relegation from this League will prove to be. Until we again secure a place in the Top League, a maximum of two U.S. riders per show will be permitted to compete at shows such as Aachen (Germany), Rome, St. Gallen (Switzerland)and Rotterdam (the Netherlands). These are the events that pit our riders head-to-head with the best in the world, and if our Olympic short-listed riders were all able to compete there, they would have been assured that they would step into the Games on equal footing with their peers.

This situation will make things even more difficult for the selection committee and for George Morris in his last year as chef d’equipe. He and our riders would love nothing more than to manage a third consecutive team gold medal at the Olympic Games to be held in London in early August.

This coming year will pose the dual challenges of regaining our place in the Top League and defending an Olympic team title—no easy chore.

Determination Pays Dividends

If the U.S. performance at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico) is any gauge, our riders have not forgotten how to win. As George said in his column following the Pan American Games (Dec. 19 & 26, p. 36), it isn’t just that they won but the incredible style they showed in the process. John Madden spoke of the team dynamic at this event in his own column (Nov. 14, p. 36); the will to win as a team was evident even from the stands.

Along with the team gold in Guadalajara, those riders earned the right for the U.S. team to participate at the Olympic Games. This is not an automatic right, even for the previous Olympic winners, and the pressure was on Beezie Madden, Christine McCrea, McLain Ward and Kent Farrington since this was the final opportunity to qualify for 2012.

I’ve often observed how top competitors tend to really come through when they are “riding hungry,” and this was certainly the case over the three rounds of jumping that make up the Pan Am team competition. None of the four put a single fault on the board in either round! And then it came down to fractions of a second between Beezie and Christine for the individual gold. It was super jumping in a lovely downtown Guadalajara venue—beautiful jumps and beautiful courses—but best of all the U.S. riders demonstrated the results that come with a singleminded, team-oriented approach to preparation and execution.

International events for seniors here at home continue to be almost exclusively limited to the World Cup-qualifying classes and the Nations Cup at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.

We’re still waiting for someone to break our jinx on a top finish at the FEI World Cup Final. Our most experienced competitors have either had horses a little short on indoor mileage or simply haven’t been able to put the number of rounds together to finish where they would like to be. Our system also seems to end up year after year with some of the limited spots allotted to us filled with riders who know our sport at home but don’t do well when placed in the steep learning curve of a full week of tough jumping at the Final. Perhaps someday North America will have its own indoor championship to better prepare a wider group of riders for what they’ll need to do at the World Cup Final, and we’ll be able to fill all our spots with potential winners and start winning again.

The World Cup series is just one of the areas where a delicate balance is being sought. Objectives of the World Cup program change over time, placing new demands on every part of the world wanting to qualify riders. Meanwhile, the wants and needs of the riders vary from area to area and even rider to rider. Show organizers rely on these specialty classes to draw a larger number of horses to their event as well as raise its prestige. It’s not an easy job to balance all these different interests for those in position to make recommendations to the FEI.

It’s Supposed To Be The Start

The FEI’s North American Junior and Young Rider Championships were once again presented at the Kentucky Horse Park. The number of riders participating was down, which is cause for some concern since this event is intended to provide a staircase to senior international competition.

The NAJYRC has always enjoyed a rather murky position here, not fitting smoothly into the scheme of junior, amateur-owner and open divisions found at our shows. Junior and amateur-owner jumper divisions vary greatly around the country and, with the exception of the large winter circuits and other shows with sufficient entries to justify multiple height sections, seldom come close to the difficulty found at these championships.

Unlike most of Europe, where entering a grand prix class is considered an earned privilege rather than a right, our younger riders with the means and desire usually move directly to the grand prix as soon as they have some experience and suitable horses instead of concentrating on the NAJYRC. Meanwhile, should a rider between the ages of 18 and 21 not be in a position to afford a top horse, he’s out of luck for the NAJYRC since qualification is primarily via the amateur-owner classes, where ownership is a prerequisite.

Though the competition was good this year, I hope that entries will resume an upward trend. This is a wonderful event that has been an important life experience for many riders.

More And More Money

On the national front, it remains the era of big prize money. The second edition of the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix at the HITS showgrounds in Saugerties, N.Y., took place on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 disaster. The presentation of the competition gave honor to the heroes of that infamous day while filling the weekend with big rewards for the hunters as well as the jumpers.

Interestingly, two of the riders who invested the most in travel costs to attend made it worthwhile by bringing home the two highest prizes: Andre Thieme from Germany and Duncan McFarlane from California. Well done!

The topic of prize money—and its distribution—comes under more discussion every year. Opinions vary, with the North American Riders Group wanting prize money to reflect the level of difficulty. They would like our sport to more closely follow the model of most every other sport.

Under that scenario, the largest share of the prize money would be awarded in the open (professional) section with decreasing amounts offered as the jumps are set lower. Classes restricted to junior or amateur riders would offer prize money relative to the total for any given show, with an increasing percentage as the difficulty goes up.

Opponents argue that our sport is far different from others in that the costs are so much higher and that fewer people might participate if the prospect of larger prize money wasn’t out there. To further fuel the flames of controversy, show management is well aware of the marketing value of strategically placed big-money classes throughout the gamut of sections to draw larger numbers of clients. Not only those coming to participate in the big money class, but also all the other clients of the trainers involved will put the show on their calendar.

The effect is further enhanced when qualification involves attending a number of other shows put on by the same management group.

It’s only natural that any discussion of prize money segues into discussion of costs; after all everyone pays the cost of showing while only the winners partake in the prize money. It isn’t likely that simple and universally popular solutions will be found soon. The U.S. Equestrian Federation’s National Jumper Committee has been wrangling with it for years now, and a new task force is being formed to continue searching for that delicate balance between laissez-faire and a controlled market.

We must find that balance so that our junior and amateur sections can thrive by maintaining that all-important incentive to extend their competence (without being tempted to drop down and “poach” that oh-so-alluring money when it’s on offer in lower sections).

We also don’t want too many of our most accomplished open riders to defect to the strong prize money and professional competitive environment in Europe. With so many different interests, it’s unfortunate there isn’t a better source of informed yet un-conflicted direction when it’s necessary to grapple with issues such as these.

And On The Home Front

National sport continues to revolve around annual awards and various championships. The three regional finals of the Young Jumper Championships saw strong competition across the 5-, 6-, and 7- & 8-year-old sections, while an ever-increasing number of YJC graduates continue to win in open competitions.

No fewer than four “grads” were ridden to medals at the Pan American Games: Coral Reef Via Volo and Uceko for the U.S. team gold, SRF Dragonfly de Joter (team silver for Brazil), and Rosalia La Silla (team bronze for Mexico). If we could just figure out how to make it more cost effective to develop horses in this country, we might raise the number of top horses bred and developed here.

Other national championships winners included Meg O’Mara,the individual and team gold medalist at the Randolph College/

USEF National Junior Jumper Individual Championship and Prix des States and her Zone 2 teammates, Charlotte Jacobs, Katie Dinan and Reed Kessler. Julia Curtis was the individual gold medalist at the USEF National Pony Jumper Finals, and Sarah Walker, Kaitlin Miller Roberts, Brianna Butler and Claire Salopek were on the Zone 7 gold-medal team. The pony jumper finals did see a reduction in numbers this year, however. It’s too bad that this division is trying to reach maturity during the economic downturn since this is such a wonderful way for children to compete, and this event is a special one in so many ways.

There must be something in the air, for controversy boiled up at the end of 2011 regarding yet another issue, the children’s and adult amateur jumper sections. Thus far these two sections have been strictly zone level in their implementation, with somewhat different specifications in different areas. There’s a move afoot to nationalize them by adopting uniform specifications throughout the country, offering national Horse of the Year Awards (currently only zone awards are awarded) and even providing for a national team competition along the lines of the junior jumpers.

Judging by discussion at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s annual meeting, there are two clear camps on this. Is it time to add the prestige that comes with national awards and events to jumper sections that are often some of the largest at our shows? Some feel this will simply run up the costs of competing at this level and perhaps result in new, lower, less expensive, zone-based classes being created to fill a need now being filled, lowering the bar a little further for those competing regionally. Feelings are strong, as are their arguments, on both sides.

When one considers the jumping discipline in its entirety—80 centimeters up to 1.60 meters—there are so many aspects that it’s no wonder that the concept of maintaining a stable ladder from bottom to top is almost impossible to conceive let alone create. No entity in our sport really deals with all of it. The National Jumper Committee of the USEF has a full plate dealing with the national rules and approvals of special events.

The Federation scheduled two open meetings to discuss the overall subject, and they were well attended. Most open forums,

however, prove better at delineating the problems than at developing solutions. Jumping covers a broad swath of the industry in this country, and it seems that balancing diverse individual interests will be our biggest challenge as we go into 2012.


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.

If you’re a Chronicle subscriber, you can log into www.coth.com and read all of the Between Rounds columns that were printed from 2010 to present.

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