Our columnist looks ahead as show jumping navigates into some new waters.
Sports tend to be led, or driven, by the organizations presiding over their highest level. In the United States, this is the crucial element that distinguishes between “national” and “international” disciplines.
For our national disciplines, which include hunters and hunter seat equitation, the U.S. Equestrian Federation determines every rule and condition that governs and directs them. For jumping–and the other international disciplines–the final authority is the Fédération Equestre Internationale, however.
Unlike hunters and equitation, jumping is practiced all over the world and is a part of the Olympic family of sports. The frequency and importance of international jumping competitions, with participants from literally every corner of the globe, create the necessity for global rules. The FEI rules not only determine the playing field for those at the highest levels of the sport, but they also impact a little, or a lot, on the levels far below what the FEI refers to as “top sport.”
While we’re free to set our own rules and conditions for non-international events, if we wish to offer internationally sanctioned competitions here in the United States, then the FEI has the prerogative to dictate how they’re to be organized and run.
It’s only natural that international sport is most influenced by the geographical area in which it originated and where the largest number and highest level of competitors are found. Western Europe is the heartland of jumping, and a strong majority of the most successful riders and horses are based there. While the technical committees of the FEI are geographically diverse, there’s little doubt that the greatest influence comes from European experts.
Upping The Ante
One recent development, together with the impetus behind it, is going to have a large impact on a number of our shows here at home. This is the FEI’s imposition of new and stringent requirements for all competitions offering World Cup qualifying events in the United States.
Beginning with the 2008-2009 qualifying season (which will begin the end of August/early September of this year) the FEI will be requiring events offering these qualifiers to be CSI events of no fewer than three days, offering no less than $75,000 in prize money in the World Cup class (which must be the highest prize-money class of the competition).
In addition, the competition must offer a minimum of two additional FEI-sanctioned classes with no less than $25,000 in each. Other requirements are imposed as well to ensure that these events are presented to the public in a way that will attract local and national interest along with requirements to be sure that sponsors are actively involved.
Since World Cup qualifiers have been offered in the United States for nearly 30 years, most often with waivers granted by the FEI from even some of the standard rules and conditions required for all of their events, why this sudden and dramatic change in policy by the FEI?
I believe it’s a combination of a couple of different factors. First is that the FEI itself is evolving from what has long been perceived by many as a bit of a glorified social club with continuing lip service to the days of old when the “gentry” participated in good sport solely for the love of the game. Days of privilege and honor and sportsmanship ruling all–days before the advent of huge prize money and professional athletes–are over at the top level.
In addition, for international sports such as our own, the stakes are high and growing higher every day. The weekend warrior isn’t going to be successful against the full-time, highly capable and intensely competitive professional athletes that win today. The expense involved in keeping a competitive edge is huge, with international air travel for multiple horses only a small part of the equation. Professional athletes with the skills and investment they bring to the table expect to be compensated accordingly, just as professional athletes are in other sports.
Also, the International Jumping Riders Club has existed for many years and has gotten involved in a few issues with the FEI over the years, but never has it had the presence–and determination–that it assumes today.
Under the new presidency of World and Olympic Champion Rodrigo Pessoa, this group, which is comprised of the top competitors worldwide, is prepared to ensure that the FEI takes the issue of the professional end of the sport seriously from here on out.
Late this past year the Global Champions Tour, a worldwide series of high profile and high prize money events that was organized and nurtured outside of the FEI, was brought under the wing of the FEI. This isn’t the first time that this sort of thing has happened, but what’s new is that it happened under the terms dictated by the organizers and competitors, not the FEI.
The IJRC members want to have the FEI as their international organization, but they’re determined that no longer can the FEI ignore the immediacy and importance of the world-class professional athlete and what this group needs to take this level of the sport into the 21st century with the ability to compete with other professional sports.
Competing with other professional sports means offering prize money commensurate with the level of competitor a competition attracts. Significant prize money requires sponsorship. Sponsorship requires giving value for the investment of the sponsor. Now our sport is placed in the position of competing for the finite number of sport sponsorship dollars out there.
What does this new attention to the professional athlete have to do with the new World Cup rules being forced on our show organizers?
Our Federation and our riders work hard to get to and remain at the top of the sport internationally, and we have been successful in our quest of late. Not only are U.S. riders achieving a place in the elite group, but also some are remaining there.
Some of our competitions are drawing more top-level foreign riders, especially in the wintertime when there are few outdoor options available in Europe. We have a lot to be proud of in the success of our riders and our competitions. Along with success comes attention and far more scrutiny, however.
In short, events that wish to be included in the World Cup program are now being held to a higher standard–a standard much closer to that found in Europe.
Why do we have to bother with having competitions here at home that have to follow the rules of a “higher authority” than the USEF? The short answer is, we don’t.
Those of our riders who have international aspirations would be placed at a severe hardship, however. Without a World Cup-qualifying system here at home, it’s doubtful that any American without European residency would ever participate in the World Cup Finals, and it’s questionable if the Finals would be allocated to the United States in the future. U.S. riders might have to travel abroad to earn Certificates of Capability for Olympic Games or World Championships. U.S. officials would need to leave the country to fulfill the requirements for licenses and promotions at the FEI level. Even more important, participants in the sport in the United States would never be exposed to the sport as it’s practiced worldwide.
The FEI/international influence is felt far below the top sport level in this country. While not all of our national rules that govern every jumper class conform exactly to corresponding FEI rules, more than a few of the recently changed or added rules come directly from the international.
For example, the elimination after the second refusal instead of the third, or the inclusion of metric units of measure in our USEF Rulebook corresponds with FEI rules. The little ripples extend throughout our discipline.
It will be interesting to see how the new requirements impact our current schedule of World Cup-qualifying competitions on both coasts.
For many managers it will be a gigantic commitment to go from the $25,000 or $35,000, single class FEI event to three days of CSI offering at least $125,000 in just those three FEI classes. Some show managers are sure to drop out, especially those who only offered the class as a favor to a few competitors and relied on drawing a few more stables to their show to cover the added expense of FEI approval. For those that choose to step up to the plate it will mean greater ability for our riders to rise on the FEI’s Rolex Ranking List without having to leave the country.
I hope that this “big wave” of a change will help provide the impetus to further differentiate between two different types of competitions. There’s a great need for many competitions around the country with one or perhaps two big classes while providing “business as usual” for a broad variety of jumper riders at every level.
But I feel it would help our sport a lot if we were to grow a small number of truly international events, the kind that put top sport at the head of their priority list. The kind of shows where our elite athletes along with visitors from abroad can be assured of the best of conditions, the toughest of competition, but with the rewards that a professional athlete should expect from a good week’s work.
Noted international course designer Linda Allen has created show jumping courses for many of the world’s best competitions, including the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals (Calif.). She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international grand prix show jumper. A proponent of sport horse breeding, Allen, Laredo, Texas, founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. She began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.