Our columnist considers how geography and climate create similarities and differences between competitions throughout the world.
Depending on where you happen to live you’re probably aware of what goes into competing in this sport. You’ll know how far you’ll typically have to travel and what sort of classes and scheduling you are likely to find when you get there.
Yet, unless you broaden your horizons you may never be aware of just how different things might be in other parts of the country, or the world. Geography, climate and the density of horses and riders who participate in the sport can really have an impact on the experience of competing.
In the United States, the Northeast offers areas where travel time to find a variety of shows can be short. With short distances there are even a selection of one-day shows during much of the year. For those with an eye to the higher levels, an annual trek to Florida for a winter circuit isn’t only the way to avoid the cold, it’s pretty much essential. If you have school or a “real job” there will be a lot of weekend commutes by plane for three months of your year.
Residing in the South is handy when the winter circuits come to town, whether it is Tucson, Wellington, Ocala, Gulfport or Jacksonville the shows are plentiful and top competition comes to you. However, in the summer months showing takes a hit and many do a reverse migration north.
On the West Coast, except for those living in Los Angeles or San Diego, there will be long travel hours to put in as you pursue your riding goals.
Those from the Northwest frequently make 1,200-mile jaunts to Southern California or north to Calgary, Alta. The nearly 500-mile trip from Northern California to Southern California is a familiar one to riders and trainers. On the other hand, if you happen to live near Showpark, the Oaks Blenheim or the Los Angeles Equestrian Center you’ll do a lot of showing without a single hotel bill since these facilities host literally dozens of excellent competitions a year.
An address anywhere in the Midwest dictates logging a lot of miles for you and your horse. While you might be away from home a lot, the good part is having so many choices depending on which way you head—you can go north, south, east, or west, short distances or long, to find good shows.
Due to the sheer size of our country and the travel times involved, virtually all of the larger shows are five days long, and it’s common to “piggyback” multiple shows at the same venue—convenient for sure, but then again it can get stale to do virtually the same show week after week.
The Canadian competition schedule is really dictated by the weather. While a few venues can support a larger event indoors, most competing is done in the summer months. Riders from all over Canada, many areas of the United States, as well as Mexico, South America and Europe now spend several weeks headquartered at the incredible Spruce Meadows in Calgary.
Spruce Meadows officials keep variety in the schedule by not holding the “same show” every week. Each tournament has its own unique emphasis. The percentage of young riders with Alberta addresses who progress to success in the bigger jumping classes is high. I believe this is a wonderful side effect of having some of the best
riders in the world to observe and emulate over so many weeks of the year; along with a substantial amount of time spent at home training to hone skills necessary to compete successfully.
Unlike the United States and Canada, where prize money is the most highly regarded aspect of the bigger shows, Mexico has placed greater emphasis on facilities, jump equipment and course design. Shows are very different south of the border since they have neither hunter nor equitation classes.
A typical regional show begins at noon on Friday and ends Sunday afternoon with only four to five classes in one to two arenas. Height classes range from 70 or 80 cm up to 1.40m. Most horses ship in for the day, and a horse typically competes in the two classes of their height section offered at each show.
For juniors or amateurs looking to improve their performance each class is taken seriously since there won’t be many opportunities to earn ribbons. It’s also the norm for the horses to be only ridden by their owners at the shows—no warm-up, or quick-fixes, by trainers ahead of the junior or amateur ride.
While doing regional shows is convenient and inexpensive in Mexico, participating in the larger national competitions means some long treks for one to two weeks of four- or five-day shows. These shows run two to four arenas, but riders are still strictly limited to competing only in their appropriate height.
Stepping up to a higher level is serious business since it will limit their future ability to jump in the lower classes. Each year in late November a championship show is held over two weeks with a national champion being crowned in a large variety of categories. Qualified riders in each category jump over three days to determine the winner.
Another unique aspect of the Mexican competition schedule is the division of the year into two “semesters.” The first semester runs from the later part of January to early June; the second from late August to the national championships. This schedule leaves the mid-summer months free for family holidays—or for trips to Spruce Meadows, the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships or to Europe for those wishing to widen their horizons. The winter break gives the horses some time off and freshens everyone up so they are really eager to hit the trail again the following year.
Europe is yet another story. Again, geography and climate play big roles in the sport. With the exception of the relatively new winter tour in Spain, there’s a clear distinction between the indoor winter season and the outdoor summer one. I believe there’s some real advantage to this in terms of training and experience for horses and riders. It also adds some variety to a year that could otherwise become rather long and monotonous.
Distances in Europe are nothing compared to most parts of North America. In a few hours by car it’s often possible to be in another country! For riders competing at the international level, the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between a CSI in one country compared to another is experience that just can’t be duplicated even between one coast and another in the States.
It’s impossible to generalize about the sport in various European countries since they all have differences in how their national level is organized and run. Yet each country offers a variety of shows, at many different levels, all in relatively close proximity.
The Gap Is Narrowing
In Germany it’s practically unheard of to have the same show two weeks in a row at one venue, and more than two arenas is seldom seen. All but the very largest international shows are held over three or four days, which gives riders some time at home during the week, except when traveling internationally.
This system translates to real rest time for the made horses and the opportunity to get some training in on younger horses, in a setting more conducive to progress than the warm-up ring at a horse show.
Smaller countries also mean that it’s easier for a National Federation to run programs such educating and licensing officials, and identifying and running programs for developing riders.
It’s always amazing to me to see how important the state organizations (that function under the National Federation) are in a country the size of Germany. They handle most competition scheduling in their state and are an important part of the huge community of horse people throughout the country. (Germany, in fact, has as many riding members of their Federation as we have in total membership of the U.S. Equestrian Federation) What also contributes to the overall strength of the sport is the close collaboration between the various breed registries and the competition riders and events. Sadly lacking here.
I learned how convenient it was to compete in Europe when a good friend from Germany brought herself, and a young horse her family had raised, all the way up to the national grand prix level without ever having to stable overnight at a horse show!
So many shows all year round—at every level—all within an hour’s driving time of her home. This could never happen in the United States. By the way, her horse Paavo N had the mileage and experience to be a crucial part of the winningest Irish Nations Cup team in history within a few months of Jessica Kürten getting the ride on him. All Paavo had to learn was to rest at night with the lights on!
Europeans are used to the fact that competing at a given show isn’t just a matter of arriving and paying the entry fees. Qualification, in an infinite variety of different forms, is a fact of life for an up-and-coming European rider.
A while back, a young German rider named Tony Hassmann spent a couple of years near the top nationally but was still unable to secure invitations to the World Cup shows in other countries. When he finally got enough points to get in, he showed he belonged there by winning the first two qualifiers. Even the smaller shows in Germany have a complicated system for accepting entries according to the rider’s record and where he lives. Not likely to be well received here!
Shows in Europe strive to be unique. Each has its own character and fills its own niche. Smaller shows strive for quality, and the larger shows continue in their quest to improve since they are always competing with the best shows throughout Europe.
Yes, it’s different wherever you go, yet it remains one sport. This is clear when we see riders from all over the world compete on the same stage, such as we saw at the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in April and will see next year at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Here on our own continent we see it at events such as the Prix des States, the NAJYRC or the Pony Finals.
One of the biggest differences I see in today’s sport isn’t so much at the levels of the superstars, it’s a noticeable narrowing of the gap between them and the upcoming riders from all over the world. It’s still necessary to compete in the Mecca of sport, Europe, to really hone the skills needed to knock heads with the best of the best, but more riders are more prepared when they get there.
For any rider, at whatever level, getting out of your own area (and your own comfort zone) is a great experience. It’s fun to see for yourself how things are done in other places. And, for anyone in the sport, broadening your horizons is an essential first step to achieving higher goals.
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.