Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

Buy Them Or Make Them?

Our columnist believes many U.S. riders go abroad to purchase experienced horses because of fundamental problems in our sport.

I doubt that there’s a country in the world better at producing riders than the United States. Every year a number of new young faces enter our grand prix ranks, able to compete with the best of them at home or abroad—provided they have the horseflesh under them.


Our columnist believes many U.S. riders go abroad to purchase experienced horses because of fundamental problems in our sport.

I doubt that there’s a country in the world better at producing riders than the United States. Every year a number of new young faces enter our grand prix ranks, able to compete with the best of them at home or abroad—provided they have the horseflesh under them.

The number of riders needing horses suitable to get them to the “big ring,” along with the continual shortage of well-prepared, ready to go horses here in the United States, has made our country
perhaps the biggest consumer of “made” horses in the world.

It’s not just the decline of the dollar against the Euro that’s made top horses exceedingly expensive. There’s a worldwide demand for good horses prepared to compete at most every level. Obviously, the bigger the courses the horse can handle, the smaller the pool of horses, and thus the higher the price.

Why is it nearly impossible to find the kind of horses we need, in the numbers we need, here at home?
The breeding of sport horses hasn’t just increased in scope, it’s increased in quality, yet even the best breeders struggle to place their young stock. No young horse becomes a “made” horse that our market demands without first receiving a thorough education—the kind that takes years, not months.

The country that’s taken this aspect of the sport the most seriously is the perpetual leader of the pack, Germany. They’ve bred sport horses for well more than 100 years and even dared to change the type of horse they produce as they recognized the changing nature of the sport. Yet their record number of horses that enter the sport, reach the highest levels, and are sold abroad, I believe has just as much to do with their program for developing horses from 4 to 8 years old as it does to their breeding. The two parts go hand in hand.

High Costs And Courses

Producing a horse that will go on to grand prix levels, or do the junior/amateur-owner division (at the 1.40-meter level), takes not only knowledgeable training but also appropriate experience in the ring over a three- to five-year period.

Even with the growth of the Young Jumper Championships and other young jumper classes throughout the country, we have relatively few individuals with the knack and the desire to bring horses along. Those riders, trainers, and owners working hard at making good, useful horses cite two major deterrents to developing horses in the United States.

The first is cost. Very few areas offer real show ring experience for young horses anywhere except at the larger shows. But, even for those who can bear the cost of top shows, there remains the extreme diversity in what’s asked of our young horses in this country. Especially for the younger age categories, it’s impossible to know what you’ll get in terms of courses, and that’s the second problem.

While the rules can dictate the heights and spreads for different classes, they can’t specify the kinds of tests or questions that are asked of the horses. As any rider can testify, there can be a world of difference between two different courses that each meets the requirements for height and spread! Distances, fence material, number and types of combinations and related lines, proportion of spreads to verticals, and how quickly the questions come up for the horses, all go into what makes a course hard or easy, educational or punishing.

Horses with the quality to go all the way in today’s sport are the most easily discouraged as youngsters. They care a lot. Any good trainer will tell you one of the most important things in training a quality horse is to be sure he never learns what he can’t do. There’s a saying that most any European will agree with: “It takes five years to make one but only two minutes to break one.” And inappropriate courses run the risk of doing just that.


Normal jumper classes have one purpose—to determine who is best on the day.

Courses are set to achieve that end, and someone always has the fewest penalties and goes the fastest. However, if we are ever to be able to supply our sport with more of the sort of made horses that we’re eager to buy abroad I believe that somehow we must recognize that the classes for young horses must have a
different purpose than every other class at our shows.

As exciting as it is to win a class, the overlying goal should be educating the horse—sending him on his way well prepared for the next level. Unless we lay a solid foundation in these equine athletes—one that will stand them in good stead as they graduate into the open classes, either to grand prix or the junior and amateur ranks—we’ll never have many of the sort of horses we currently travel to buy.

The oh-so-crucial “in the ring” experience is determined solely by the course designer. Once the horse arrives at a show he’ll have to deal with whatever is put in front of him.

From Kindergarten To College

There’s some value in considering an analogy between young jumpers and school children. In both, no matter the innate talent, until the body and mind are ready too much pressure too soon will not speed the process and might well destroy either the ability or the desire.

At each age I believe there are similarities between jumpers and school children. Four-year-olds are like kindergarten kids—training emphasizes socialization, living with some structure and rules, and getting a taste of what’s to come that will hopefully leave them eager for more.

Five-year-olds seem to progress through the year in parallel to a child completing grammar school. All the basic skills are introduced, with each year building on the work completed the prior one. There’s a lot of ground to cover during this period, but logical progression is essential to not creating a confused individual with little belief in his abilities or interest in the job at hand.

Six-year-olds are in high school. This period shows a glimmer of just how far, and in what direction, the individual will go later in life. He might think he knows it all, but in reality there’s still a lot to learn. Some, even with great ability, decide that work is a drag and look for an easy way out. Some discover that weakness in the basic skills that should have been solidified the previous years makes dealing with greater difficulty impossible. Some get bored with too little challenge toward the end and need variety to ignite renewed interest.

The 7- and 8-year-old years are a bit like university—more than a few have already found work in other fields and don’t make it this far. Some accomplish accelerated course work and graduate early. But for most this is the period for specializing and learning the tougher subjects that will be essential to successful careers. This is a time to learn how to deal with pressure—not the truly traumatic kind, but the sort that will hopefully temper them to deal with whatever they might face in the future.

Of course not every horse will fit this scenario, but most do. In any case there’s a lot of ground to cover from first taste of the show ring experience (kindergarten) and college grad (ready to tackle grand prix level with long-term success), and it must all be squeezed into a few short years.

Producing Versus Showing


I don’t believe the United States will ever become a major producer of high-level competition horses, as well as riders, until the sport at every level puts more emphasis on producing horses and not simply showing them.

Awareness of the differences between young horses and those already made needs to be not just in the minds of trainers, riders and owners, but also management, and especially those most directly responsible for every horse’s education at the shows, the course designers.

The United States is the only country I know that regularly licenses and promotes course designers with little or no background in the sport beyond working at horse shows. It’s possible to find a formula for getting the right number of jumps in the ring and determining tracks for the various classes through a few years of observation, and a winner will always emerge. Most of the time there will also be an appropriate number of horses going clean, and the class will fit into a jam-packed time schedule.

But, offering the sort of courses that include questions to produce a winner and to bring all the competitors taking part to a new and more proficient level is a different story. This is when the background of having ridden, trained horses and taught students brings the element of horsemanship to the creation of appropriate courses for each level of horse.

The day will not arrive when the riders, trainers and owners of our most promising young horses feel confident shipping to a horse show until those designing the courses ask the horses to jump courses that are suitable for their age and for the time of the year.

The countries where we primarily shop already have consistency in what the horses of each age are asked to jump. Designers are required to know what is appropriate and adhere to consistent standards. In fact in Germany even a designer who has fulfilled the requirements for each of five levels of national licensing and is thus eligible to design the largest national grand prix, may not design young horse classes without a special license that ensures he knows what constitutes a suitable course for each age group.

Hopefully, we will be putting more directives into the U.S. Equestrian Federation Rule Book in the future, but it will also take the attention of the course designers together with the courage of the trainers and riders to speak up when a course their youngsters are being asked to jump is clearly unsuitable for the age group and more likely to be the “two minutes that break them” than a part of an educational process that will produce American-made horses for which we can be proud.

I would love to see the day come when we produce equine athletes for our sport at the same rate we produce human athletes. I don’t believe that’s likely, however, until we develop the means for the trainers and owners of our young jumper prospects to get them the sort of competitive mileage the horses need and deserve. 

Linda Allen

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 Laredo, Texas, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.




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