Saturday, Sep. 23, 2023

Commentary: Looking Back To Move Forward



I can’t recall what led me down this particular rabbit hole many years ago, but there I was typing “Jumping Derby” into the search bar on YouTube. Maybe my quest was inspired by the well-used phrase “hardest course in the world” and a photo of that monstrous bank. What could possibly be deemed the hardest course in the world, especially with courses constantly changing?

But then I watched the vintage Hamburg and Hickstead videos, and immediately I understood. These courses were something different, something special. They were like living representations of history. In studying Nick Skelton and Apollo’s 1990 Hickstead Derby victory, I no longer saw the distinct categories that separate us today into hunter riders, jumper riders, foxhunters or eventers. I just saw very, very good riding, the type that gives me chills.

I’ve always been a history nerd, especially in the equine department. My wonderful childhood trainer Hunter King would tell me stories of the sixth floor of Madison Square Garden and show me his black-and-white photos of Devon. But even as a young child hearing his tales, I wondered if the glory days had somehow disappeared for my generation.

As I researched “Deconstructing The Derby” (for the Legends and Traditions issue), this same feeling crept in. I found legendary horses who would conquer the derbies while also competing in the Olympic Games, World Show Jumping Championships and then the FEI World Equestrian Games. The term “derby horse” hadn’t been coined yet—only a “great horse.”

I wasn’t alone in my opinion. Nelson Pessoa, Eddie Macken and William Funnell talked of the bygone era of show jumping, in which top combinations did it all, and history and prestige guided rider schedules and goals.

“Today it’s different business,” said Pessoa. “The importance now is how much money is in a class. There’s a lot of money in classes that are the same. In the old days people tried to conserve the origin of the sport. How the sport was beginning. Today you’ve got money. The most important competitions are the competitions that have more money.”

Sure, show jumping has traveled to unexpected places, like the beaches of Miami and the shadows of the Eiffel Tower—but inside the ring, it’s all the same sandy footing and million-dollar sponsored standards holding up 12-foot poles. Can the average spectator understand the sport and what makes it a sport? Does the difficulty of a triple combination set a few feet longer and shorter translate clearly?


“People outside the sport have no idea the technicality of course being set there,” said Funnell. “So I think that variety makes our sport exciting, and we need to be careful we don’t stereotype and make our sport very intellect.”

Last year’s Hamburg derby attracted 93,000 spectators. Yet so many competitions in America and elsewhere struggle to fill the stands. Does this money-fueled model really better our sport? Are we inspiring spectators to not only enjoy the competition but to also take that riding lesson?

History instructs us in everything from politics to geography to finance. It helps us understand past mistakes and appreciate the successes that can move us forward to be better versions of ourselves. The same is true for the horse industry. We must keep our tradition and our roots in sight as we move into the modern era because there’s something in the magic of Hamburg and Hickstead that works to inspire the past, the present and the future.

This commentary appeared in the Jan. 14 & 21, 2019 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. 

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