Friday, Apr. 12, 2024

The Course Decides The Winner In Show Jumping

Our columnist hopes that everyone setting courses, at whatever level, takes the job seriously, understands the role they play and gets as much satisfaction out of the job as she has.

I freely admit my personal bias on the importance of course design—I’ve worked at this job for nearly 30 years now—but when it comes to show jumping there truly is nothing that affects the direction of its evolution more than the design of courses for competition.

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Our columnist hopes that everyone setting courses, at whatever level, takes the job seriously, understands the role they play and gets as much satisfaction out of the job as she has.

I freely admit my personal bias on the importance of course design—I’ve worked at this job for nearly 30 years now—but when it comes to show jumping there truly is nothing that affects the direction of its evolution more than the design of courses for competition.

Bluntly stated, regardless of discipline, competitors perfect doing whatever it takes to win.

Unlike the judged disciplines of hunters and equitation where the judges most influence the growth and changes in the sport, in jumping it’s the particulars of the course design that set the bar (literally as well as figuratively). Whether we’re talking World Championships or the local schooling show, if we want to see good riding and long careers for our horses in the future the courses must demand and reward appropriately.

Our national federation, like that of most countries where jumping is a serious discipline, has implemented a system of education and licensing for jumping (and most recently hunter) course designers. I’m sure that there are those who wonder why a single license and clinic can’t serve for both hunters and jumpers, but it’s only correct that they be separate.

The purpose the course serves is totally different between the disciplines. For hunters and equitation the course is meant to be a stage upon which the entrants demonstrate their skills for the judges to evaluate. Courses appropriate to the type of class and level of the entrants are essential, but in the end the judge(s) determine who wins and who doesn’t. In jumping it’s the reverse. The judge serves as a scorekeeper—and umpire whenever an unforeseen situation arises—but the course actually determines who wins.

Long before I ever set a course at a “real” show I learned how much a course designer could affect me as a rider, trainer and teacher. There’s no doubt that when you are the winner you seldom have complaints about the course!

Yet for every winner there are many more entrants who leave with little to show for having gone in the ring except experience. This experience leaves them better (or worse) prepared for the next time.

We’re A “Special Breed”

Back in the days when I was spending my own money or that of my clients at shows, it was important always to leave a show with the right kind of experience, whether we won a bunch, had an OK week, or not such a good one. I learned quickly that certain designers never failed to give us our money’s worth. I haven’t forgotten this lesson and have always done my best to provide “value” whenever I design. From the feedback I get, most of today’s competitors appreciate it as much as I did in the old days.

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In late January David Ballard of Canada and I served as co-panelists for a U.S. Equestrian Federation Course Design Clinic. I particularly enjoy these clinics, and getting to work with Dave, a great friend and designer whom I especially admire, made for a fun couple of days.

Each time I do one of these clinics it’s a different make-up of attendees. This time it was heavy on applicants and r-rated officials, making it gratifying to see the level of interest and enthusiasm throughout the group.

It’s a special breed drawn to this job. It isn’t the easiest one at a competition, and the level of responsibility shouldered by the CD is high—no other official is directly in charge of determining the physical test every competitor must undertake.

The hours are long—especially with “homework” most every night! Unless the person gets real satisfaction out of the work he isn’t likely to stay with it for long. Building a good course isn’t all that hard really, but building for today’s shows is far more than going out and setting up a course.

Designers quickly learn that safety and a good result for competitors and organizers rest more in the attention to detail than anything else. The mechanics of putting a course on paper and setting up the jumps are easily taught and can be mastered in fairly quick order by anyone who simply repeats the process enough times.

The ability to put the drawn course into the arena—so that it will ride well—takes considerably more time and practice. Learning to make courses that will morph quickly and easily from one class to the next is another skill to be developed by the new designer.

The sheer volume of paperwork can be daunting, especially for someone who would much prefer to be in the ring setting things up. Yet to be a designer and not just a course builder, the most important ability is being able to recognize what is an appropriate test for each division and each class. Without this skill, horses and riders can get over-faced and discouraged, or a lesser combination may end up winning an important class.

The sport as a whole falls behind when course designers aren’t putting up appropriate, suitable courses. Competitors need to test themselves and get a true gauge of where they are; this doesn’t happen if what they are asked to jump isn’t suitable to the class and level that they are competing in.

Every jumping course is akin to a test in school. It’s meant to measure the level of knowledge and preparedness of each competitor. Make it too hard, or too easy, or too heavily weighted toward the same skill set, and it doesn’t give a very accurate measure of the test-takers. It’s their knowledge of horses and riders that tells the designer what is hard and what is not for that group of competitors. This skill is what produces the sort of challenging (but never punishing) tests that raise the level of the competitors and the sport.

10,000 Hours

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Skill is born of talent and lots of hard work. An excellent book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, discusses, among other topics, the importance of practice in reaching success. After studying many fields of endeavors, he calculates that it takes (along with “enough” talent) 10,000 hours dedicated to focused practice for an individual to reach a level of real success.

That’s right, 10,000! He found that those who have a passion for what they are doing, and who are offered the opportunities to do it, will put in that amount of time and more. For the most part they will also enjoy the time spent. Very few, if any, reach real success based on talent and opportunity alone—time spent and efforts expended are key parts of the equation. I find that this is true of designers (and riders) as well.

From the group of novice and aspiring designers at the recent clinic, not all will go on to be busy and successful designers. Some will find that the job isn’t for them, even more will find it difficult to find the opportunities to get the experience they need. This situation can often be the biggest challenge for someone with the background and desire. Competitions are loath to try anyone new—fearing that they will be slow or uncertain. Lack of experience does usually result in a bit more time taken, especially when the individual really cares about the work he produces.

But if those lower-height classes aren’t a training ground for upcoming designers, how will the United States have top people in the future? Smaller events, and some larger ones, often demand of an inexperienced designer something that an experienced one would not agree to do—accept responsibility for multiple rings and sometimes judging as well!

This scenario is a recipe for disaster. Even if no one gets hurt, and no class is ruined due to a mistake in a course, the designer will, at best, produce only mediocre courses. Not at each ring to see the horses jump what he has set, the designer learns nothing about becoming a better designer. Just as a rider must go around a full course to see how well prepared he really is, a designer must see every horse actually jump his course to learn how accurate his judgment was in providing the suitable degree of difficulty to the course and every part of it.

It’s disappointing to me to see how few designers the United States produces over the years considering the size of our country and the depth of the sport. Steve Stephens, Conrad Homfeld, and now Anthony D’Ambrosio have put all of the pieces together to become highly respected designers at the international level, but we have few individuals with their strong background in riding and horsemanship following in their wake.

I fear that’s more likely due to lack of opportunity for newcomers coming from the ranks of riders and trainers than any other single factor. When organizers are happier hiring new names, such as those who have done more carrying of jump standards than riding and training the horses that jump between them, we are likely to see an ever growing divide between the prestigious events and classes (that most often utilize foreign designers) and those below that level where the time schedule and the bottom line all too often take precedence.

It’s hard for me to understand why for an individual to build any hunter course at a USEF A- or AA-rated show he must hold a license; yet, even at our most prestigious shows, no license at all is required for any jumper class offering less than $5,000 in prize money. Without any license requirement there is no education.

Entrants pay their money and have no idea of who might be setting the courses for themselves, their children or their clients. Worse, the least prepared designers are doing those classes meant for the least experienced competitors. I hope that this is something that will be rectified by our Federation in the not too distant future.

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 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.

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