Friday, Jun. 7, 2024

Does Our Sport Have To Be So Exclusive?

Our columnist would like to see show jumping be more inclusive and accessible to all those who love horses and wish to practice the art of horsemanship in this discipline.

I often wonder what my life would be like if I were a youngster today instead of back when I grew up. Just like many of you reading this, I was obsessed with horses from a very young age. 


Our columnist would like to see show jumping be more inclusive and accessible to all those who love horses and wish to practice the art of horsemanship in this discipline.

I often wonder what my life would be like if I were a youngster today instead of back when I grew up. Just like many of you reading this, I was obsessed with horses from a very young age. 

My parents were supportive of my addiction, yet they were of modest means, and trainer/instructors in English riding were not to be found within 100 miles of where we lived. Despite these handicaps, I managed eventually to achieve many of my goals on the national and even international levels.


Could the same be done today? 
I honestly don’t know. While I never had the benefit of full-time training or coaching, my success was largely due to some top professionals who were willing to give me their best help. They did so despite the fact that I could only get to them on a sporadic basis and even though we never bought a single horse from any of them. I fear that many of today’s top professionals are just too busy to do the same for a kid like me.
I never had good horses to take to shows—we just couldn’t afford them—yet my personal goal always was to get to the next level up. I didn’t win as much, but I’m sure that I learned far more, with my mediocre stock. But, most importantly, the professionals who helped me were willing to accept me for who I was, what I was working toward, and with all of the limitations that our finances imposed. 

Breaking In
In the various clinics that I do with Pony Clubs around the country, I’m saddened, but not surprised, by the comments that “show jumping is the most difficult discipline to get involved in.” Eventing and even dressage are far easier, according to everyone I speak to. 
They cite three factors for this situation: the cost, the dearth of good instructors willing to work with average horses, and the “friendliness factor.” It’s not just Pony Clubbers who feel this way; these same three items are frequently mentioned discouragements to other individuals who are trying to go forward in the sport without turning themselves and their horses over to a full-time training program.
There’s no doubt that costs are through the roof. Even many of our most successful grand prix riders say that this is the major issue facing the sport in this country today. 
Some people are making their feelings known to the U.S. Equestrian Federation via the newly formed North American Riders Group. For a variety of reasons, the costs associated with competing in show jumping are easily three to four times higher than anywhere else in the world. If our most successful riders are finding it impossible to develop young horses for top sport here in the United States, it’s not surprising that it’s equally difficult to develop riding talent in any but the most financially advantaged youth of today.
The answer to this dilemma isn’t an easy one, but in large part I believe that the problem stems from the loss of quality smaller shows—the sort that offers riders and horses a less expensive option for working on their skills and gaining experience before graduating to the larger, and more expensive, events. 
While it’s impossible to generalize in this big country of ours, it’s clear that the number of areas that offer quality schooling or B- or C-rated shows is quite small. More commonly, the choice comes down to either attending lower quality schooling shows—that bear little resemblance to the sport at a higher level—or paying top dollar at the A- or AA-rated level.
The “one size fits all” shows that we see so much of these days have a lot to offer for professionals. They can go to a single venue with a broad range of clients—all the way from someone attending their first show up to the grand prix competitor. 
It’s also become the most successful financial model for show organizers. The literally hundreds of well-filled classes that offer little beyond a few ribbons can foot the bill for the handful of classes that offer impressive prize money.

Unfortunately, for those without a bottomless pocketbook, the plethora of extravaganza horse shows has closed the door on the smaller shows that could offer the opportunity to develop skills at a more reasonable cost. 

Few would disagree that this is a sport of experience: the more you get, the further and faster you progress. When that experience can only be obtained at a cost of $1,000 to $3,000 per show per horse (above and beyond the costs of board, training, shoeing, veterinary care, travel, etc., not to mention the cost of the horse itself), the show jumping discipline becomes out of reach for most of the horse-loving population.
This same phenomenon that gives us the “one size fits all” horse show has also robbed us of many of the good instructors that are so necessary for teaching basic riding and jumping skills.  
Just as Tiger Woods’ coach is unlikely to have the right skill set (or the patience) to teach me to play golf, our most gifted trainers and riders seldom make suitable teachers for imparting basic skills to new equestrians. 
Yet areas of expertise are becoming blurred. We see some pros with borderline knowledge and experience ending up with grand prix horses and riders in their care, while those with great talent and many miles at the highest levels often must take on novice riders to keep their barn full.  
When everyone is playing at the same tournament every week it’s hard for the newcomer to tell the difference, making salesmanship often a more valuable talent than horsemanship for making a good living in our sport.
Making a living in the horse business is no easy feat, but the challenge of meeting the expenses of a full show schedule is certainly making it harder for even the most generous professional to mentor even the most dedicated, talented and hard-working young rider unless he can afford to pay full fare. 
In eventing and dressage one often sees top names doing clinics for all levels of competitors, most often with the simple aim of imparting knowledge. Yet I frequently hear the story that some jumping clinicians fail to have the same level of interest in their students unless a horse sale or full-time client is in the offing. This isn’t the sort of image that most of us would like to see in our sport.

The Cold Shoulder 
What I’m calling the “friendliness factor” is something that I hear about in most every part of the country from participants at many levels of the sport. Perhaps I should call it the “unfriendliness factor,” since the comments are often about feeling totally unwelcome when they attend a show.  
Obviously this varies greatly from one part of the country to another, and one show to another, but all too often the only ones who seem to be truly welcome in the show office or at the back gate are a handful of BNTs (big-name trainers). 
The little guy with one or two horses who pays his bills and follows the rules is all too often made to feel like he wandered into the wrong place and doesn’t belong there at all. I know of more than a few people whose first love was show jumping but who made the decision to move to another discipline for this reason alone.
I’m not sure where this attitude on the part of some shows and some competitors comes from, but in my riding days I frequently turned up as a complete newcomer at various shows all over North America and in Europe. I was always amazed at the gracious and warm welcome accorded a totally unknown rider when I went anywhere in Canada and throughout Europe. 
I was equally dismayed by the cool attitude with which I was initially treated when I arrived as an unknown at a new venue on the U.S. circuit. Only after winning some good ribbons did it seem that I became worthy of a reply to my daily “good morning!” 
This memory was many years ago, and many of those people who seemed cold and unwelcoming initially became good friends later, but my experiences those many years ago make it easy to identify with what others tell me about how they feel in the show offices and at the in-gates around the country today.  
I think that our sport has simply become so fixated on the “professional trainer/client” model that anyone who fails to fit the mold can seem like an oddity who doesn’t really fit in. Fortunately, in most places outside of the United States people tend to be judged more on their own merit and less on whom they arrive at the event with. It doesn’t make the sport any less elite; it just makes it friendlier.
This is an uncomfortable subject to broach, but it’s one that has been on my mind for some time now. Nearly every trip I take I meet people who share our love of the sport but find it increasingly difficult to become or remain a participant in it. 
Never a month goes by that I don’t receive e-mail from someone asking why this particular discipline is so much more difficult to get started in than most others. It would be nice to say that they are mistaken, but I know they’re not. 
I truly wish that our sport in this country was organized in a way that anyone with a modicum of talent, who was willing to work hard, persevere, and avail themselves of any and every opportunity that might come along could still reach serious goals. 
Shouldn’t we be able to offer a sport where an individual could simply embark on a quest to become a better horseman—in an atmosphere of good fellowship and good sportsmanship?  

 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.