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December 28, 2011

The Future Of Show Jumping, Part 4: Building A Better Horse Show

In Europe, the stands at horse shows are often packed with spectators, and the sport of show jumping is regularly broadcast on primetime TV. Photo by Molly Sorge.

To develop riders and horses for the future, as discussed in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, they need to go to horses shows. But participants in the Nov. 7 U.S. Equestrian Federation forum about the state of the sport of show jumping agreed there is a worrying decline in show quality and increase in show costs.

Just as there is a steady flow of horses traveling from Europe to the United States, there’s also a massive exodus of U.S. riders heading back across the ocean to show in Europe. Riders like Laura Kraut and Lauren Hough show in the United States very briefly, usually during the winter circuits, then spend the majority of their year showing in Europe. Many of the top riders have a European base. European tours have stretched from a few weeks to months. Even young riders are showing in Europe extensively.

U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris spoke out against the trend of traveling to Europe so much. “Showing in Europe is something you earn. I don’t care how rich you are or if you’re an up-and-coming junior jumper rider. You earn going to Europe,” he said.

“We used to first go to Eastern Canada; that was the stepping stone to Europe. Now, it’s Spruce Meadows. Trainers should say, ‘Let’s see how you do in Calgary in the summer against those people before we talk about Europe.’ Taking very novice people to Europe is a sexy sell. They haven’t won here; they haven’t won at Spruce Meadows. They’re too young.”

Riders frequently tout the need to hone their skills against the best of the best in Europe, but the sport at home is taking a hit while they’re there. The summer grand prix classes that used to be the pinnacle of the sport, such as the American Gold Cup, are losing their luster. The riders are improving themselves, but their sport is suffering in their own backyard. The up-and-coming riders aren’t competing against the best of the United States because they’re all over in Europe.

“The standard of jumping here in the country has deteriorated to a point where we have a void of competition targets to shoot for and a void of targets for young riders to shoot for to make themselves better,” said Olympian Peter Leone. “We need to re-establish upper level competition.”

Improve The Home Field

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we weren’t chasing Europe all the time,” recalled Mark Leone. “When I started showing grand prix, we were going against Rodney Jenkins, Conrad Homfeld, Joe Fargis. The sport was here, and you learned against the best here. You learned your craft, and you maybe went over to Europe for a month tour. There wasn’t this urge to be over there all the time, and as a result, our game got better and better.

“Competing against the best, it raises the level of all riders. We lose that at home when all our top riders are in Europe all summer. I think that’s a big part of this process, to somehow recreate the sport at home. Yes, Europe is where the sport is now, but we’ve been chasing it so much, with the invention of the Super League and all of these Global Champions Tour competitions now, that we’ve forgotten what we do best, which is put on good horse shows, develop great riders, and learn against one another,” Mark continued.

Hough explained that showing in Europe for seven months out of the year is mainly a financial decision for her. She's based in Belgium but brought one horse to the Alltech National Horse Show in Lexington, Ky. “I would love to say that the best shows are here in the United States because I would like to stay in the country. My owners would like me to be here in America. But unfortunately, the cost of showing in America on a week in and week out basis is too expensive,” she said.

“I pay a lot of my costs myself, and I do the best that I can to be at the highest level. The National Horse Show was a fantastic event. I brought one horse here, and I jumped in three classes. Now, forget the hotel and the costs of paying my groom or traveling. It cost me $2,895 to show one horse in three classes. I can go for five weeks in Europe with three or four horses to every show for what it cost me to show one horse here in three classes,” she continued.

Show Me The Money

Money is what it all boils down to. Someone has to pay for the horse shows, and in the U.S. model of horse showing, it’s the exhibitor. European shows have firmly entrenched relationships with major sponsors, and the sport has a wide spectator base. They don’t rely on entry fees from adult amateur jumpers to provide the prize money for the grand prix on Sunday. 

Michael Stone is the president of Equestrian Sport Productions, the company that manages the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), and he has extensive European show management experience. “For me, the fundamental problem here in comparison to Europe is that the owners and riders have subsidized the sport for generations. Very wealthy families have subsidized the bigger shows. When those people die off or get tired of putting all the money up, the shows die. Because there hasn’t been a necessity to make the show television-friendly or to get sponsors who will pay for the prize money,” he said.

“The lower level competitions with decent prize money that have huge entry numbers fund the grand prix. I wouldn’t say there’s any major class or championship in this country where the sponsor actually pays all the prize money. There’s a huge gap, and that’s the fundamental difference between here and Europe. If you’re a show manager and you want to put on a $250,000 grand prix, you might only get $100,000 from the sponsor. The difference has to be made up somehow,” he continued.

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s expensive to show, and at the end of the day someone has to pay for it. “I think if the riders and organizers work together to promote the sport more and get it on televisions somehow, you can gradually move it away from the way it is now, but at the moment, whether you take away the mileage rule or not, you’ll have to find a way to fund the show,” said Stone.

Location, Location, Location

The mileage rule was a huge topic of the forum, with many jumper riders and the North American Riders Group calling for its revocation or revision. “It’s been proven time and time again in this country that monopolies stifle competition, and the end result is that consumers are hurt. NARG believes that the mileage rule should be abolished, or at least limited, as was adopted this year by Jump Canada,” said Murray Kessler, a representative of NARG.

In 2011, Jump Canada passed a rule change limiting exclusivity protection for licensed horse shows that will take effect in 2012. They decreed that each venue could have a maximum of three weeks of mileage protection, and existing show managers could have only two weeks of mileage protection.

“There’s nothing wrong with shows wanting to make money, but they have to strive to have a better product, and in my opinion, it ties in to the mileage rule. The mileage rule protects mediocrity. It doesn’t protect shows that are striving to excel,” said Olympic show jumper McLain Ward.

“I think this is where the mileage rule is killing us,” he continued. “It doesn’t protect the product that has exceeded expectations. It protects the lower-level events, the ones that are doing the bare minimum. There are shows that are striving to push the standards, like Devon [Pa.], WEF, Spruce Meadows and the Syracuse [Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.)] that unfortunately is no longer.

“The mass shows that are basically doing the bare minimum and sucking the maximum profit out are hurting us on every level, and I believe that in the end, it isn’t as successful. Maybe it’s making the bottom line work, but they are really stunting their growth. They could be something larger and greater,” continued Ward.

Sonja Keating, the general counsel for the USEF, pointed out that a 2010 rule change eased the process by which shows can get an exception to the mileage rule. “We’re actually losing shows. There are very few shows, if any, that are being turned away because of the mileage rule,” she said.

“What happens if there’s a mileage conflict is that they can seek permission from the show that has it, but they can also come to the [USEF], and there’s an analysis done about what’s in the best interest of the sport. Typically, if you look at the trends over the last few years, all of those have been granted, and we’ve let other competitions come in and host the shows. Although the mileage rule still exists, there’s a lot of flexibility and discretion in there, and I don’t see that as an obstacle as much as it has been in the past,” she explained.

However, the rules may have changed, but the atmosphere faced by show managers hasn’t. “It’s like the monster in the room, the mileage room. Even though it’s been modified, people are terrified to even attempt to go against the big shows,” said Ward. “Old Salem wanted some dates in July, and they couldn’t go against Lake Placid. It’s this huge monster that discourages people from even attempting to take the risky steps to run a great event. Most of us in the industry, as trainers and riders, don’t see how any pros of the mileage rule are outweighing the cons, even with the modifications.”

Bill Moroney, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association president, answered the topic of the Old Salem shows. Old Salem Farm in North Salem, N.Y., had proposed running some shows in July to add to their calendar after their two-week spring series in May.

“But it wasn’t two horse shows they were against, it was 11,” Moroney said. “But the interesting thing is that people don’t look for opportunity. If they had come in and said, ‘We want to run a horse show against these 11 other horse shows, but we’re going to run the open jumper divisions and the professional hunter divisions, and we’re not going to get into equitation or ponies or any of the Ring 4 through 15’s classes, we’re going to create a great horse show at a certain level, they would have had a greater shot at getting approved. But the reality is that they needed the divisions in Rings 4 through 15 to help pay the way for the other people.”

Set The Standards

Going hand-in-hand with mileage rule discussion is talk of show standards. “You have to have standards,” said Stone. “A show that does the bare minimum—there’s no reason they should be protected. But a show that works very hard and improves should be protected. The flip side of doing away with the mileage rule is that you potentially could end up with the commercial shows becoming much, much bigger and crucifying the nice, smaller shows. It’s a balance.”

Today’s hunter and jumper divisions are increasingly divergent, which also affects show standards. Gone are the days when top grand prix riders also piloted working hunters, like Rodney Jenkins and Katie Monahan Prudent in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Top hunter trainer Archie Cox highlighted the power of the amateur rider with checkbook in hand.

“The hunter industry right now, unfortunately, is promoting the same horses jumping the same eight fences,” Cox said. “If you move the jumps or have a bending line, or an oxer to an oxer, the amateurs get upset. They go to the trainers and complain. The amateurs write the big checks. So, the trainer goes to the show manager and says, ‘It would really be better if we just had a vertical-oxer, because my customer is a big supporter of the horse show and will continue supporting if it’s just a little easier.’

“We have to figure out a way to encourage those supporters of the horse show, but at the same time figure out a way to make it a little more challenging. You want the kids to walk up to the ring and say, ‘This looks fun,’ not ‘This looks scary.’ We as trainers have to try and promote that in the hunter industry, and when the course looks a little funny and the jumps look a little different, we need to try and excite the kids and say ‘You can do it,’ ” he continued.

Sell The Sport

Alan Balch pointed out the fact that in the glory days of horse shows, the vast majority were run as charitable endeavors, not as a profit venture. The management of horse shows as primarily a for-profit business is something that came about in the last 40 years.

“There is an inherent tension between sport for sport’s sake and sport for profit purposes. I think McLain is correct when he says that it is improper to think that because of the improvements in the mileage rule that anyone can get a date who wants a date. That is absolutely not the case, and the Federation’s leadership does not understand that the stifling of competition by the current mileage rule is, by my opinion, the single most harmful aspect to jumping sport in the United States,” he said.

“The new unified Federation has some great advantages over what pre-existed [with the American Horse Shows Association and the U.S. Equestrian Team]. But it also has some very serious disadvantages, because the Federation tends to be closed to entrepreneurial or new thinking.

“This issue, which is worldwide, can only be solved with aggressive marketing. And aggressive marketing that provides opportunity for entrepreneurial organizers. We’ve enabled some major show organizers to get into a position where nobody will even think of trying to compete with them. And that needs to be changed. It can only be changed by converting the great power that the unified Federation has now away from protecting for-profit and toward stimulating not-for-profit and sport purposes, and re-allocating the great wealth in the sport,” he continued.

The discussion of how to market the sport and create horse shows that don’t rely so heavily on exhibitor fees led to talk of separating the hunter and jumper disciplines. “At some point, we need to step off the cliff and figure out another way to generate revenue and sell the sport,” said Ward. “That’s where the struggle comes in, between what’s going on in the hunter industry, which is more of a service industry, and what we want to become as a jumper sport with something to sell.”

Balch spoke out strongly in support of separating the jumpers from the hunters and creating a marketable sport on its own. “It needs to be done, because the problem with a massive, all-inclusive Federation is that there’s no focus on the elite and the Olympic and other international disciplines at the highest level. What does that lead to? Lowest common denominatorism. When the management of the whole sport is focused on Ring 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, we’re in deep trouble,” Balch said.

Read the first installment of this series, an introduction to the issues discussed at the Nov. 7 forum.

Read the second installment of the series, a discussion of the young rider pipeline.

Read the third installment of the series, which discusses bringing attention back to U.S.-bred horses.

The entire open forum on Nov. 7 was broadcast on the web and is archived for viewing at www.usefnetwork.com. More open forums on the subject are planned, including one that took place on Dec. 5 during the USHJA convention.

USEF officials hope these forums will inspire a blueprint for how to improve the sport of show jumping as a whole, with a 25-year plan for the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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