The Future Of U.S. Show Jumping: Part 1

Dec 7, 2011 - 3:22 PM
Team gold at the Pan American Games meant the United States earned a berth in the Olympic Games, but that was one of the few bright spot in a season of disappointments for U.S. show jumping. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

U.S. show jumpers are worried. And they’re looking for answers.

An open forum hosted by the U.S. Equestrian Federation on Nov. 7—the first of a series of such forums—opened the floor to discussion about various issues in show jumping and horse shows in general. The conversation took a hard look at how horse shows and the sport of show jumping have evolved over the last few decades, and where they’ve gone wrong.

Current U.S. show jumping Chef d’Equipe George Morris led off the forum with a 45-minute speech that led listeners down the path of 70 years of history, highlighting what worked in each decade and the gradual changes he’s seen heading in the wrong direction.

He was typically forthright about what he sees as wrong with show jumping today. “The hunter and equitation divisions are our base. If that’s sick, which it is, the whole animal is going to be sick, which it is. It’s been a downhill slope. Our base is becoming more and more artificial. There is more and more medication, more exhausted horses, and more incorrectly ridden horses. These horses are medicated and exhausted, not ridden. We’re teaching false values. We’re bringing up these young children with zillion-dollar ponies and horses, zillion-dollar this and that. That’s false values,” Morris said.

Read an edited version of Morris’ speech in the Dec. 19 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Morris recalled the team the United States fielded for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games as a “dream team.” But he characterized the years since as a steady downhill slide in international performance. “You have to say to yourselves, people, ‘We haven’t won a World Cup Final since 1987.’ 25 years! Since 1987. Something is wrong. That’s because with the exception of a couple, we’re not good enough. We’re not good enough,” Morris continued.

Systemic Problems

After the U.S. show jumping team’s performance at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games (Ky.), where they placed 10th and failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, this summer brought more bad news. The teams the United States sent to the FEI Top League Nations Cup series (formerly the Super League) failed to bring home the results that would assure a U.S. team presence in the league.

A team gold at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico) saved the day by qualifying the U.S. team for the 2012 Olympic Games. But Murray Kessler, a board member of the North American Riders Group, voiced that “while we are so proud of our team’s performance at the Pan American Games, we don’t fool ourselves to think that the challenges we faced at the WEG and the Super League have been magically corrected. We at NARG believe that challenges we have faced are the result of a long-term systemic problem in the U.S. show jumping system.”

Kessler and others, such as grand prix riders McLain Ward, Peter and Mark Leone, and Chris Kappler, pointed to a number of factors that have contributed to the decline of the U.S. riders’ international performance, such as the deterioration of the standards of U.S. shows and the lack of effective development of young riders and horses. Many took aim at the USEF’s mileage rule as stifling U.S. shows and allowing show standards to drop. Some who spoke, such as Kappler and trainer Katie Monahan Prudent, believe that it’s time for the show jumpers to break away from the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association and form their own affiliate organization to the USEF.

The Chain Is Broken

In his historical perspective, Morris detailed how in past decades, the hunter and equitation divisions were the stepping-stones and foundation of the top jumper riders. “In those days, the Maclay Finals winners automatically went on to the U.S. Equestrian Team. They practically walked from the Garden down to Gladstone,” he said.

“When you talk about the athlete pipeline, it seems that we now have three distinct pipelines,” said Suzanne Porter, whose sons compete in the junior jumper divisions and not the hunter and equitation classes. “You’re not necessarily getting people passing through the other disciplines the way they at one time did. I hear lots of people talk about their kids having two equitation horses and a hunter, and they’ll be chasing points and Medal Finals qualification all through high school, and they never actually have the financial resources to step off those horses and onto the jumpers, which is kind of what was naturally meant to happen and what did happen in the past.”

There was universal acknowledgement that the traditional progression from junior hunters to equitation to grand prix has been fractured, and that the hunter and equitation divisions have become separate entities that don’t serve as the pipeline of young riders to the top of the grand prix ranks. “The hunter program in the 1960s and ‘70s produced a lot of our great riders and horsemen of today,” said Peter Leone. “But the hunter ring does not do that anymore, so what does? Unfortunately, the equitation ring does not do that anymore either. How do we replace that?”

Chasing Europe

Another common theme of the discussion was that while the United States was the nation to beat in the sport in the 1980s, the balance has now shifted, and European riders dominate. The top U.S. riders spend large amounts of time competing and training in Europe, especially in the summer. Lauren Hough, who represented the United States at the 2000 Olympic Games and the 2010 Alltech WEG, only shows in the United States during the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.).

“As many of you know, I spend the majority of my time in Europe now, seven months in Europe,” Hough said. “One of the main reasons that I do that is because I want to be the best that I can in the world, so I compete at the best shows I possibly can. I would love to say that the best shows are here in the U.S. 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.”

The advent of the Nations Cup Top League, or Super League, in 2003 also served to draw top U.S. riders to Europe for extended periods of time. The backlash of this is that the traditional top shows of the spring and summer months in the United States have suffered. Without the biggest names showing in them, they’ve lost prestige.

“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, we weren’t chasing Europe all the time,” said Olympic veteran Peter Leone. “When I started grand prix, we were going against Rodney [Jenkins], Conrad [Homfeld], and 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 because by 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 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. And then go to Europe and take that step.”

Morris spoke of how disappointed he is that competing in Europe has become trendy for even lower level riders—juniors and amateurs. “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.

“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. But they haven’t won here, they haven’t won at Spruce Meadows, and they’re too young. And, trainers, you’re not giving them carrots. You have to keep them interested. They have to work for rewards. Don’t give them too much too soon.”

What Can Be Done?

Read the second installment of the series, about developing young riders into international competitors.

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

Read the fourth installment of the series, which discusses strengthening U.S. horse shows.

The entire open forum on Nov. 7 was broadcast on the web and is archived for viewing at 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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