In Response: The Future Of World Class Show Jumping—Two Suggested Steps

Aug 10, 2017 - 11:38 AM

An objective observer of world class show jumping noting huge increases in the number of two- to five-star shows and the number of participants and prize money in the last five to 10 years (due in part no doubt to competition between dueling watchmakers), might be tempted to conclude that the top end of the sport in this discipline was in pretty good shape.

Add in the effect of the last half-century of breeding activity primarily in Europe that has improved the general quality of jumpers, combined with major advances in veterinary care and other important ancillary areas like nutrition, farriers and tack/equipment and that initial conclusion is strengthened.

Therefore it is interesting if a little surprising that there seems to be a great deal of angst or general sturm und drang as to the current state of show jumping if the number and tone of various open letters, podcasts, forums and comments is any indicator.

A number of “issues” have been identified. As just a partial and incomplete cross-section the GCT and the FEI had a long-running fight that spilled into court. Major owner/horse dealer/show organizer/lorry dealer (no doubt we are missing some of his hats) Stephen Conter wrote an open letter critical of the FEI on a number of fronts. The FEI held a turbulent forum in April 2017 where many grievances were aired. The IJRC has been up in arms about its lack of a voice in format changes.

Now, Katie Prudent, in her usual forthright fashion, has bemoaned what she sees as the “dumbing down” of the sport, at least in the United States, by an influx of rich “fearful and talentless amateurs,” which predictably sparked responses—agreements, rebuttals and demurrers from various sources in roughly equal parts.

One website hitherto known primarily for its cover shots of the heavily made-up scions of the ultra rich has very recently in an op-ed piece, without any observable sense of irony, hypothesized a choice as to whether to embrace “elitism” and posited a possible price cap for horse purchases as something to think about. What body would have jurisdiction to impose such a cap, and how, even if it could be imposed, it could be enforced as a practical matter is not developed in the op-ed piece.

The voices are disparate and don’t appear to agree on what the problem(s) is/are, what the solutions to those problems might be let alone how these solutions could be implemented. The FEI on its website identifies seven or eight different stakeholder groups whose interests it purports to represent. When the impact of nationality is added in the potential for unanimity on a solution may be as likely in this sphere as it is for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

The FEI and all National Equestrian Federations identify the welfare and the interests of the horse as their paramount objective. Horses don’t have a voice. Numerous stakeholders (in no particular order)—riders, owners, grooms (recently recognized), show organizers, vets and other caregivers, breeders, trainers, commercial interests and finally spectators do have voices and opinions which are sometimes framed in terms as to what is best for the horse.

When any stakeholder expresses an opinion about what is wrong with the present and what should happen in the future it is necessary to consider what their personal or financial interests might be. It isn’t that their voice shouldn’t be heard or that their concerns aren’t sincere. It’s just that, as an example, if a horse show organizer complains about the deal as between the FEI and the GCT financial self-interest may understandably be part of the genesis of the criticism. It is a relatively small industry and while one can hope for altruism in motivation it would be unwise to assume it uncritically.

However, what led us to write this is the suggestion that the sport at the top level either is or is at risk of being “dumbed down” (presumably in Katie’s view to cater to the less talented but rich clients that she speaks about).

We want to say at once that Katie and Henri are very dear friends. We don’t doubt for a moment her sincerity. Her candor is unquestioned. She doesn’t dissemble or call a spade an implement for moving earth.

That having been said we disagree completely with the over-generalization that is the premise for her conclusion. There are both lazy and untalented professionals of limited means and hugely talented hard-working competitive riders of effectively unlimited means (i.e. the cost of horses and maintaining a large string is not a limiting factor). It is wrong and indeed unfair to lump the latter into one group as each individual is different.

Equally, we disagree that there is any harm or something wrong with the plethora of lower divisions. If there is a market of persons that want to compete at that level and enjoy it, what could possibly be wrong with that?

However and at least as importantly, even if you agreed that she has identified something wrong, Katie doesn’t suggest a solution to the “problems” and we don’t think she or any of us want some sort of regulatory body attempting to limit somehow who can buy what horse, what they could pay and/or how many they can have.

Where we do agree with her is a shared appreciation or view that the top end of the sport either is or is in some danger of being “dumbed down” in the sense of the difficulty of the test at the very top level.

We have a theory as to the combination of factors that are contributing to this and in order to understand what if anything could or should be done it is necessary to set forth recent developments and conclusions we have drawn before we make two suggestions that (i) might be possible to implement if the FEI Executive has the backbone and (ii) we think that would benefit the sport.

The qualities necessary for a top class horse—carefulness, scope, soundness, courage, speed, rideability, brain/will-to win/work with the rider have been a constant for many years.

As already noted, it has been noticeable to us that given selection as to “breeding in” these qualities in the last four to five generations, the general talent level appears much higher than previously. The “average” show jumper is much better than 30 to 40 years ago.
A horse with all the necessary qualities in abundance has always been a valuable asset in the sense of what it could be sold for. It has also always been the case for most of the last 50 years that you had to be an “economic idiot” to own one and not sell it.

Until recently the net prize money a horse could win per annum was effectively negligible when measured against the risk of the horse taking a bad step, going off form or simply aging out (especially for a gelding). It made no economic sense to keep an asset you could sell for $1.5 million to net at best $100,000 per annum after costs when the risks of the horses’ value going to zero were factored in.

The increase in prize money in recent years hasn’t changed this ratio or dynamic but rather when coupled with the rise in prices for horses only the numbers have changed (to $5-10 million sale price versus $500,000-$1million net winnings) with the same risks.

What this meant and continues to mean amongst other things is that by and large the top horses have always been owned (donated or assigned) by people unconcerned with economic return, i.e. rich folks. There always have been exceptions, such as Snowman, to go back many years, but in this case we think the exceptions prove the rule.

It was perhaps easier to find owners to keep horses when the prices were lower and the USET was selected and trained by Bert de Nemethy, but it is idle to yearn for days that are unlikely to return. The reality is and has been that this is an “elite” sport if that phrase is intended to mean that it takes a lot of money to pursue it at the top end (if only including the opportunity cost of not selling a top horse).

We also think one of the main contributors to the state of things today is breakaway cups. That may be surprising to some but here at least is the thinking. These cups are a very good thing in greatly preventing or lessening the chance of serious injury to the horse but they have had additional consequences.

Prior to breakaway cups a “miss” by the rider was much more likely than now to have very negative consequences for both the horse and rider. This had at least a couple of effects. There was a real premium on accuracy in the sense that the rider couldn’t afford the mistake of not making the back rail so fewer riders got to learn at the bigger heights and the professional ride was not only desirable, it was necessary.

In addition, although there aren’t any statistics, anecdotally after a bad fall when people got hurt they didn’t continue in the sport or try for the upper levels if it was their hobby.

One of the consequences of breakaway cups is that the “miss” is much less likely to hurt the rider. Repeated “misses” will take away a horse’s carefulness and even heart but if the budgets aren’t limited then the consequence of that is that horses get replaced more frequently (which parenthetically is of course fine with the dealers, trainers and breeders and has an effect on prices).

The amateur rider doesn’t get physically broken by the mistakes that he or she inevitably will make, and so continues in the sport. This is not set out as a reason to urge a return to non-breakaway cups but rather as one of the consequences of their implementation and as part of the reason for the increase in number of more well-to-do amateurs.

Another reality is that with the tripling (at least) of the number of two- to five-star shows, if the rider wants to compete on a year-round basis he or she really needs at least three to five top class horses. World No. 1 Kent Farrington, for example, at present has Voyeur, Ucecko, Gazelle, Creedance, Sherkan and Dublin, that he slots in and rests as appropriate with many other horses in various stages of preparation as eventual replacements.

At today’s prices just calculate in your head the market value of that group. This effectively means that the rider/athlete needs to either have wealthy sponsor(s) or a parental or other family financial backstop to finance the acquisition and maintenance of the string necessary to “play” on a perpetual basis. This both reduces the number of professional riders who compete year-round and opens spots for the financially independent who can afford the necessary string.

It is of course still possible to compete less, have a smaller number of horses and aim for championships. Jeroem Dubbledam is perhaps the best example of this.

The general trend is towards competing more frequently and that also has consequences, in terms of needing more horses. Again, this is not to say it is good or bad, but just that it is the case at the moment. There has been a marked rise in the participation of the .001 percent, including the Saudis, Qataris and the scions of the ultra-rich. Coupled with reduced foal crop sizes after the economic events of 2008 and 2009, this has had the inevitable result of pushing prices for horses through the roof, which again limits the options of many as to number of horses.

It is assumed that the “invisible hand” of the market will eventually address this at the middle ranges at least, but it is likely that the prices of superstars (and potential superstars) are going to remain astronomical (and the rider, especially the developing rider, is going to need more of them).

This leads to the area we wish to discuss and that is the trend towards dumbing down the test or put another way the homogenization of the materials, courses and even arenas. When the GCT started it had perhaps more three-day load-in/ load-out shows in small sand boxes in fabulous locations than it does at present. Also there tends to be a relatively large number of clean rounds and this is not seen as a bad thing because a prime focus is not getting the crowds of spectators that they get at Aachen or Spruce Meadows. Too many clean rounds is deathly boring for the average spectator.

Jan Tops appears to be moving where he can to include bigger grass rings and his home facility at Tops International in Valkenswaard (the Netherlands_ is absolutely spectacular. There is nothing wrong with wealthy riders paying franchise fees for teams and essentially competing for their own money throughout the year at those fabulous locations. It would be idle to rail against this development even if one were minded to do so. Jan has identified and catered to a market opportunity and it isn’t the role of the FEI or anyone to seek to interfere in the market he has identified and services beyond ensuring fair competition and horse welfare.

There has also been a trend away from grass to easier-to-maintain footing for high-traffic shows such as 12 weeks at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) (plus pre and post-circuit).

However there ought to be at least a discussion about the impact of the combination of all these developments on the test at the very highest level which also brings into play the role of in-ground water jumps and liverpools. As but one example, one rarely sees the vertical-oxer-oxer triple anymore and the consensus seems to be it should be reserved for championships.

In essence, the discussion is whether it would be a good thing to preserve and reward the horsemanship still necessary to prevail at tests that are put forward at venues such as Aachen and Spruce Meadows as the pinnacle of the sport. Last year’s Masters at Spruce Meadows and the reaction to difficulties encountered with the first round is but one indication that the issue is a live one.

We think it is reasonable—based on current trends—to consider for various reasons that these commercial forces raise a likelihood that the tests will continue to be changed to address what these cultivated markets appear to want. It is in this sense that the phrase Katie used of “dumbing down” has the most meaning to us. For our purposes it actually doesn’t matter whether one agrees that the “dumbing down” has or is occurring if you agree that it shouldn’t occur in the future or perhaps even more importantly, that it would be a good thing to create events universally recognized as the goal of the top end of the sport with classically difficult tests.

As threshold consideration is this or would it be a bad thing? We happen to think it is or would be. We are not suggesting a return to the career-ending “mountains” of say the  1968 Mexico Olympics. We are saying that the test at the top end ought to remain very difficult—a real test of horsemanship.

As part of considering what might be done, it is important to understand what the present role of the FEI is as well as what the role of the FEI could be to implement the steps we suggest.

Without getting too technical, the current situation is that the FEI is an “association” under Article 60 of the Swiss Civil Code founded in 1925. It doesn’t have owners in the sense of shareholders so it can’t be the subject of say a takeover bid or even a proxy fight to effect change. It is governed by a “Statute” (at present the 23rd edition which has 13 chapters). Those chapters set out the objectives and provide rules for membership. Article 5 of Chapter II reads as follows:

5.1 – Membership in the FEI is open to the one national governing body from any country which is effectively in control of or is in a position to effectively control at least the Olympic Equestrian Disciplines and supported by its National Olympic Committee.

Under Chapter III, Article 9.1, the General Assembly of members or NEFs is the supreme authority and decides everything of import including approving the General Regulations and any amendment thereto.

Under Article 14.1, each National Federation shall have one vote. There are at present 135 National Federation members. This means that the NEFs of the nations that view themselves as the leaders in the sport can’t by themselves muster the votes to make changes. Opinions may differ on whether this is a good thing but it is the present reality. This also essentially means that it is the FEI Executive that controls the machinery of the General Assembly and therefore has a major say in what changes, if any, get made.

If change is to come at present, as a practical matter, in all likelihood it must emanate from or at least be supported by the FEI Executive.
The General Assembly has approved General Regulations and under the heading “Commercial and Sponsorship”, Article 133 – Commercial Rights, of those General Regulations reads as follows:

1. – The ownership of the FEI title and FEI logos: the titles, logos, and Competition formulae of all FEI-names Events are vested with the FEI.

1.1 – The FEI owns all Official International Ranking Lists and is the beneficial owner of any and all intellectual property rights which may now or at any time in the future exist anywhere in the world in respect of any data or information resulting from the ranking of Athletes and Horses competing at the Events and Competitions held under its authority.

1.2 – The FEI is the absolute and outright legal and beneficial owner of any and all intellectual proper rights which may now or at any time in the future exist anywhere in the world in respect of any data or information relating to the Events. …

1.3 – The FEI has the exclusive right to exploit the aforesaid properties through all media, including new media, Internet and TV in all its forms, as well as for sponsorships, betting, and marketing purposes according to the conditions set forth in paragraphs 2 and 3 below.

2. – With regard to FEI-named Events, an Agreement shall be reached between the FEI and the relevant NF and OC, which defines their respective rights and duties related to the exploitation of all commercial properties and the possible sharing of revenues therefrom.

In a nutshell, the NEF members of the FEI have decided to be in the commercial arena with respect to championships and contracts for sponsors as at least a semi-commercial party. (Parenthetically again, its bid document package for a potential WEG bidder rivals War and Peace and it will have increasing difficulty finding bidders (but that is a whole other issue).

Suggestion #1 – Create “Majors”

The FEI has decided that it will have some commercial activity in the sport at the same time as it also sets the overall rates and conditions for the stakeholders, including horse show organizers as the regulatory body. Leaving aside some of the obvious issues this creates for another day, it does mean that at present the FEI is controlling the commercial aspects of the top end of the sport as well as the very important aspect of Olympic participation.

We propose that if it is to be in the arena, in general terms the FEI ought to use that authority to create or recognize what would be the rough equivalent to the four Majors in golf.

In very general terms, it would identify and qualify the shows or “courses” to host the four Majors but leave the running of the events to the organizers subject to overall standards. In very rough concept:

1. The FEI would designate four shows a year—perhaps three outdoor and one indoor—as Majors (or whatever name some marketing firm gets paid obscene amounts of money to come up with). In the current star system these would be seven-star shows and the points and prize money would be weighted accordingly.

2. The competition standard for these Majors is expressly not “dumbed down.” It is to be the championship standard. Horses will have to be pointed to these as they will take something out of them and they will be spaced accordingly.

3. The details of the Majors can be debated but say, for example, 100 entries—50 top-ranked on the FEI list, 10 each from four designated geographic areas and 10 invitees for the organizer. After two rounds Wednesday and Friday the field is cut to the top 30 for Sunday—two rounds, top 15 in last round but 30 get paid.

4. Criteria set for submissions by organizers including top prize money. The criteria would favor what we call non-ROI facilities. Those with large capex investment in bricks and mortar who are clearly not concerned with return on that investment or ROI. Again, there is nothing wrong with the horse show organizer who doesn’t have this approach or investment but those that do ought to get preferred status to test Majors based on their passion and commitment to the sport, manifestly uncommitted to financial gain.

Submissions or bids to be a Major would include access to the books for two FEI officials (who will sign gold-plated confidentiality agreements) for all financial statements of the host and any affiliated enterprise- i.e.- dealer/ trainer etc. produce that aspect too. Three-year rolling allotment—bids every year for the fourth year out.

5. The FEI would set the points system so that the top five riders at each Major get preferred ranking status for one year. The top 20 in the world at any time would likely be the top five from each of the four Majors.

6. There would be a Nations Cup on the Saturday and the FEI would set its rules so the top four nations qualify for the WEG or Olympics depending on the year.

7. FEI gets its costs and fees only for the permit—sponsorship is for the organizers subject to a no-go list but each of the four get to sell the sponsorship.

In all likelihood, the initial Majors on this criteria might well be Aachen, Spruce Meadows, Geneva and [insert your own favorite name here – La Baule?]. In fact, one of the attractions of this suggestion is that it is merely a small step in recognizing shows that by general consensus would likely be informally called Majors already.

There are some obvious benefits in formalizing that for all stakeholders. Not the least of the benefits is that it would be open for any organization who wants to make the capital expenditure and meet the criteria to qualify. As but one example, one could well see Valkansward as a potential site, again depending on the capex and meeting the submission criteria.

The Majors rotate between courses in golf and something similar is envisioned. The benefits of this step are, we think evident in terms of rewarding top class venues, encouraging spectators and, most importantly, for us keeping the test at the very top difficult enough so that it rewards true horsemanship.

Suggestion #2 – The “Athlete” Ought to be the Horse/Rider Combination

As a separate and second step, we would also suggest the following rule change that we think would also foster and recognize real horsemanship.

As has been the case in the year prior to every Olympics in late 2015, there were a flurry of sales and transfers of horses. This was because under Article 606 Subsection 2.2.1 of the FEI Regulations for Equestrian Events Rio (Bra) 2016 Olympic Games to compete at the Olympic games a horse must have been registered with the FEI by Jan. 15, 2016 as property of owners of the same nationality as the Athlete.

This paperwork requirement is the ultimate in form over substance as the FEI doesn’t inquire into fractional ownership so that the rider can own 1 percent and still qualify.

There are currently 33 summer Olympic sports if you count equestrian, canoe, cycling and wrestling as one sport each (or 41 if you count the separate disciplines in each of those). Leaving aside modern pentathlon, the competitors are individual humans sometimes with attendant equipment or paraphernalia and sometimes on their own. In most of these sports there are strict requirements for standardized equipment so that the athletes are competing on a level playing field.

The controversy over the belly putter in golf is an example of how differences in equipment are scrutinized and regulated. There may be small or slight differences in equipment but the trampoline, javelin, discus or track is intended to be the same for every competitor. It is expected and is the case that the athletes practice and develop their skills for many years in competition and training towards the goal of becoming world class.

It is anathema to the Olympic concept that an athlete could purchase an advantage and that is one reason amongst others, for the time and focus put on anti-doping which is essentially the purchase of such an advantage.

The equestrian disciplines are unique in this context in the sense that one has to think either of the horse and rider as a combined athlete or the horse as “equipment.” It is not entirely clear what the thinking at the FEI is behind the choice of Jan. 15 as opposed to say as at the time of the Games for the ownership or why the nationality of the owner matters at all but it raises some interesting notions.

Making an Olympic horse is a lengthy process—really the horse’s entire life but for sure its three- to four-year competitive career before the Olympics. It is the equivalent of the training regime referred to above and there is a great deal of skill involved in making the horse. There is still skill involved in riding the horse once it has been made by someone else, but to be candid there are a relatively large number of riders that can get on a made horse and with some acclimatization and luck do a more than passable job.

It remains true so far that they are unlikely to ultimately prevail against the Dubbledams, Guerdats and Wards (to use the current generation) as it is not possible to manufacture the hunger or drive they possess if it doesn’t, but that is not the point.

In no other sport is an athlete simply permitted to buy non-standard equipment on the eve of the Games—especially non-standard equipment it had no part in developing—and then go to the Olympics. We don’t like to think of horses as equipment so would suggest we rather think of the athlete/horse as a combined centaur and require that for the pinnacle competitions, say the Olympics and World Championships that there be centaur continuity for the training process.

For example, the rule could say for those competitions in order to qualify the horse and rider combination must have been together exclusively in competition for three years or from 1.40 meters onward—one can debate the criteria. This type of qualification is not only more in keeping with the goals and principles of the Olympics, it also rightly puts a higher value on horsemanship.

With many many more sports seeking to be in the summer Olympics than there are spots and very few of the existing sports having guaranteed spots, it also would behoove us (pun intended) to have a discussion along these lines to enhance the pitch that the FEI can make to the IOC.

A cynic will suggest that this will be resisted by the trainers and dealers who might see fewer sales, but aside from that financial interest, it is difficult to come up with an objection to the idea based upon the goal of fostering horsemanship. As already mentioned, the implementation of these ideas requires the support of the FEI Executive. That same cynic will suggest that they are unlikely to spend the political capital required to make the effort but that doesn’t mean these ideas and others ought not to be debated and hope springs external.

We have few illusions as to the likelihood of these steps being implemented. Indeed, one of us is not wholly convinced that the second suggestion is desirable and would, at all events, “grandperson” or exempt existing Olympic medalists who, by definition, have already displayed this horsemanship.

The idea of setting this out is to further debate on these or other ideas. At all events, we hope that these ideas are viewed as at least interesting and constructive and spark some discussion. We think they also have the practical value of being relatively easy to implement.

Leslie Howard is one of the United States’ iconic show jumping riders, having won team gold at the 1984 Olympic Games and team silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. She won the FEI World Cup Final in 1986 and topped the du Maurier International at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) in 1997. Her husband, Peter, is a successful lawyer and won team silver for Canada in eventing at the 1975 Pan American Games. 



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