Saturday, May. 18, 2024

The “Legs” That Keep Us Stable

Our columnist observes that the support structure for our human athletes is strong, but our sport horses could still use a little improvement.

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Our columnist observes that the support structure for our human athletes is strong, but our sport horses could still use a little improvement.

Just like every other sport, our base is composed of our athletes. Yet it’s impossible to lump every competitor into a single category. In addition to professional rider/athletes, we also have our amateurs and juniors. Each of the three categories is critical to the current and future health of our sport, as well as the industry that it supports. They are akin to the three legs that support a stool—each is equally essential to providing for stability.

The organization of the sport in the United States does an excellent job of providing for all three groups of human athletes. Separate divisions exist for each, along with several well-established sub-categories within each group to account for the various levels of experience and to permit riders to “move up” in level of difficulty.

Throughout my decades in the sport, juniors have been provided their own classes at our shows. Our predecessors obviously recognized early on that if junior competitors were to be able to enter the sport and to progress they not only would be over-faced by being thrown directly into open competition, they would not have the sort of rewards along the way that draw newcomers into the sport and keep those in it enthused and eager to progress.

Virtually every junior rider is supported (sponsored) by his or her parents. It’s not only the children who need to see evidence of progress and successes along the way, but just as importantly their parents if they are to continue to provide the sort of increasing financial and moral support that our young riders require.

Five-Year-Olds—Higher Or Faster Or Something Else?

One of the conundrums for shows and trainers alike is what to do with the 5-year-old classes. These youngsters are too green for big jumps, yet the size of the fences that the least mature (but possibly most talented) individuals need in their first year can lead to “too many” clear rounds.

Course designers inherently believe that this is a bad thing. Plus, the resulting large jump-offs turn the competition into a horse race over small jumps, which horsemen know is not the way to produce horses to jump higher jumps in the future. Management abhors classes that drag on with too many in the jump-off, so we are seeing more and more speed or two-phases classes in the schedule for our youngest horses just to expedite the schedule.

Since we want these horses to have good experiences, and the finest quality a horse of this age can display is the desire to jump clean, I’d love to see the implementation of a different schedule.

Utilizing the format of the WIHS Equitation Class, run the competition with two rounds over two days. Carry the scores forward from the first day and only those horses clear over both courses qualify for the jump-off. Ties for other than first place are determined by the result over the second day’s course. Horses would get more mileage over friendlier courses of increasing difficulty, there would be less running, and the show schedule would run in a tidier fashion.

For those shows offering three classes for this age group, use the result of all three rounds to determine which horses are eligible to jump off. For Young Jumper Championship qualification purposes, clear rounds would be those from just the final day (as is currently the case), while points would accrue from the overall placing of the competition.

Not all that long ago an amateur rider’s only two options were to ride with the pros or to be satisfied with just one single class within the open hunter division (jumping 4′). Like most new ideas in our industry, the idea of an amateur division was initially met with derision. Luckily for all who enjoy the extensive opportunities now available, a few brave souls persevered and created the amateur world we have today.

Shows now offer hunter classes for amateur-owners and adult amateurs as well as full sections and subsections in jumping. Amateur riders generally are self-sponsored, and since the appropriate opportunities and rewards are there many stay in the sport for years, often changing their personal goals depending on their life demands at any given time.

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Today’s riders not only have competitive opportunities divided according to age and amateur/professional status, but also within each category opportunities exist for local, regional and national levels in jumpers as well as within what we now refer to as high performance. From the World Children’s Jumper Final, to the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships, to World Cup and other CSI events at home and abroad, and all the way to the Olympics Games and World Equestrian Games, ample opportunities exist for those riders with a thirst for the height, and the abilities to match.

Making The Grade

While our human athletes have a system in place to accommodate just about anyone with an interest in jumping fences, for the other half of the equation in our sport—the equine athlete—things are not quite as clear or well established.

Just as three legs hold up the stool of the sport for riders, the three-legged stool analogy applies for the horses as well.

The equivalent of the professional rider is the “made” competition horse; the sort that takes our riders to victory whether it be a medal at the Olympic Games, a show championship at the 3-foot level or anywhere in between. These horses are at the shows because they can win, and a lot is expected of them.

To be successful, like their rider counterparts, they must be very good at what they do. Education and experience are just as essential for equines as for humans—sometimes more so since not just the success but also the safety of a junior or amateur rider “going for broke” to win that class often depends on the wisdom of the horse they are sitting on.

As important—and visible—as this group of equines is, an even larger group of horses fills an equally important role in our sport: the horses that teach our riders their craft and that provide worlds of enjoyment at every level.

Good teachers and coaches are important, but I firmly believe that the horses serve just as important a role in developing confident, secure and capable riders. These horses might not go to the show with the best chance of leaving as champion, but they are vital to our sport and industry nevertheless. For so many riders these horses are what provides the meaning and pleasure that keeps them active and enthused for years.

Supplying both of these “senior” categories with the well-educated and consistent athletes their jobs require is largely the purpose of the third leg of the equine stool—the Young Horse classes.

Just as the vast majority of riders in the professional and amateur ranks began their career in the juniors, few horses reach the later stages without gaining their initial education as Young Horses.

Also, just as junior riders have a special sort of “sponsorship” from their parents, Young Horses very often are owned by a special group of horsemen. To enjoy owning a young horse, the process must be fun in itself. The learning curve is seldom a steady one, but many people have learned that the joys of producing a happy and successful athlete are like few others in our sport.

As the demand for quality made horses has increased, some countries have responded with greater speed and clarity. A few have structured their young horse programs to be the clear step between breeding horses and supplying competitive riders with what it takes to win today.

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In the United States it has only been a few short years since our transition from preliminary and intermediate to age group classes for jumpers. While most shows offering complete jumper divisions now offer at least one class per age category, there’s still little consistency to what these classes are, and, especially, what constitutes an appropriate course for each age group.

While every other class in the jumping division is only a matter of jumping higher and going fastest (on horses who know their job), the Young Horse classes must have longer-range goals in mind. Without logical progress in educating this group, we won’t be producing the horses we need down the road for all of the other classes.

Youngsters need to focus more on jumping clear rounds and less on running as fast as they can go. The courses for them should encourage, not discourage, clear jumping efforts. To achieve this goal our course designers need to be more aware of the long-term goals and the unique requirements for courses for younger horses.

A Clear Aim

It’s not surprising that the country that supplies the most horses to the sport around the world is the one that has the most elaborate Young Horse program: Germany.

Many years ago, Germany discontinued having Young Horses jump against the clock, and instead judges give a score based on quality to become a high-level horse. Germany also requires special course designer education and licensing for anyone building these classes. Even designers who had built at the 1.50m level for years were not permitted to do these classes without being clear on the ultimate objective. The resulting consistency in what is asked of horses at each age has produced a training system that has proven to work according to the number of horses that go on to compete at every level—and the number we buy from them for every class at our horse shows from green hunters to grand prix.

It’s also interesting that when the top level international riders banded together to demand the inclusion of classes for horses 7 and 8 years old at all of the major shows in Europe, these riders specifically discouraged high prize money. As one member of the group that initiated it told me, “We don’t want to be tempted by prize money to put too much pressure on these horses; the whole reason for the classes is the experience the horses need if they are to be competitive a year or two down the road when it really counts. We asked for three classes per show, with only the final one having a jump-off and some prize money.”

Elite riders are some of the most competitive anywhere, yet they have learned that bringing horses along in a sensible manner is the only way to ensure staying in the elite group over the long haul.

I hope that the sport here in the United States will become more aware of the importance of every leg of the equine stool. We must take into account the different purpose of all the various sections and classes in our jumper division. Trying to put them all into the same category, with the same structure and scoring, differing only in height, might be expedient in the short term but it won’t maintain a stable and healthy sport in the long run. Our horses, and our industry, deserve more than just the simplest and easiest way of getting through the day at the horse show. 

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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