The sport is expanding in many different ways, but that also means we have to keep avenues to the top open.
By many different barometers the state of our sport today is very strong. We have more countries than ever sending strong teams to international championships. Prize money has exploded and continues to grow all across the world. We have a growing base of mainstream sponsors that are committed to long-term contracts with competitions and athletes. When I look at horse show entries around the world the numbers of horses competing seem to grow bigger every year.
I also think that show jumping is in a very healthy position in the United States. Both international and national jumper divisions in our country seem to be more and more competitive. The number of Fédération Equestre Internationale classes that we have in the United States is way up—not just big events, but also two- and three-star shows. Our junior and amateur jumper divisions are the most competitive in the world, not just because of the number of entries, but also because those classes are fast!
One thing we’ve really seen over the last few years is the expansion of our sport into more and more unique, exciting and high profile venues. The Global Champions Tour, for example, has perfected the ability to bring an entire horse show into a space without any existing infrastructure. To see horses competing on the beach in Miami last year was extraordinary.
It’s also exciting to see how the top riders are growing into professional sports stars. Riders are embracing new opportunities and expanding their public profile through social media. The most elite riders can now make their living through prize money and sponsorship.
It’s certainly not an easy career path, but the best riders in the world have proven that it can be done. Show jumping is special because our stars don’t necessarily come from the same demographic—success is not specific to a certain age, gender or background. The uniqueness of each athlete’s story should be an exciting marketing opportunity as the sport continues to become more mainstream.
The Flip Side
Change usually has some drawbacks, and for me one downside of
|We Have To Balance Rules And Reality When It Comes To Welfare
There were a few high profile cases recently of riders being penalized for breaking the Fédération Equestre Internationale rules, such as Bertram Allen’s elimination from the Olympia Grand Prix for a small bloody spur mark and Steve Guerdat’s medication violation that was later proven to be feed contamination.
All riders worldwide agree that horse welfare is of the utmost importance, not only for the horse’s sake, but also for the presentation of our sport. The governing bodies have tried to create rules that are clear, concise and easily understandable.
But there have been issues like McLain Ward’s disqualification from the 2010 Rolex FEI World Cup Final (Switzerland) for hypersensitivity where the rules felt ambiguous to many people. The FEI tried to eliminate that ambiguity with the no blood rule and also with the strict drug and medication rules and process for handling violations.
It’s unfortunate that something like that happened to a good, young horseman like Bertram Allen. He’s as caring and loving of his horses as anybody, and yet it’s a clear violation of the rule. Other people have been eliminated for situations like this, but those cases didn’t get as much media attention. Nonetheless, it was the same call. It’s important that the stewards and the people who are making these decisions are continually evaluated. These people have a very difficult and important job.
It’s important to have these rules to ensure horse welfare, but it’s also important that these rules are clear—an ambiguous rule would only make these matters worse. We have to continue to learn from these situations so that hopefully there are fewer and fewer of them.
The horse has to come first in everything, but correct and fair governance is also important. Riders, trainers, stewards and officials all need to keep working together to figure out the best way to ensure our horse’s welfare.
As a sport, we have to be a little careful to not completely bow to outside pressure from animal rights groups; there has to be education that this is a great sport, horses love it, and there’s a certain amount of training that has to go on to prepare the horses. We have to ensure fair play, but we can’t let pressure from the outside dictate our rules, either. Part of our job as riders is to educate the public about our sport and the care of our horses.
the growth of a new style of competition is that some of our smaller, more historical shows and classes in America are struggling to survive. The American Invitational was the biggest example of that in 2015, as it was subsumed into the Global Champions Tour Miami.
The American Invitational was one of our great championships, and, for me, it was one of my all-time favorite classes in America. I was sad to see that class lost as a stand-alone event, but I feel confident that it’ll find a way to be important here again. It’s been hard to lose some of our traditional big events—the founding events of American show jumping—but hopefully the management of these historical shows can find ways to raise the level of their show and generate new excitement and interest. The American Gold Cup is a great example of a historically important show that has found a way to become a premier event again.
In addition, the growth of the sport and the explosion of prize money means we have to figure out how to keep the costs that go along with that in check. We need to make sure the younger generation can find a way into the sport even if they’re not affluent. As the sport becomes bigger, it only becomes harder and harder to break into the top ranks. We need aspiring athletes to see that there is an avenue to get into that high level of sport.
My message to these athletes is that learning how to produce grand prix horses is the avenue they are looking for. The price of top-level horses is a hot topic of conversation, but the truth is that even with an unlimited budget it’s very difficult to find an elite grand prix horse to buy.
The ability to take a quality young horse and develop its mind and body to produce a grand prix horse is a special skill. It takes time and dedication, as well as the right work ethic and aptitude, to learn. It also takes a dedication to horsemanship and to studying the history of our American system. We have a legacy of great riding, training and horsemanship in our country, and I hope our younger generation of riders will find that it can provide a path to the top of the modern sport.
We Look Good For Rio
Looking ahead to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, we already have a four-rider short list of McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Kent Farrington and Laura Kraut based on their U.S. Computer List rankings over the last year.
McLain, Beezie and Kent have proven championship level horses, and they have great records behind them. They’re in the top 10 of the FEI world ranking list, and they’ve all been really smart about how they’re preparing and using their horses with Rio in mind. Laura is an amazing rider and a phenomenal ring jockey. She had a great string of horses for a long time, but, like all riders do, has gone through a period of redeveloping her string of top horses recently. She is in the process of developing what are hopefully going to be her future championship horses, and she has some very good prospects. We have to see where those horses are as they develop through the year.
McLain, Beezie, Kent and Laura are great examples of what our developing riders are trying to emulate: how to put together the string of horses you need; how to assemble a great team of people around you; and how to understand the mental psyche that you need, the dedicated, day-to-day discipline that it takes to do this at such a high level.
As we move into an Olympic year, the number of top-level shows worldwide creates a difficult scheduling task for riders eyeing the rest of the spots on the Olympic short list.
The 2016 Longines FEI World Cup Final, for example, has been moved three weeks earlier than usual, and it overlaps with the 11th week of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., and is just the week before the big finale week of WEF with the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix.
The highest-ranked American in the top 10 of the final this year will get a spot on the short list, so some riders will have to decide: “Do I want to go and take a shot at the World Cup? Or do I want to stay on top of my game in Wellington?” WEF offers the highest level of competition in America in terms of quality and quantity and the best opportunity to earn ranking points on our U.S. Computer List. That list, along with two discretionary selections, will determine the rest of the spots on the short list for a total of 10.
I am confident that in April, when the short list is announced, we’ll have 10 strong riders to go to Europe to finish the selection and final preparation for the Olympic Games. The final five to go to Rio will be selected after the European tour.
I really have a positive feeling about Rio. We have very good horses and riders, and things have been going in the right direction. The level of competition around the world is higher than ever. More countries than ever are out there with good horses, putting teams together, building great support staff. But if we can send our best team, and things go our way a bit, we have a good chance for a top medal again.
Chris Kappler runs a training and sales business in Pittstown, N.J., and Wellington, Fla. A successful grand prix rider with wins in the United States and internationally to his credit, Kappler earned team gold and individual silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games aboard Royal Kaliber. In recent years, he has focused primarily on teaching students. He also serves as the president of the North American Riders Group and serves on the USEF board of directors.