Show Jumping Means Something Different To Everyone

Feb 21, 2011 - 10:23 AM

Our columnist sees levels and goals so disparate they should almost be made into separate sports.

Show jumping spans such a wide range of levels and participants these days that it can be hard to recognize as a single discipline. The elite athletes jumping huge obstacles with precision and grace at last year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games and the often scary “belly to the ground” riders jumping over 2’6″ at many of our shows are separated by much more than just the heights of their fences.

In my travels around the country, horsemen frequently approach me to discuss how to protect—and educate—riders at the lower levels. Going at mach speed over tiny jumps looks exciting and fun to those new to the sport. But to those of us who have been around a while, all we see is the potential for serious injury.

My mentor in course design was the late Pamela Carruthers of England. She lectured me to never build speed courses with jumps too small to really get the horses’ attention and respect. When horses are no longer impressed they tend to make critical mistakes when going at speed, leaving longer and longer until they misjudge entirely. Ironically the falls with the worst outcomes are most often at smallest fences. When riders in these classes know that they can only win by running the fastest from start line to finish, it becomes a recipe for disaster.

Education of horse and rider is as much a concern as safety. Having many stepping stones within our discipline can be a real advantage when it comes to bringing on horses and riders, but low courses with 100 percent emphasis on speed do nothing to prepare horse or rider to jump higher. In fact the majority of those even with the most success at the smaller levels will find they have to learn all new skills in order to move up. The kind of riding that wins in a 3-foot jump-off will fail miserably at 4′ or even 3’6″ except with a truly exceptional horse.

Very small jumps have an important place in introducing jumping to both horses and riders, and they can also be an important part of schooling at home for most every horse. But when they are offered as a class with a jump-off against the clock, to be brutally honest, it more closely resembles barrel racing than the sport of show jumping.

The time taken to actually “leave the ground” over a fence will probably cost you the class, so riders learn to push their horses to skim the jumps in the flattest, quickest way possible instead of riding smart, accurate lines that give the horse a chance to jump up over each obstacle. It’s a bit like comparing miniature golf to the sort played on TV—the former is fun and not necessarily all that easy, but it’s hardly adequate preparation to go out and play even the simplest golf course. But in golf—whether miniature or regular—there is no risk of a 1,200 pound horse landing on top of you.

More, Better, Now

The United States is the only place I know that includes classes over very low jumps in sanctioned shows. Even here it’s a relatively new phenomenon. When I began jumping, the smallest fences at the shows were 3’6″ (green hunters) and 4′ (green or preliminary jumpers). Over the decades, the offering of lower and lower classes has continued.

I believe it’s a combination of two typical American philosophies: “More is better,” and “I want it now.” If the jumps are low enough it doesn’t take too many riding lessons to be hitting the show trail, and if running fast on an experienced horse is the main skill involved in winning, it isn’t all that hard to learn—or teach—steering and stepping on the gas pedal.

If the skills these riders are using to win over the tiny jumps were good ones it might be worth the risk, but so many riders only discover down the road that they have no idea what they’re doing. After experiencing some “glory” early on they aren’t disposed to go home and unlearn the bad habits. Replacing them with strong basic riding techniques will be necessary to take them further.

A Sub-Discipline

For the significant number of riders who enjoy the thrill of flying over small obstacles and want to perfect it and do it forever, I almost wish we could call this a sub-discipline—with some other name than show jumping. Just as hunters and equitation (and eventing) all involve jumping obstacles in an arena, they each have a different reason for being—different priorities in training and different skill sets for reaching the top.

Jumping over obstacles 1.10 meters and higher involves issues of judgment, balance and control that are of much lesser import when the jumps are small and the emphasis is all on speed. In an ideal world the small sections within our discipline would be where riders and horses alike are developing the sort of foundation that will take them as far as they want to go in jumping, but that’s not what we usually see now.

Even at the 1.10 meters and up levels some philosophical differences have arisen over the last few years. There are some strongly held beliefs over the allocation of prize money at the shows. For many years it’s been the consensus that the jumping sections should reward the winners of classes jumping higher jumps to a greater degree than those jumping lower. This makes sense since it takes more skill and an investment of more time and training to get horse and rider to the higher levels. The highest prize money is in the grand prix and World Cup classes, and those classes not only require horses of a very high value, but they also have the highest entry fees.

One school of thought is that the professional sections should offer the bulk of the prize money. This would put our sport in line with virtually every other one out there, especially those with a presence on TV. It would encourage developing horses for the top end of the sport and give a similar distinction between the junior, amateur and professional athlete that we see elsewhere.

The other line of thinking says that it now costs so much to have a horse at a show that every competitor should have the same chance to “pay his way” through prize money no matter what level he’s riding. A couple of things come to mind refuting this position. First, in our system of horse shows, as prize money goes up so does cost to participate. Second, prize money is a welcome thing for those who win it, but not everyone does, and increased costs will affect everyone. It just might have the unintended consequence of reducing the numbers and not increasing them.

Differing opinions also exist over the offering of large prize money in the 1.10-meter to 1.15-meter children’s/ adult classes. The U.S. Equestrian Federation Jumper Committee spends significant time debating the various requests for $25,000 and up classes to be held at this height. There are far more people able to compete at this level, and we all agree that they’re an important segment of our industry. No one objects to doing something nice for a key group. Yet some of us wonder what the long-term effects of this trend will be.

We currently offer various zone or national sections with jumps from 1.00-meter up to 1.45-meters with no differentiation (i.e. any rider under 18 or with an amateur card on any horse can participate), and the riders have free choice of what to ride in at any show. The incentive to start in a $25,000 class at 1.15 meters instead of a $5,000 class at 1.40 meters is a big one, and any rider with experience over bigger jumps is going to be at a significant advantage over riders who are jumping their most difficult class ever. I think that much of our ever-lower new classes are a result of the disincentive to move up. Better-qualified riders tend to step down a notch as the rewards (prize money and year-end awards) go up, and then a new class has to be written for those whose division has been usurped.

There are no easy answers to any of these issues—and there are many valid points of view. I only wish more of the “players” spoke out in a more formal way and in a time frame that permitted their viewpoints to be shared and discussed within the rule change schedule. With all the blogs and discussion boards these days it isn’t all that hard anymore. Each individual’s perspective is going to be driven by his own particular view of the sport, but with enough of these viewpoints it’s far easier for the various committees to know that they are truly representing all the faces of the discipline.

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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