Tuesday, May. 21, 2024

The Time Is Right For A Hunter/Jumper Evolution

We have an opportunity to make some changes that will lead our sport into the future, and we need to take advantage of these opportunities.

Horse shows have become big business. We should all recognize that this was inevitable, and, even though we sometimes long for the old days, they’re gone. We need to get up to speed on our sport in today’s world.
One constant in our hunter world is the talk about how our professional divisions are losing their appeal and support.
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We have an opportunity to make some changes that will lead our sport into the future, and we need to take advantage of these opportunities.

Horse shows have become big business. We should all recognize that this was inevitable, and, even though we sometimes long for the old days, they’re gone. We need to get up to speed on our sport in today’s world.
One constant in our hunter world is the talk about how our professional divisions are losing their appeal and support.

I feel there are several factors that have created the downward spiral of our professional divisions.

The first is that there are many more competitions than existed in the past. It’s not unusual to find as many as four or more A- and AA-rated competitions on any given weekend within a 250-mile radius of each other. This is especially prevalent on the East Coast, especially in the Northeast, where the rule requires 125 miles between shows at this level, due to the number of horses in this condensed geographical area.

Another and more relative issue is that today’s A- and AA-rated competitions play host to classes for every level of competitor from leadline to grand prix. Competition management is not to blame for this
happening—exhibitors and trainers asked them to provide these opportunities and they complied. It was good business.

The downside to this development is that in the effort to accommodate every client who walks in the door, we’ve also created a situation where there are fewer horses available to professional riders to show. Now there exists a division in which every owner at every level can show her horse. Add the high cost of owning and showing horses, and it’s easy to see why owners would rather spend their money competing themselves instead of paying for the professional to compete their horse.

In addition to the two reasons above, our current hunter system of classes is boring for anyone not directly involved with a horse or rider who is competing.

There’s very little spark and excitement in our sport for the spectators, and this affects audience participation and sponsor interest and support.

It’s About Thrills And Spills

Let’s be honest, it’s a lot more interesting and thrilling to watch a grand prix than it is to watch a typical hunter class. Most likely because the grand prix offers the same level of excitement that many other sports provide.

There’s the combination of difficulty—jumping high and wide fences—there’s speed and, for thrill seekers, there’s always the possibility that you’ll see a crash or fall. To be honest, we all know that part of the excitement for most fans at any major league sporting event is the chance to see something thrilling.

I’m not a proponent of crash and burn, but we need to create an event that brings this same potential for crowd-pleasing thrills to the hunter ring. I believe that the USHJA High Performance Hunter Derby series is the start of this effort. This series has become popular overnight with audiences, judges, competition managers, riders and owners. There are several owners who have already started to acquire horses just for these classes.

Even with this well-received new series underway, our community needs to take a hard look at where we are, and, more importantly, where we want to go.

Instead of taking what currently exists and using the same old Band-Aid approach, it’s time to work from a different perspective. We need to decide what we really want show hunters to be about and what kind of system will work the best to reach our goal.

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Of course, as with any goal, the closer you come to fulfilling your dream, the more doors that will open and the more opportunities you’ll find to reach your goals. In a truly great environment, the goal posts are always readjusting as times change and new ideas emerge. This kind of approach has not happened in hunter land, and the time is right to follow this road.

In early April, leaders of our hunter industry will meet for two days in Florida to begin work on creating a hunter system for our sport, which meets the current goals we’ve set—interesting for audiences, sponsors and participants, energizing for the professionals, beneficial for our owners and competition management and that provides opportunity for all levels of equestrians to participate in our sport.

First Steps

The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Affiliates Council, under the leadership of Shelby French and Skip Thornbury, has formed an ad hoc committee to undertake the task I assigned them of developing the model of the USEF “Federation Lite” program for our sector of the sport.

Shelby and Skip have just sent the first draft of their committee proposal to our office, and they’ve done some amazing work. By incorporating input from all levels and avenues of our industry, they’ve been able to capture the essence of the B, C and local levels of our sport and develop a plan that makes sense. They will be bringing this plan to our meeting.

Part of the equation to finding the best solution to our problems is dealing with the high cost of showing and maintaining competition horses.

For many years, we’ve seen rule changes proposed to put caps on entry and other competition fees. Most have been done without the historical data needed to support these theories.

It costs a lot to produce a quality competition in our country. The United States differs from our European counterparts in that in our country the burden of supporting the shows is largely on the exhibitor, while across the pond the burden of cost is largely borne by the sponsors. Sounds simple, but it’s much more complicated.

In Europe, show jumping is the dominant sport and it’s treated like other professional sports. Television exposure means dollars for sponsors, and nationwide exposure brings sponsor dollars to the sport—big dollars.

Just look at what Jan Tops has created with the Global Champions Tour. There are a limited number of competitions with a series final to which you must qualify to compete. Very high prize money plus almost no expense for the competitor and owner. Free entry, stalls, travel for horses (airline too), hotel and superb hospitality. Potential hosts are clamoring for the chance to pay millions of euros to have the chance to host these shows. How do we create this in our country and in the hunter world?

First we have to look at what opportunities we currently offer.

On the hunter side, we have numerous restrictions that don’t exist on the exploding jumper side of the sport. So let’s think about a menu system that would allow competition managers the ability to select the classes from the menu that work for their constituents and geographic area.

Now look at our system of awarding prize money. The hunter side uses the converse of the jumper side. It’s no wonder we feel like there are no incentives to step up in our sport, because the lower you jump the more financial reward you get. We’re in the process of changing this. I know that people will scream that the three-foot divisions support the shows, and to some degree that’s true. But this is where the rubber meets the road, as in this is where “sport” becomes important.

A junior-level golf tournament doesn’t pay the same purse as the Masters, so why should our sport be any different just because these classes are offered at our highest level of competition?

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This is one area where we have been very far off base. It’s simple to me—the higher you jump, the more money you should win.

So let’s think about some rule changes to embrace this philosophy that will define percentages of aggregate hunter prize money awarded to professional, amateur, junior and pony divisions. Then let’s define the percentage distribution of prize money in each class of a division for the ribbons offered.

Lastly on this subject, let’s create a system where competitions must offer certain levels of prize money to receive the benefits of mileage protection, but if sections do not fill or classes don’t have enough entries to award all the placings, that there’s no requirement for redistribution of un-awarded prize money. This type of rule could not be one size fits all—it would need to vary depending on geographic location and concentration of horses.

I’m concerned as to whether we’re offering enough opportunities for hunter and jumper enthusiasts to participate in our sport, most importantly at USEF-recognized competitions. The high cost of showing, while not extremely evident based on the number of entries at the winter circuits, is a deterrent to many equestrians who may want to show at USEF competitions.

I believe that this is an issue that the USEF and all its affiliates need to focus on if we want to grow the sport in order to accomplish some of the goals I have set forth above.

I’ve always been a cautious advocate of maintaining a mileage rule for our competitions, even in the face of continuing support by exhibitors to remove the mileage rule. I’m not a believer that no mileage rule is the best for our sport.

But I think that there has to be some regulation of the number of competitions and their quality by the USEF as the national governing body of equestrian sport in the United States. That said, I strongly feel that as the NGB, the USEF has an obligation to the sport as a whole to ensure that we are providing enough opportunity and choice for equestrians of all breeds and disciplines.

It’s important that the USEF study the geographic and concentration issues on a regular basis to determine if they are in fact providing enough opportunity for exhibitors. There’s a great balancing act to regulating the competition calendar. There must be a balance between investment by organizers and the costs to exhibitors and between the number of exhibitors and the opportunities to show.

A natural tension in the sport has to exist. There must be just enough competition, not too many shows and not too few. We must provide choices for our exhibitors, but not too many as to water down the sport.

This means that we need to monitor the sport and review the mileage rule on a regular basis. Our mileage rules need to be more flexible in order to maintain the natural tension and balance the needs of our sport. There already exists the opportunity for interested people to apply for and be granted dates within the mileage of existing competitions if the USEF determines this to be in the best interest of the sport.

I’ve given you a lot of information to digest and to think about. Major changes such as these will require the work and partnership of everyone involved in our sport. It will take exhibitors, sponsors, professionals and competition management working together to create a mutually beneficial plan for our continued advancement and growth.

Bill Moroney



Bill Moroney is president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and a USEF R-rated judge. In between officiating, he’s head trainer at Salamander Farm in Middleburg, Va. He started writing Between Rounds columns in 2004.

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