Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

This Was A Year To Remember

The year 2008 must certainly rank as the most successful for U.S. show jumping, perhaps of all time. It was 1984 when our riders collected two gold medals and one silver in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In the 24 years since that spectacular finish the sport has grown immensely at home and abroad so riders from North America had many opportunities to rack up an impressive array of honors.

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The year 2008 must certainly rank as the most successful for U.S. show jumping, perhaps of all time. It was 1984 when our riders collected two gold medals and one silver in the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In the 24 years since that spectacular finish the sport has grown immensely at home and abroad so riders from North America had many opportunities to rack up an impressive array of honors.

The highlight of every quadrennium is always the Olympic Games. Held this time in a spectacular, yet hot and sticky, venue in Hong Kong’s Jockey Club, our strong team of veteran riders and mostly veteran horses showed the world that we could post back-to-back Olympic team victories.

While the Athens team gold was awarded well after the fact when Germany lost the gold medal after a positive drug test, this one was on the podium as it should be. It’s also well worth noting that the two anchor riders on our team collected their second gold medals: McLain Ward on Sapphire and Beezie Madden on Authentic. They’re demonstrating the sort of longevity at the top of the sport that gives our team consistency and power no matter who we go up against.

In addition to these two capable riders, 2000 Olympic Games veteran Laura Kraut was paired with Cedric, a horse on the early side of his career, while California resident Will Simpson rode another horse that was not heard much of prior to 2008, Carlsson Vom Dach. The many years of experience of both of those riders, together with their exceptional abilities in the management of these athletes over the past two years, had both horses more than ready to come through when it mattered most.

Not every year have we had a team such as this one where every member—riders, horses, chef d’equipe, owners, team managers and grooms—pulled together for the betterment of the team as a whole. Results showed how much can be accomplished with this long-range approach by superb horsemen.

The rest of the world didn’t miss the North American dominance when our neighbors and good friends to the north took home the team silver medal to Canada. Canada might be a bit light in depth but never in heart. They won the team gold in Mexico in 1968 and also prevailed at the 1980 Alternate Olympics held in Rotterdam the year of the ill-fated Moscow Games. Considered long shots every time they fought their way to the top of the podium on previous occasions, this year was no different. They were forced into a jump-off despite being down to three riders for the second round.

The jumping for the individual final began on an unexpected note when positive drug tests, and the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s new provisional suspensions, prevented four riders (including the highest-ranked qualifier) from taking part. 

The current stance of the FEI regarding positives in medication control had a rather shocking effect on the sport in Hong Kong. It’s never good for any sport to stand out against the others in such a negative way.  As Rob Erans, chef d’equipe of the Dutch team stated, “Any test with a positive outcome is a negative for the sport.”

It will be interesting to observe how the FEI deals with the increasingly sophisticated nature of medication control, since it’s such a fine line between providing our horses with the best of care and still maintaining the sort of level playing field that serious sponsors and the public demand. I believe that there is much lacking in education on all fronts—media, public, owners, riders, trainers, grooms and even veterinarians. When the dust settles, let’s hope that a better system is developed and that there’s more awareness of the complexities of doing our best by our horses.

For the gold, Canada once again proved they are at the top of their game with Eric Lamaze’s spectacular clear on his long-time partner, Hickstead, over Rolf-Göran Bengtsson on Ninja (who usually jumps with the suffix La Silla attached to his name).

Every U.S. rider should be grateful for the impeccable manner in which our team was selected and prepared for this edition of the Games. Every participant made this achievement their priority throughout the very long lead up; decisions, both easy and difficult, were made with the objective of winning these medals. Thanks to this kind of planning, plus a little luck that remains always a part of the mix, we put a spectacular 2008 Olympics into the history books.

World Cup Finals

The annual indoor championship returned to its original home venue in 2008, the Scandanavium in Gothenburg, Sweden. In the very first year of this series in 1979, it was a second-placed finish for U.S. rider Katie Monahan (Prudent). This year, Oregonian Rich Fellers finished in this same spot.

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Rich might not be the best known of the U.S. riders, but his was the best finish in a World Cup Final in 20 years. Aboard Flexible, an Irish-bred stallion with a comeback story worthy of a Hollywood movie, Rich proved steady and unflappable to prevail against every combination there with the exception of the amazing pair of Shutterfly and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. Meredith’s victory was her second in this event in a career studded with memorable wins.

During the 20 years since our domination of this indoor event came to an end, many riders have believed that we were entering this event at a real disadvantage. Our European opponents are at the end of a season of indoor-only competitions, while our riders were often competing indoors for the first time after at least four months of outdoor competition on the winter circuits.

Over the years we often had top finishes in individual classes, yet few had managed consistent performances over all three legs of the event. Many riders have urged our early season events to hold World Cup qualifiers indoors, and many show managers have responded. We can hope that our riders will now be contesting this important championship on far more equal footing in the years ahead.

Top Championships

With the loss of the Samsung sponsorship in 2009, last year was the final one for the Samsung Super League series. It’s something we fought to get into, and we sacrificed to ensure our continuing place in this outdoor series where the eight strongest countries in the world battled it out at some of the finest competitions throughout the outdoor season.

The United States had a middle of the road result throughout this final year, using the events largely as the final selection for the Hong Kong team. This was the plan, and it served well not just for the Olympic horses and riders but also for a number of other up-and-coming pairings.

Beginning in 2009 the Super League of old will be succeeded by a new Nations Cup series to be run under a slightly different format. The new format will continue, however, to pit the strongest teams at some of the finest venues throughout the season.

As difficult as it can be to ensure strong representation at so many distant events scattered throughout an already busy season, this is the means by which our serious international competitors reach a competitive level, and remain there.

As every rider who has ever ridden in a team event knows, there is nothing quite the same as the pressure (and the rewards) of this format. Practice is a key to our sport, and without the experience of these important team competitions our riders simply can’t be adequately prepared to be their most competitive for the major championships and Games.

Three major outdoor Nations Cups take place on our side of the Atlantic each year: Wellington (Fla.), Spruce Meadows (Alta.) and Buenos Aries (Argentina). The U.S. team swept them all this year. That we did so without the participation of many of the riders and horses who went to Hong Kong shows the growing depth of our international string.

As U.S. chef d’equipe, George Morris has made it clear over the years that a country’s strength can be as much a matter of depth as of individual brilliance. We can be encouraged to see a nice mix of children of professionals such as Charlie Jayne and Kirsten Coe together with some outstanding amateurs just now reaching their potential at this level.

While our country has offered a National Jumper Championship event for some years now, it has yet to find a time of the year and location where the majority of our best horse/rider combinations will go head-to-head so that the winner prevails over all we have to offer. 

Given the vast expanse of our country and the diverse competing schedules of our athletes, this might not even be a viable concept. We certainly have a lot of our best in Florida in the early spring— far more than at the end of a tough season—but it does seem a bit odd to crown the champion for the year at the beginning of it! 

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This year the perennial Margie Engle provided the consistency needed to win out over Kirsten Coe, who was fresh from her first Nations Cup (a winning one) in Argentina.

The Youngsters

The CN North American Junior And Young Riders Championships was hosted at High Prairie in Colorado with tracks set by European course designer Olaf Petersen Jr. He brought a taste of the level of difficulty encountered by European and South American competition at this level, and for the most part fault scores were high.

The degree of importance accorded this event by the riders, owners and trainers in USEF Zone 10 really paid off with a near sweep of the medals in both age categories. The Young Riders is meant to be a much bigger challenge than riders normally encounter in junior and amateur-owner national classes, just a single step below the international senior level. Winning at this event in Europe is a near-guarantee of a future career in top sport.

With the 2009 edition of the NAYJRC scheduled for the Kentucky Horse Park, it’s my hope that all of our most serious competitors will make this event a priority. Riders such as Greg Best, McLain Ward and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum used this event as preparation for amazing careers that followed. Greg even contested the NAYRC on his future Olympic mount, Gem Twist.

Young jumpers also had the spotlight in 2008. The Young Jumper Championship’s three regional finals for horses from 5 to 8 years of age continue to grow with the Midwest offering at the Kentucky Horse Park now firmly established.

Little more than a decade ago, young horse classes were unheard of in the United States. Yet today, throughout the country, classes or whole sections are offered for this group. What is most gratifying is to see the successes of our U.S.-bred horses as they graduate from the YJC and go head-to-head with all comers. International Jumper Futurity and Young Jumper Championships alumni hit the grand prix ranks in a big way in 2008, catapulting their U.S. breeders to the top of the USEF Leading Jumper Breeder rankings.

Second only to the breeder of Authentic on the USEF Breeders ranking, Tatra Farm, of Clinton Corners, N.Y., finished with more than $63,000 in money earned by their produce this past year. Their homebred Blue Danube (by Hamar) was a winner as an IJF 4-year-old and a winner of the $20,000 League Finals as a 5-year-old. In 2008, he won the $100,000 DeLuca Toyota Grand Prix of Ocala (Fla.) along with five other grand prix placings. In fact, YJC grads earned just under $3 million in grand prix jumper money during the 2008 season, averaging $14,147 per horse—$1,285 more than the average for non-YJC competitors that they competed against.

Slowly but surely our U.S. breeders will get the recognition that they deserve for the quality horseflesh that they are now producing.

It will be tough to match 2008 in terms of international and national achievement within the jumping discipline. Every one of those successes took the focused effort of a whole team of riders, owners, trainers, coaches, grooms, veterinarians and farriers to bring the horses to their peak. They set high goals and achieved them. We should all be proud of what they’ve accomplished—and looking forward to more of the same in 2009 and beyond. 

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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