Like the rest of our equestrian sports, jumping has enjoyed steady growth over the last decade or so. Still, I believe we\’re handicapping our future because of a serious lack of effective long-term planning.
We need to contemplate what we do best\’as well as what areas we\’ve been neglecting.
The U.S. Dressage Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association both appear to be doing a far more comprehensive job of developing the base of their disciplines and preparing a growing number of riders with the ability to break into the elite international ranks than the hunter/jumper world. The leaders of the dressage and eventing organizations take seriously the need for their sports to maintain a clear path from one level to another. These affiliate organizations make a concerted effort to fit every aspect of their discipline into a big picture.
At some point, our discipline could find itself in real need of what only a discipline-specific, national group can do, and it might be too late. And, despite the obvious symbiotic relationship between the national discipline of hunters and the FEI-recognized discipline of jumping, the two really have little in common\’except that most shows and many participants are involved with both.
While the two halves of our hunter/jumper industry must work effectively together, I have serious concerns about the future of U.S. jumping if every decision is made by an affiliate whose Board of Directors is heavily weighted with individuals preoccupied with the very real challenges facing the hunter industry.
Equestrian sport, like many others, must find a way to balance three critical but very different aspects: recreation, serious competition, and commercial.
Recreational riders range from those who ride a horse only occasionally and just for fun, up through the many who make riding their principal recreational activity and enjoy the challenge of competition.
Serious competitors include all the professional riders/trainers who spend their daily lives making a living in the sport, as well as those riders whose focus is on the international levels.
The commercial aspect takes in the suppliers of everything the sport requires\’from the name-brand attire to the most modern veterinary care. It also includes the business of providing professional training, coaching, and advice on horseflesh.
Since the national leadership\’s activity is almost exclusively focused on the competitive riders and the segment of the most serious recreational riders, the structure of competition is of highest importance. The full calendar of competitions we have today under USA Equestrian is a result of market demand.
Because the development of the hunter/jumper world has focused almost exclusively on the professional training stable model, the majority of our horse show managers now recognize the professional trainer as their primary customer. The proliferation of divisions with minimal jump heights at our largest competitions means that it\’s now possible for a new rider to be participating at the biggest shows almost as soon as they\’ve bought their first horse. While many seem to accept that as a necessary consequence of commercial success in today\’s industry, some of us cringe when we see what some horses are put through week in and week out.
Another characteristic of the American system is its nearly exclusive focus on the rider, even though we all recognize how important the horse is to success.
That\’s why the United States has become the world\’s biggest consumer of ready-to-go horses.
Every year our industry demands more and more horses able to liter-ally jump right into the show ring. At the same time, the opportunities and incentives for Americans to develop horses for our market lag far, far behind.
European dealers love the American system\’even hunters, for so many years the exclusive domain of the American Thorough-bred, are now dominated by European-bred and -started horses.
Why? And what, if anything, can we do about it?
We\’ve been a beneficiary of the European focus on breeding horses for the FEI disciplines. The finest European bloodlines are now available on this side of the ocean, along with Thoroughbreds with pedigrees sought after in many other parts of the world.
Still, one recently deceased stallion makes a good example of how much more seriously breeding is taken in Europe. The American-bred Thoroughbred Hand In Glove (see Sept. 12, p. 58) competed successfully here, but was sold to France, where he had an influence he never would have here.
Although the great Galoubet has spent most of his career at stud in this country, the majority of his most successful offspring have been made in Europe. Quick Star, a son of Galoubet and one of today\’s most sought-after stallions standing in Europe, was bred in California. But I doubt that we\’d be seeing so many of his offspring rising to the top if he\’d remained in this country.
Our country isn\’t so much lacking in top bloodlines as it is suffering from the lack of a national program to develop and promote sport horses in general, jumping horses in particular.
In the modern European sport horse world, today\’s stud books have far less to do with specific bloodlines than with where the horses are foaled. For example, Hand In Glove, while standing in France, became a recognized breeding stallion in no fewer than 15 different stud books.
And, in Germany it matters not at all in which state\’s registry a horse might have been given his number. The mere fact that he is German-bred will make his breeder eligible for breeder premiums that are paid on every Euro won at a German competition throughout his career.
Like riders everywhere, German competitors are not concerned with where a horse was born. What matters is that a horse can win. Yet the German federation takes the longer view and realizes that there is much to gain by providing the finest group of horses possible in their own country for their riders to draw from.
Equally important is a program for developing prospects into proven competition
horses. This is not an instant, or even quick, process. Even the most extraordinarily
talented young jumper requires a great deal of education and experience to be successful over today\’s sophisticated courses. A substantial amount of that education and experience can only be achieved in a competitive setting. This is the area in which many European federations have taken giant steps, while ours has remained single-mindedly focused on the needs of riders already mounted on experienced horses.
Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Sweden and Ireland all have pro-
grams that focus on horses as well as riders. Each of their young-horse programs is unique, developed to suit the needs of that country. The most successful programs are constantly refined to reflect exactly what today\’s sport requires.
None of the programs is perfect\’and not one of them would suit the particular challenges we face in a country larger than the whole European continent. But they\’re certainly successful in providing a steady stream of horses to reach the top level. It\’s the product of these programs that we rely on to supply our market too; they keep the jumping arena, as well as the hunter and equitation rings, full.
The unvarnished truth is that our industry imports a huge number of horses each year, and the largest percentage are jumpers entering our shows at the 4\’6\’\’ level and up.
But, once they enter the American system, within a couple of years (often only a few months) they “progress” down through the levels until they\’re suitable for classes where the jumps are lower than those they jumped in their very first show as a 5-year-old in Europe.
This is the industry at work. And it\’s an example of commercial realities taking a real toll on the sport.
I suspect that an even larger, “hidden” cost of this system results when riders\’ and trainers\’ lack of experience in “making” horses reduces their ability to “maintain” them during their careers. Horses don\’t remain the same\’their performance and physical condition is either improving or deteriorating.
Meanwhile, our equitation division that produced so many of our top international riders has been moving toward becoming an end in itself. More and more trainers search the grand prix rings to find horses with enough training to win over 3\’6\’\’ jumps in
the equitation division. Some of today\’s “winning” equitation horses (almost an oxymoron when you think about it!) have longer careers than many of the long list of riders who\’ve ridden them.
These phenomena have far more to do with the “industry” at work than with the original point of equitation classes: developing future horsemen.
At the same time, a growing number of the competitors we meet internationally, including notable new names like Marcus Ehning and Toni Hassmann, are really the byproducts of their federation\’s young-horse programs.
Riders get experience, and eventually the recognition necessary to break into the highest ranks, by developing winning horses for national young-horse competitions. A rider\’s ability to produce horses\’taking a horse up to a higher level through good riding, training and management\’is highly prized throughout Europe. Talented riders who aren\’t yet fully occupied traveling to international events are sought after by breeders and knowledgeable owners alike. The ones with the most skill get the nicest stock to ride while increasing the value of the horses for the owners.
It\’s inevitable that riders like Marcus and Toni\’who were so often the busiest and most successful riders at the German national championships for 5- through 7-year-old jumpers\'”graduated” into the most elite cadre of riders, just like many of the horses they rode.
Having watched and studied the interplay of sport, industry and recreation in every equestrian nation worldwide, I\’m convinced that our country would benefit in so many ways if we could expand our focus. And I\’m 100-percent convinced that young-horse programs are the single most valuable innovation we could make right now.
It\’s time to put our collective minds to long-term planning.
Let\’s explore the ways young-horse programs can make our sport more accessible and appealing to the recreational rider. Resurgence in the market for American-bred and -trained horses is essential to recognize and assist our breeders. How can we make it possible for those with a special knack for bringing horses on to make a living at it?
If we\’re successful, an important side benefit will be helping to sustain our country\’s international excellence by discovering every special talent out there\’human or equine.
Our showing and training industry will only become even stronger as a result.