Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

When To Hold ‘Em, When To Fold ‘Em

Much like the lyrics from the old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” you have to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” I’ve decided it’s come time to move on. After 15 years of running a U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Eventing Association-recognized event at my Jumping Branch Farm, I had to make a tough choice. And I chose to “fold ’em.”

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Much like the lyrics from the old Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler,” you have to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” I’ve decided it’s come time to move on. After 15 years of running a U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Eventing Association-recognized event at my Jumping Branch Farm, I had to make a tough choice. And I chose to “fold ’em.”

It’s not because competitors aren’t interested, however. Jumping Branch Farm’s event has always filled 300-plus slots with a large waiting list. It’s not because of a lack of volunteers, either. My community of family and volunteers is legendary, and to them I will forever be grateful.

It’s because the things I believe are important to the vast majority of eventers–those amateurs who make up 90 percent of the USEA’s membership–are being undervalued. These riders don’t aspire to join the elite set. They just want to enjoy running and jumping over a safe, inviting course. They don’t need mini-Olympic questions, even at the preliminary level. There’s time enough for that as their education progresses to the upper levels.

“If it’s all about ‘playing with the big boys,’ I choose not to play anymore,” said Julie Zapapas, regarding her decision to discontinue holding recognized events at her Jumping Branch Farm in South Carolina.

In the past few years, I’ve continually been told that I should “beef up” my courses, that they don’t “meet the new standards.” But how long has it been since my critics have actually piloted a young, green horse or coached a relatively inexperienced rider around a novice or training course? The whole point of the lower levels is to increase horse and rider confidence while simultaneously training them.

Gradually, a course or a level might add a more difficult question. But the key word here is “gradually.”

Yes, I agree with the need for the standardization of levels, but I don’t see the point in designing lower level courses with “gotcha-itis” in mind. And I don’t see the point in any course that becomes a five- or six-minute stadium round—one that doesn’t allow a horse to quietly gallop, catch his breath, refresh his mind, re-oxygenate his muscles and stabilize his heart rate.

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I love watching competitors gallop across my finish line. The rider is invariably grinning from ear to ear, and the horse’s gleaming eyes and pricked ears say, quite clearly, “Yeah! I’m great. Bring it on—bigger and tougher!”

What I don’t want to see is a look of, “Whew! Thank God I got through that!”

Renowned jumper course designer Linda Allen said it perfectly (Aug. 8, 2008, p. 18): “As exciting as it is to win a class, the overlying goal should be educating the horse—sending him on his way well prepared for the next level.” (That entire article, “Buy Them Or Make Them?” should be required reading for all course designers and trainers.)

Courses that stress the horse and rider mentally and physically, particularly too early in their educations, don’t promote safety. In fact, in my opinion, the lack of confidence those courses can engender might do just the opposite.

I’m glad that safety is being more prominently highlighted by our national governing bodies. I also realize that it’s a work in progress. But I disagree with some of the currently chosen priorities.

First, I’m dismayed that the continually changing burden of over-regulation falls in the organizer’s lap. We are not the police. We cannot be expected to be personally responsible for every rider who engages in what is an inherently dangerous sport.

In addition, I specifically question several of the new “safety rules.” For one, mandatory staking of all portable cross-country jumps. Jumps that are on a slope or are top heavy, for example, should always be staked. I don’t question that. However, logic and experience tell me that if a horse hits a large, solid jump, I’d rather that jump give a little bit, slowing his momentum rather than stopping the energy altogether. I’d rather he have a chance to grow a fifth leg and scramble his way out of trouble.

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And if we are going to stake, let’s have an informed, uniform and inexpensive method of staking made available to organizers. Staking in back only is incredibly dangerous, as it encourages the fence to flip up and over backwards. And as for collapsible Styrofoam logs–will that really teach our horses to jump better? What happens when they come to the un-collapsible logs? These examples are oversimplifications, to be sure, but that’s for another article, another time.

Last but not least, I want riders to be able to afford the education and fun an event can provide. The ever-increasing costs of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy have become burdensome to organizers and competitors alike. I see few advantages to retaining “Recognized” status. I actually net more per hour of labor, effort and stress on unrecognized horse trials. “Points” are of little consequence to most riders.

I still use recognized officials and highly qualified medical and safety personnel at my schooling shows to ensure the standardization of rules and safety. What’s more, my volunteers can work just half a day while I can still run 170 riders.

I realize the sport is changing, but I don’t believe today’s heavy emphasis on the upper level riders improves the heart and soul of our sport. While I understand that these riders are important for the purpose of marketing eventing worldwide, its heart and soul still resides in the riders who may never progress above novice or training level.

If it’s all about “playing with the big boys,” I choose not to play anymore.

So I will continue trying to provide inviting, galloping courses in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere at schooling horse trials, combined tests and jumping derbies. The only thing competitors might lose is the gaping hole in their wallets. Somehow I don’t think they’ll mind.   

Julie Zapapas


Julie Zapapas is the owner and manager of Jumping Branch Farm in Aiken, S.C. She has evented through the intermediate level and competed in dressage through Intermediaire I. She teaches many students through the preliminary level and is an r-rated course designer. She thanks her safety officer of many years, Lois Britten, a long-time competitor and associate editor of The Aiken Horse, for her assistance in preparing this article.

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