World Equestrian Games: Show Jumping

Aug 25, 2010 - 1:49 PM
Eadweard Muybridge captured this sequence of a horse's jump on film in 1904. Photo courtesy of

We’re less than a month away from the opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and time has been flying here at The Chronicle. We are all working hard to provide you with the best possible coverage of the Games, so make sure you tune in starting Sept. 25!

Did you know that the sport of show jumping originated from foxhunting? In the 18th century, the Enclosures Acts in England forced a change of tide for horse and rider, who had previously been able to ride without obstruction across the countryside. With the addition of fences and boundaries to their hunt lands, riders had to select horses that were capable of jumping in order to continue their sport.

Meanwhile, in France, jumping competitions were beginning to take shape in the late 1800s. A group of riders would parade by and then take off across the country to jump, which proved to be unpopular with spectators because they couldn’t see all the jumps. Eventually, the organizers began putting fences in the arenas, which would become known as “lepping.”

Lepping eventually crossed over to England, and by 1900 most of the big shows had lepping classes. The first international show jumping class held in England was in 1907 at the Horse of the Year Show in Olympia. Almost all of the riders were military, and there was a team competition as well. Eventually, the class split into separate military and civilian sections.

In the 19th century, riding schools in Italy, France and Vienna were teaching the “backward” seat of riding, which we now recognize as a dressage seat, when jumping. While this seat was more secure for the rider, it wasn’t necessarily beneficial to the horse. Long stirrups allowed the rider to push his legs out in front of his body. When the horse began to jump, the rider pulled the reins. Old riding masters believed a horse’s hind legs were better designed to take the impact of jumping than the front legs. The rider would try to aid the horse in landing on his hind legs first, therefore keeping the impact off his front legs.

Of course, this theory didn’t allow the horse to stretch into his natural jumping form, and the rider often interfered with the horse’s ability, which made it difficult for the horses to clear the jumps.

It wasn’t until Capt. Federico Caprilli introduced the forward seat to the world that horses began taking flight in the beautiful manner they present to us today. Caprilli was a lieutenant in the Italian Army when he introduced his theories in 1902 at a show jumping event in Turin, Italy. He was soon promoted to captain, made chief riding instructor for the Italian cavalry, and his ideas have become standard theory in riding rings across the world.


During the early history of show jumping, the judging was quite varied. Some judges looked for how difficult the course was, while others rewarded style. Before 1907, refusals were not a deduction, and the class was held for as long as the judge deemed necessary. Sometimes, the pairs who jumped clean didn’t even take home a ribbon. The formation of the British Show Jumping Association in 1923 helped even out the playing field, but each country had specific national rules until the Fédération Equestre Internationale stepped in to unify the competition format.

The first set of rules for show jumping gave penalties depending on which leg hit the fence. This was another bit taken from foxhunting, as it was (and still is) more dangerous for a horse to hit a jump with his front legs.

Original Scoring Tariff – 1925

Refusing or Bolting at any fence:
1st — 2 faults                                                                                  
2nd — 3 faults
3rd — Debarment

Fall of Horse or Rider or both:
4 faults

Horse touches a fence without knocking it down:       
1/2 fault

Horse upsets fence with:             
Fore Limbs — 4 faults
Hind Limbs — 2 faults

Water Jump:                           
Fore leg in — 2 faults
Hind leg in —1 fault

Upsetting or removing the water fence:
1/2 fault                        

In the beginning, show jumping courses lacked originality and often only included straight bar jumps and an occasional water jump. Time was not a factor at first, and circling between obstacles was not penalized for many years.

Show jumping made its first Olympic appearance in 1900, and it reappeared in 1912 at the Stockholm, Sweden, Games. The Stockholm course had 15 jumps, and some of them were contested more than once. The jumps were about 4’7” high, and the water jump was 13’ wide. The 1932 Olympics saw an increase in obstacles, height and width, which steadily rose over the years to its present day requirements. In Olympic competition, the fences can be no bigger than 5’7” in height, 6’7” in width, and the water jump can be up to 14’9” in width.

At the WEG, the individual show jumping medals are awarded after the top four riders compete in a ride-off, switching horses and riding over the course again on each horse. Their score from the qualifying rounds is not carried over, and if there is a tie at the end of four rounds, they jump off on their own horse. This format is unique to the WEG.

Show jumping’s popularity exploded because of its spectator appeal. The sport is exciting to watch, and easy for non-horsey people to understand, which is an added benefit for sponsors outside of the equestrian realm. Today, show jumping competitions supply some of the richest prizes in the equine industry, with purses easily hitting the six-figure mark all across the country, and some competition venues—such as Spruce Meadows, in Calgary, Alta., and HITS Saugerties in New York—putting up more than $1 million in prize money.

Show jumping will take place from Monday, Oct. 4 through Saturday, Oct. 9.

One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.

Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she’d love to hear from you!

Category: Blog Entry

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