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Show Jumping: A Dream Deferred

April 22nd, 2015 by John Royce · Horsemanship Today, Writing

This is a rather random post. The subject has been on my mind, and this is a serious treatment. It doesn’t pertain directly to the Great Horse trilogy, but it is related, because the energy that led to writing was partly inspired by wonderful equestrian events like the American Invitational, which was cancelled this month–it was run in name only, a change hardly remarked upon by equestrian media, which struck me as inappropriate and also fitting.

May the event that put the “stadium” in Stadium Jumping return someday … and the dream be fulfilled.

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I favor show jumping as a participant and spectator sport, and have long been interested in its success. The sport brings focus to the horse’s well-being and state of mind, and has potential to make horsemanship more widely available. Additionally, the sport allows spectators from all walks and stages of life to enjoy and connect with the horse, which can help preserve our beneficial and historic partnership in an increasingly technological era.

There’s been a recent wave of promising energy in the American show jumping scene … the Global Champions Tour debuted on US soil this spring in Miami, concluding a successful Winter Equestrian Festival. Bright young stars are using media attention to promote their sport. Recent news coverage has increased, and even the national sport’s top governing body has gotten into the spirit: USEF gearing up to grow horse sports

In pursuing these excellent goals, it is worthwhile to understand why the sport isn’t already more than a small asterisk in the consciousness of a sports-obsessed nation of former horsemen.

Not Ready for Prime-time … yet

The idea that making a show jumping event public is enough to achieve success may come from the fact that show jumping was briefly a mass-market spectator sport after WWII … but new efforts should not assume that show jumping is still ready for prime time. The whole spectator-based mentality of show jumping—its public-minded attitude and the “show” part of the sport—all went another way, and must be re-imagined and rekindled in order to renew a connection with the public.

The ready-for-primetime balloon was popped last fall. Social media buzzed about a new show jumping event in Central Park last October. Fresh energy and faces were bringing the sport to primetime—billed as the best chance in a generation for the sport to impress the public (and it probably was).

Channels were set and live-streams logged into … and then … well … it began. The presentation was like a pale hand emerging from the grave at the end of the movie “Carrie” to throttle public interest, just when things were sunny and good. Others may feel differently, especially knowledgeable viewers, but the wider audience wasn’t engaged.

Painted-on Flaws

I know this kind of show jumping production rather well. The brand is immediately recognizable: I was there when it happened. It’s not show jumping in the spectator sense, so much as a variant known to ward off the public: it has killed and will kill again if exposed to innocent spectator interest.

A healthy habit of self-analysis in the sport has been stymied by its history. This is not to cast blame: the only point is that anyone who wants to make the sport more popular will need to review recent thinking before bringing show jumping to television … or they will waste effort and money.

Stadium Jumping, Inc.

I have experience with another kind of success in horses. I started the first University Equestrian Club at UT/Austin, and in my senior year (1988) I created an event called the US Intercollegiate Show Jumping Championships which featured 9 teams from colleges across the country.

For the event I flew in the promising young David O’Connor (pre-Olympic medals and USEF Presidency) for the benefit of the competitors and to host a clinic. David acted as an official coach, and several colleges also brought their own coaches too. The Final was a Gambler’s choice-type competition that drew nearly 2500 spectators … something that never happened in Austin, Texas before or since. I obtained a front page “life-style” article in the Austin-American Statesman, and a mention on the Today show by weatherman Willard Scott (“Great weather for the Collegiate Show Jumping Championships!”).

Based on this event, I was hired by Gene Mische, founder of the now-venerable show jumping circuit, Stadium Jumping, Inc. I was flown to the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, in one of its last years at that location, and Gene asked about my ideas to increase crowd interest. He liked my ideas and hired me. Unfortunately the sport was about to shift in a direction that made such ideas obsolete for the duration.

Gene Mische – man with a vision

Everyone who knew Gene knows he was consummate gentleman and businessman … a wonderful horseman and spokesman for the sport. He loved the horse community and wanted to develop the sport in the public eye. Gene was genuinely committed to grow the spectator potential of show jumping, and worked to do so.

The backdrop of my hire was the upcoming World Cup Finals being held in Tampa. Gene felt the city was positioned to become more prominent location, and the World Cup was a part of his vision. An entire team was in place in Tampa months ahead, organizing the event and its corollary functions.

Gene had built up Stadium Jumping, Inc., into the preeminent American show jumping circuit and was taking the sport to new levels, with the clear goal of making it attractive to corporate sponsorship and growing the spectator appeal.

That is what Gene wanted to do, and I give him great credit and respect for his vision. How that vision relates to today requires acknowledgement of history–not for dwelling upon, but for understanding how to effect true and positive change.

Death of the big Charity Horse Show

By the 1970’s in America, a languid malaise seems to have fallen in many quarters, including the long-running big charity horse shows that had incubated the sport and its public connection.

The social element that was once a beneficial and sustaining resource became diluted through changing cultural tastes. Faced with challenges in attracting new volunteers and an increasingly non-horse literate population, the underlying groups began to move in a more centralized direction.

Other forces were at work. In the early 1980’s the traditional final individual event of a tournament, the Grandprix, gradually became the sole focus, and the rest of the week dwindled in attention. Among other reasons, the change was driven by exhaustion of volunteers—there are never enough angels—and because the ‘bottom line’ was immediately improved by cutting costs. Spectator losses were masked by increased single-day attendance.

Unfortunately the social/volunteer element was not as important—or supportable—with a Grandprix-only event, and gradually the traditional tournament concept and the volunteer charity concept were both diminished. Gene and his company, Stadium Jumping, Inc., were salvations to many of these shows, which were linked together in a Grandprix Circuit for sponsorship and spectator interest. There was early growth and excitement … and then the ground shifted.

Big charity horseshows are community affairs. Each was started to some degree through the generosity of patrons and a sizeable, knowledgeable, motivated and connected volunteer community. They found success through a spectator-tournament format, building excitement through a week of culminating social and spectator events.

Unfortunately, the cost-cutting measures that fuel corporate “efficiencies” combined with remote management had the effect of sterilizing the occasion. The corporate model proved difficult to sustain, for it undermined the very resources it needed: the community and local connections that made it all work.

1989 Show Jumping World Cup Finals

There was, for the World Cup, a title sponsor who suddenly threw in a dirty stop, you might say, by refusing to allow exposure to the European’s individual sponsors, which of course meant everyone pulled out, leaving Gene holding the bag. It seems the dark day was ‘rescued’ by interests with one condition: to get the sport out of the headlines. At the time, all I could see was my reason for being at Stadium Jumping seemed to have vanished.

The details don’t matter, only the effects on today. The change wasn’t necessarily to be permanent, but other factors enforced the direction. There were hints of a scandal involving some grandprix riders: the new stars of the new sport. The way it was handled—stonewalling and silence—proved damaging … not least because the scandal was never resolved from within and required federal action. In this long and frankly unjust period for many good professionals, the sport stagnated and many withdrew from public-based thinking. A bad habit was set.

Other organizers accelerated what became the mega-show trend. With a willing response from competitors, an exhibitor-based model was developed, a gigantism shorn of outsider interference and centralized to the extreme. The innovation of weeks-long village equestrian competition that Gene had pioneered actually did better when stripped of its spectator component. The event could go out to cheaper, empty land and create a horse playground with new amenities. The sport would be limited to those who could pay and spectators largely ignored.

The 70-horse fields, repetitive/rote information, workday enthusiasm, bland camera work, lack of explanation to the audience, avoidance of focus on horses, multiple horses per rider, long courses—all this was unfortunately part of the Exhibitor model as it developed, because spectators are frankly incidental. This isn’t to criticize but to recognize.

On the positive side, people enjoy the mega-show, and it has many benefits to the local economy and horse industry too. It allows more scope in some areas, and a pleasant and worthwhile experience for those able to join in. Hopefully this format has a very bright future, but it should be acknowledged that the Exhibitor model’s success is not in spectator attraction.

The work of making the modern spectator welcome and entertained is still to be done.

A new direction out of oblivion

The sport is still blessed with wonderful people, and of course, the spectator elements of the sport are not gone … if watching jumping were fun again, the crowds would return.

Horses are loved by the public … show jumping was created especially for spectators to watch horses. It is also a game, and games are what people most watch (not sports!). Show jumping could reach its potential as an educational and thrilling competitive adventure. Show jumping is a sport for the future. All this I still believe.

Horsemanship faces challenges in the modern age, which can be solved if horse enthusiasts find ways to come together and better share the experience of horses with the public. Show jumping can be an important tool for sharing.

Gene’s original vision didn’t happen exactly as planned, but there is reason to hope that the dream to successfully bring show jumping to the American public may have only been deferred.

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Fear has a role in publishing …

April 9th, 2015 by John Royce · Writing & Publishing

I was nervous about ‘Eclipsed by Shadow’ when it was first published …

beach-horse-90wIn 2002, years before actual publication–after receiving permission!–I sent out a mailing to top equestrians in America. I had a draft of the trilogy written, but there was a LOT of research to be done: I wanted to see if the story seemed worthwhile.

The effort had mixed results. I asked for comment from riders, trainers and officials from various backgrounds in equestrian sports, historical societies, foxhunting groups, western and rodeo, racing, etc … and I didn’t know what to make of the feedback. I’ve since lost the quotes, though I remember parts…

Burned into Memory

At first, I just sent a note with a self-addressed postcard, asking if each would agree to read and comment on a short book. The estimable George Morris was the only person who actually sent back the postcard to tell me no. :) (“I don’t read fiction”).

My favorite feedback was from another “English” rider, Margie Goldstein-Engle, who said that she “learned something about horses” and thanking me (!), while gently correcting an error I’d made. I already knew Margie as a world-class athlete, so being touched by such consideration was naturally unforgettable.

Another memorable response from the h/j world took the opposite side of the ledger. I apparently wrote the thing Shelby French most hated reading in all of her life. That early version of Eclipsed by Shadow was too violent and uneven, and I’m very grateful this was pointed out in clear terms; maybe less for the advice detailing her thoughts on my future. I remember sitting in the truck for a few minutes after that one. Why, Shelby … why?

One gentleman told me he thought he only found 1 spelling error, and that was his complete comment. Nice people are sometimes the most cruel.

Some readers liked the story idea, but in my summation feedback wasn’t encouraging. I saw the experience as a chance to dismount before years of hard labor, sacrifice, and probable destitution … that I did it all anyway is simply because sometimes characters talk too much until you put them down where others can see them.

Hoping Promise soars

bk3-fadehorseI did research and write the story, and then edited it (the hard part), lived it, etc … and in later years, as the official publishing date approached, I was able to directly access my early fears. I reviewed whether my natural stupidity outweighed my studied block-headedness, or vice versa … or if I suffered from some kind of obsessional hatred of my free time.

And then … a pre-publication review came from the respected Library Journal:

Veteran horseman Royce combines history and myth with action and adventure to create a fast-paced, well-informed tale of a flying horse and the young girl who loves her.

Following the birth of a palomino foal, 12-year-old Meagan names the young horse Promise, and an uncommon bond forms between the two. Told by an elderly woman that Promise is one of the legendary Great Horses, Meagan flees with Promise through time after she discovers that others want Promise for themselves.

This series opener should appeal to fans of equestrian novels as well as historic fantasy and belongs in most libraries’ adult and YA collections.–Jackie Cassada, Library Journal

MOST COLLECTIONS?! That was my dream: a horse story for the masses.

I didn’t realize at first what that review fully meant. This pre-pub recommendation was how libraries and bookstores chose new books to stock … out of the many thousands of books that apply each month, Library Journal chooses a few hundred across the spectrum to include in recommendations to libraries. I’d made the real cut.

At one point the book was in over 600 domestic libraries … and I was soon given education in the transience of publishing success.

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Independent publishing

April 6th, 2015 by John Royce · Writing & Publishing

I’m sharing some experiences in publishing. For a reason I wish didn’t happen, I find myself on the front lines of publishing’s upheavals.

Being published by a Big House is an author’s basic goal. That was my goal too.

It’s probably common knowledge that traditional publishing has been subsumed and relegated to a balance sheet entry in a multi-national conglomerate media empire. It would be hard to imagine otherwise … but people have been calm. Things are still within acceptable boundaries. Books do get published and enjoyed.

I fought the law …

Now I know the books were worthy of a big house–each title won independent national awards and had solid reviews and sales figures. It could have done well for them.

Mongolian herdI didn’t need to spend years assembling rejection slips–though I got a sizeable sample–because things were pretty clear early on. I had written an adult-level book with horses … with no erotica or vampires. My story didn’t fit the preset BISAC publishing categories: there ARE no official publishing categories for “Teen” and/or “Adult” fiction for horses, only “Juvenile.”

My work was out of market and, barring luck I wasn’t finding, I could either make the decision to go independent or wait until Hollywood rediscovered horses. The novels were too novel. I don’t mind.

Books are not all one thing

It’s true the corporate blockbuster model (commodification) needs a certain pre-established popularity to lower risk for expensive marketing campaigns that dominate the field. Unfortunately this doesn’t enhance a diverse and free-flowing marketplace.

I don’t know the outcome, but what’s interesting about the corporate consolidation of traditional publishing is that everything that was feared and predicted came true. Maybe the next publishing convulsion will be about finding new and truly independent solutions.

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The trouble with ebooks …

April 4th, 2015 by John Royce · Book News & Updates, Writing & Publishing

The trouble with ebooks is (1) piracy and (2) its flood of poor titles … and the problems they cause for some authors. For example, when I published the ebook version of book 1, and again with book 2, my royalties were cut by about 2/3rds. From modest to negligible, basically.

Here are a few recent pirated copies …

Listing of some pirated ebooks from "The Legend of the Great Horse"

Recently pirated ebooks from “The Legend of the Great Horse”

Ebooks are not the problem

It’s true that text can be offered on digital media. The concept could have been intelligently pursued, with a standard format that was universally hosted and sensibly migrated to new platforms as needed.

Instead it was given to the marketplace to decide, and today ebooks are an increasingly disconnected, unfiltered mess of various half-defunct readers and platforms and formats and versions and code requirements and impossibly varying quality. It will only get worse as time and tech move on and both readers and publishers realize the current ebook situation eliminates the advantage books had: permanence. (Oh, and property rights.)

Advanced Technology, Primitive Execution

In this rudderless environment, it’s frankly been hard to spend a week of work time to convert Book 3’s manuscript for ebooks, hammering my dense head against poor and/or outdated/undated documentation and forum support–so I can satisfy 9 different formats along with a host of branded readers and mobiles and apps. The testing alone is a nightmare.

The alternative is to hire out, but LOL, this makes the ridiculousness of the finances even more stark.

No Rails on a Free Market Ride

It is also true that once a Book 3 ebook version is released, the whole trilogy will be stolen … this already happens with the other two books (the post image shows some recent ones). There are groups that do this, many quite self-righteously.

I want to do the right thing by readers, but lately I’ve even wondered if I should unpublish the first two ebook editions as that marketplace continues to criminalize.

Last month I was notified by an ebook distributor that I should update my first book’s file for newer ereader technology. So the cracks begin to appear.

I would like to hear what others think … it’s not an obvious world anymore.

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