Show Jumping: A Dream Deferred

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.