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.

Suffolk Downs … Preserving the Past and Welcoming the Future

The historic Suffolk Downs race track has announced it will no longer hold live racing, due to not getting a casino license. It seems the current gambling model has no future as manager/caretaker of American racing, but Suffolk Downs itself has great potential if it will focus on what it’s truly about … horses.

Suffolk Downs management has since said: “We’re willing to listen”.

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Suffolk Downs could move forward today as a horse-centered attraction to benefit the community of East Boston/Revere, as well as greater Boston and beyond. Huge potential exists for this sizeable, established, historic equestrian facility next to the Horse racing results board for Suffolk Downns track, East Boston, Massachusetts USA.	Photo: © Anthony92931 / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0international airport of an educated, affluent city with so few horse outlets and which thrives as a tourist destination. (Metro pop. 4.5 million)

Horse racing can continue at Suffolk Downs–additional uses of the unique facility can provide a revenue base. Suffolk Downs has a great deal of unused capacity: the property lies unused most of the year. Racing is held only half a day, three times a week for 5 months each year. Live racing could continue while expanding the facility’s usage to access revenue streams that have developed since Suffolk Downs racing heyday.

There are 6 potential legs to the profitability table:

I. Horse racing The first important revenue enhancement would be to promote the sport and Suffolk Downs to the broader public, something which has not been effectively done in several decades. It should be recognized that horse-players and enthusiasts are not necessarily the same as casino-clientele: horse gambling revenues are largely separate from casino profit.

Note: Opening the facility to a family focus could be done easily: the remaining area for gamblers is in the Clubhouse, set to one side of the larger, two-story open Grandstands (and open plaza) … it would be a simple act of signage to establish a soft division between a more intimate, adult, gambling-focused section, and a bigger and more family-oriented public area offering smaller ‘fun’ wagering. This would allow an appropriate space for families and also adult gamblers.

II. Other equestrian competition The facility is ready to conduct other major equestrian competition once it has developed arena space. Some 1200 stalls and related equestrian amenities exist on the 150+ acre property of Suffolk Downs … the stable block is adjacent to the mile-long main track, of which the entire infield of at least 100 acres is landscaped but otherwise unused. There is room for arenas and an International Grandprix ring (with existing seating for 15,000) AND a grassy picnic area for spectators … just five subway stops from the Waterfront at the heart of historical downtown Boston for exhibitors. The airport is less than 3 miles away.

III. Horse-themed retail/events Public-oriented horse events have discovered economic benefit through providing quality retail shopping areas … here is an ongoing horse event! Outdoor facilities at Suffolk Downs could be developed, and ample room also exists within the Grandstand buildings, side areas and numerous paved lots for permanent/semi-permanent spaces of equestrian-themed shopping. There is also existing space for conference rooms, exhibition areas, galleries–all contained in a unique and classic equestrian-themed setting.

IV. Corporate sponsorship There are greater possibilities for beneficial sponsorship in an inclusive public facility, including not only title sponsorship, but for educational horse-themed exhibits, volunteer/hospitality centers, pony rides, children’s play areas and other wholesome family-oriented facilities. The site can give exposure in a sport that literally invented the concept of sponsorship over 2000 years ago.

V. Donor Opportunities Humans have never been without horses before … our relationship is older than history. Today’s mechanized age has presented maybe the greatest crossroads the horse and human relationship has ever faced. Philanthropy is part of the ancient equestrian tradition, and there is opportunity now to sincerely contribute to humanity’s future by helping preserve horses for future generations. Suffolk Downs could offer an important way for donors to be remembered.

VI. Public partnership As our technological era continues and we face greater loss of connection with the natural world, our living historical link with horses will become more important–not less. Some limited governmental role seems appropriate to protect this investment for our future.

In return, Suffolk Downs could benefit area education as a partner in school field trips and various educational opportunities with horses. Lead-line rides and even beginner-level riding instruction could be made available through privately-run programs, with recommendations to local stables for interested students. There could be tie-ins with local art and museum interests and historical groups/events. 4-H, FFA and other youth programs, farrier schools, medical veterinary resources, equine therapy and other aspects of horsemanship could find a new home.

Moving forward

Variety and universality are strengths of horse activities today. Private investment by an individual interest is one path. It is also possible that a non-profit organization could manage the entire property to specific (and reportable) mission goals including attendance, business participation, revenue, tax allocations, public outreach, local community benefits, etc.

Activities and areas could be managed within this umbrella to create ‘free enterprise zones’ that allow for private business activity to achieve their own visions within a specific sphere … security and facility assurances (and a clear path to continuity) could foster a positive environment for investment and private initiative.

Suffolk Downs is a going concern—the property simply needs to be run effectively as an actual business. Permits and drainage and access issues have been worked out over the decades: the difficult work has been done. Suffolk Downs also has the advantage of a period of somnolence to spring from … a new initiative could creditably and truthfully be announced as an exciting new start.

Events have made it clear that Suffolk Downs must expand from a part-time, single-use equine facility with a focus on casino interests. If the property can be repositioned and refitted for a broad love of horses AND is focused on sharing it with the public … not only would the public respond, but Boston, the horse world and future generations would greatly benefit.

Suffolk Downs could be on the edge of a great and renewing historical adventure, preserving the past as it welcomes the future.

Olympic Show Jumping’s Team Competition: The Nations Cup

Horsemanship mirrors society, and show jumping’s Olympic Nations Cup still serves to measure of the spirit and strength of the countries of the world.

Until the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the Nation’s Cup of Show Jumping was the final event held on the last day in the Main Stadium.

The ruling bodies of Olympic sport have currently placed the competition in the middle of the games. The Nations Cup is still of attention for several reasons.

Jumping is recent knowledge

Though equestrian sport is ancient, Jumping is a very young competition. After the first contests were held in the mid-1800’s, it was largely the military that fielded horses and riders–for the very good reason that the highest levels of horsemanship were practiced by cavalry. Jumping was a new challenge in horsemanship that highlighted the best military training.

Officers came together to compete before the public in a team competition that became the Nations Cup. These international competitions originally were much as air shows today: advanced technology of the armed forces. Because cavalry quality often foretold success on the battlefield, there was special meaning attached to national success on the jumping field.

The Olympic Spirit Exemplified

The first formal Nations Cup was held at the Olympics in 1912, and were limited to commissioned military officers until 1952.

Before the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the Olympics concluded with the Nations Cup because it stood for the Olympic spirit of contest through sport and not conflict. The tradition was ended as commercialization took hold and the Closing Ceremonies became more elaborate.

The original meaning of the Nations Cup has not changed however. Horsemanship mirrors society, and the Nations Cup serves as an exciting measure of the spirit and economic strength of countries of the world.

The Nations Cup and Rise and Fall of Nations

Olympic ringsThe placings of the Olympic Nations Cup recall the history of the 20th century. The top teams placings read like a who’s who of the world’s top nations rising and falling from the placings along with their economic and political strength.

The Nations Cup reflects the top of the world

This year’s London Olympic Games are especially interesting as new nations come forward.

South American nations are showing competitive strength. Sweden is asserting itself. Australia is producing top talent. Japan is once more taking part. Eastern Europe is becoming steadily more competitive.

A big story is a new jumping rival in the Middle East, as nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have entered the world arena.

Even China and India, not equestrian nations in modern times, are making moves into the Jumping arena …

The Nations Cup has many surprises and excitement. One of the most traditionally important and telling Olympic competitons is set to begin …

The Sports of the World Equestrian Games Represent the History of Civilization

The World Equestrian Games (WEG) are the largest sporting event in the US this year … the featured competitions offer an intriguing and dynamic look at the history of civilization.

Driving: An echo in time

Mankind’s first records are seen in prehistoric cave paintings over 20,000 years old, and are filled with images of horses … even so, humans apparently didn’t start taming and using horses until about 6000 years ago.

It seems logical that riding bareback would be humanity’s first act of horsemanship … so naturally we probably didn’t. According to the most reliable evidence yet found, instead of riding horses, humans spent the first thousand years or so of horse ‘domestication’ fooling around with straps and restraints hitching horses to various carts to begin the activity we call Driving.

The fooling around got much more serious with the invention of chariots which, besides giving us empires like the Hittites and ancient Egypt, eventually treated antiquity to a peculiar insanity called ‘chariot racing’ that became the world’s first mass spectator sport.

By the time civilization emerged from the ensuing Middle Ages, driving had spawned a fleet of vehicles from wagons and buggies to carriages and coaches, with a similarly varied lineup of horsepower’s namesake, including the beer-truck pulling Clydesdale and high-stepping roadster pony.

The modern sport of Driving distills this ancient knowledge into a multi-phase event which includes precision and teamwork in an amazing and picturesque display of horsemanship. Every buckle and strap has not just a purpose, but represents a centuries-long pedigree of trial-and error testing … in seeing Driving at the World Equestrian Games (WEG), we are watching one of mankind’s oldest and most valuable technologies.

Endurance: The marathon of horsemanship

The sport of Endurance at the WEG will cover a 100-mile distance in one day … this feat is a sane result of much prior historical insanity, and the results would have amazed the horsemen of old.

Evidence remains sketchy, but at some point several thousand years ago, after an epoch of attempts to harness a horse without choking it (with varying success), the idea occurred to dispense with the cart and mount up. Early riders apparently sat back on the horse’s hindquarters; nose rings were an early misfortune, and military imagination did not extend beyond leading the horse into battle as a kind of mobile archery platform — but evidence shows early riders were indeed faced forward to the front of the horse, so a good start was made.

Progress came slowly to man’s early cultures, which seem to have preferred the route of dying out rather than updating an opinion. New ways to steer the horse were ironed out eventually, even if learning to stop the animal may have taken an extra millennia or so. Chariot-using Empires of Old preferred ground-rumbling war machines to the simpler virtues of mounted riders, perhaps on the basis of a rider’s vulnerability to being squashed by said chariot. Nomads took up the slack and began the fruitful cycle of raiding settlements, settling down themselves, and being wiped out by other nomads in a few years time.

Nomads may be the answer to why the champion of distance is the Arabian horse, a fountain of equine beauty and “hot” blood. Stamina and endurance were likely of value in surprising sleepy villagers — or escaping wide-awake ones — and to accomplish great distances between watering holes. Legends formed around remarkable feats of endurance, especially about the Arabian breed. Such boasts were perhaps nodded to politely, though not quite believed, until stopwatches and measured courses gave proof in the envelope-pushing sport of Endurance.

Dressage: humane school for horses

Horses are herd animals willing to follow a sound leader, but ancient humanity strenuously avoided this knowledge: the binding-down method seems to have been more the flavor of the day.

Ancient Greece gives evidence of a break with that tradition, advancing the notion that the horse was an individual instead of mere emotive force. Our Western forebears engaged a method of training that emphasized cooperation and harmony that still flourishes today in the noble art, science and sport of Dressage.

Even the earliest appearances of dressage were as an exhibition art, one whose spark helped kindle the original Olympic flame. Despite its artistic character, the most compelling reason for dressage’s early success was the improvement it gave cavalry through greater control of one’s mount.

The empathetic methods of dressage were lost with the fall of Rome and destruction of ancient Western Civilization, and horsemanship returned to brutal methods for the long sleep of the Middle Ages. Ancient writings of Xenophon, a Greek general who wrote about dressage, were discovered in the 15th century and led to a revival of this equestrian discipline. Dressage was one of the first rediscovered Classical arts of the Renaissance.

The arena became a laboratory for studying methods of training the horse, whose results spread to different forms of horsemanship: the famous Spanish horsemanship of the Conquistador era, ancestor of the WEG sport of Reining, resulted from the rediscovery of Classical dressage.

Dressage competition at the WEG is contested at the highest level, and a more modest test is part of the Eventing competition. Every level in dressage proceeds through ancient principles, most of which exist fundamentally unchanged from the times of the Greeks. The beauty of a horse schooled in dressage comes from the encouraged expression of the horse’s natural movements, so the horse’s motion remains organic and natural at its core.

Modern dressage seen at the WEG is a celebration of humane partnership with the horse, honoring our ancient partner and displaying the triumph of cooperation and harmony over more ‘physical’ methods.

Vaulting: putting the Pommel Horse to shame

The equestrian sport of Vaulting dates from whenever man decided handsprings off horses was worth the hospitalization cost. In all seriousness, vaulting is an ancient entertainment: there is reference to such horse acrobatics in the Iliad. Horse acrobats were very popular in antiquity.

The Latin word for a vaulter was a desultor or ‘one who leaps down’ … between the Coliseum and Circus (chariot racing) intermissions, the crowds of the ancient ‘developed’ world kept such equestrian gymnasts in constant demand.

Compared to the active performance partnerships of other horse sports, the horse seems incidental to the action here, but there is a direct link. Every vaulter must be intimately aware of the status of the horse at all times — his speed, direction, balance and mental outlook — which is the essence of a horseman’s skill.

Show Jumping: ‘To Fly without Wings’

Moving to the next WEG sport on human history’s timeline, we must pass over the medieval era in which Jousting was the new equestrian pastime, and arrive at an activity which served to rescue horsemanship from obsolescence after the invention of the combustion engine: Jumping.

Just as the horse’s role as transportation was being replaced by technology in the early 20th Century, horse jumping exploded onto the world scene and drove a new recreational wave of horsemanship.

Jumping was first discovered and practiced in the mid-to-late 1700’s as a way to continue hunting despite the Enclosure Laws in Britain, which mandated the fencing of English farmland. Daredevil riders found that some horses were willing and talented jumpers, and events were arranged to show buyers the aptitude of their sale horses for this new activity. The sport might have been called Sale Jumping and not be technically misnamed.

As a result, Show Jumping has the distinction of being created specifically as a spectator attraction: the original ‘leaping’ competitions that began in the early 1800’s were set in a field; when spectators complained they could not see the rides, the jumps were moved into an enclosed area and a new sport was born.

Today Jumping has grown into a world-wide sport with millions of competitors and supporters. The game is simple to understand: competitors begin a set course with zero “faults” … a knockdown counts 4 faults, refusals by the horse or exceeding the time limit cost additional penalties, and a fall is elimination. The size of the fences is a factor, and also the distances between, since a horse’s depth vision is limited and the rider must set the pace and stride.

Interestingly, the spirit of medieval Jousting lives on in Jumping, and not only as a clash between mounted riders, or for the danger involved, nor the colorful spectacle, or even that nobility “VIP’s” repose in catered boxes while mere peasants spectators get cheaper seats or just grass to sit on. Top Jumping riders follow in the footsteps of medieval “free lance” knights, who traveled from match to match in pursuit of awards, fame and prize money (though not necessarily in that order).

International competition such as the WEG also provide a distant mirror of medieval times, when a hapless King facing a battle would put out a call to assemble the “free lances” of his kingdom to bolster his troops and face the enemy: today national jumping teams are formed from top individual horses and riders that come together not so much as an interdependent team, but as the strongest force a nation can muster.

Eventing: ultimate test of horse & rider

Besides Show Jumping, another sport grew from the military, one designed as a challenge for the ideal cavalry horse. The sport has grown in the past century and is or has been known by several names — The Military, Horse Trials, Combined Training, 3-Day Events — which have distilled to the happy noun of: Eventing.

The competition is divided into three phases: Dressage, Cross-Country and Stadium Jumping. In competition such as seen at the WEG, each phase is held on a separate consecutive day — hence the older name, 3-Day Event. (The first phase of Dressage is often held on two days, to add to any possible confusion.)

The first phase (Day 1) tests the horse/rider partnership’s communication and obedience with a Dressage test on the flat … it mimics the parade grounds or drill exercises of cavalry troops. The second phase (Day 2) is the singular specialty an Event horse can claim: the Cross Country. Originally intended to test the skills of a cavalry mount as a courier — crossing the county quite literally — this unique challenge of galloping a course of solid fences over varied terrain including water, ditches, banks, drops, and various combinations is the soul of Eventing, and one of the most spectacular spectacles in sport.

The final phase (Day 3) is the Stadium Jumping, a winding course of jumps set in an arena over knockable fences. The purpose of the this final phase is to show the horse’s stamina, soundness and willingness to persevere.

In recent years Eventing has followed in Show Jumping’s hoof beats, establishing a World Cup circuit, greater prize-money and an increased profile. Eventing will be one of the most exciting spectator attractions of the WEG.

Reining: equestrian sport’s new spin

Reining can be called a form of equine acrobatics, and is a new horse sport only recently added to the WEG program in 2002.

Reining may be seen as the mixing-in of dressage principles with the horsemanship of the Old West, or perhaps what happens when the needs of the cowboy and the training of a cow horse become a form of popular art. Sound principles of dressage are evident in a well “reined” horse, most especially the calm communication and focus on the horse’s movements.

However, reining pushes beyond what the horse would naturally offer, executing crowd-pleasing extreme movements such as the spin and sliding stop. The flashy hair-trigger response of the Reining horse demonstrates reflex obedience and set movements, rather than being purely a focus on the horse’s expression itself, as in dressage.

ParaDressage: spotlighting a new role for the horse

In recent years, horses have been proving therapeutic in many ways: in physical therapy programs, for emotional rehabilitation, to uplift the disadvantaged, and here, as seen in WEG competition, to physically free a human from disability. Aboard a horse, the disabled may be equal to all … a vivid example of the freedom the horse has always offered mankind.

It’s a big year for this vibrant emerging field of horsemanship: riding by the disabled is the newest sport at the WEG. The “para” in Para-dressage means a contest run in “parallel” to regular equestrian sport — different degrees of disability are separated to allow meaningful competition with others of the same physical limitation. Therapeutic roles are recent for the horse, and offer new possibilities for the future of horsemanship.

The Amazing Journey has not Ended

The historical tour of horse sports contested at the WEG travels from still-living sports created long ago to new modern competitions of advanced riding, and comes to ParaDressage and the potential to go further into the future. The 2010 World Equestrian Games represent an evolution in horsemanship, a coming together of horse enthusiasts and the chance to spread the love of horses while growing something new for humanity.

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Historical Notes: Leaving the Prehistoric world behind …

In Eclipsed by Shadow, the first book of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy, young Meagan Roberts takes the ride on a prehistoric wild horse … that’s just how things were between horses and humans 20,000 years ago.

In Eclipsed by Shadow, the first book of “The Legend of the Great Horse” trilogy, young Meagan Roberts takes the ride on a prehistoric wild horse. (excerpt of the scene)

According to fossilized bones and cave paintings, that’s just how things were between horses and humans 20,000 years ago.

Our clear understanding of the distant past remains shrouded by the passage of time, but there are two important facts we can know about prehistoric horses:

1) Horses have always been with us. Early man spent many thousands of years watching, stalking, hunting … and painting horses. The horse has been part of humanity’s story since the very beginning.

2) It took thousands of years for primitive humans to even begin to learn to use horses to assist in work. Man’s journey from the caves required a change in attitude to seek forms of cooperation, away from seeing horses as only a form of prey. This new outlook took an amazingly long time to happen, especially considering that it was so tangibly rewarded by a horse’s willingness to share his strength with mankind.

Perhaps we can’t know details about how mankind’s attitude toward horses shifted from meal to tamed beast — but the change is a case of old ways of thinking being replaced by new and better ideas. In this way, horsemanship is a living demonstration that cooperation brings new possibilities to human life and can open entire new worlds.
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Copyright © 2010  John Allen Royce, Jr.

Equestrian Sport and the Next Generation

My 5-year-old niece watched the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event this weekend, and she was full of questions:

“Why are they jumping that?”

“Is that a boy or a girl horse?”

“Why do they go one at a time?”

“What’s on the horse’s legs?”

As intensely as she watched, my niece didn’t care about the teams or the scoring. She just loved seeing the horses.

We humans have had a long fascination with watching horses. Chariot racing, dressage, jousting, polo, flat racing are spectacles of past ages, and today newer sports like show jumping, reining and eventing reflect the athletic and humane partnership we’ve developed with the horse.

(This sport with cross-country jumps is still figuring out what to name itself, having been called the Military, horse trials, 3-Day, combined training, and — the name that seems to be winning — Eventing.)

Of course, horses are not part of our everyday lives as in the past. The challenge for equestrian sport today is to explain itself, to welcome the public to enjoy the beauty and excitement of horsemanship.

Probably few people could have guessed 100 years ago, as the horse was being released from the plow and carriage, that a future generation would be still be watching horses — on a box of moving pictures, no less — asking the same questions they had once asked.

China drafts first-ever animal protection laws

china_tang_horse-biting-legI found this to be a topic with some ugly background, but here’s good news … if it happens:

The legislation, drawn up in consultation with the RSPCA, will include provisions to both protect pets and cover how farm animals should be raised, transported and slaughtered. It will also deliver protection for captive wildlife and laboratory animals.

Past efforts to promote animal protection legislation in China have met with steady failure. Possibly, hopefully, this action will lead to a step forward. No great leap requested. We’ll see.

Further reading: “Chinese Animal Protection Law and Other Matters”

Helsinki International Horse Show

FEI_WC10_Oslo_Pius-SchwizerThe second European qualifier for the World Cup of Show Jumping was held over the weekend in Helsinki, Finland.

The on-fire Swiss rider Daniel Etter and his mount Peu a Peu won the event in a 10-horse jumpoff to match their World Cup Qualifier victory last weekend in Oslo. USA rider Lauren Hough on Quick Study took second only 1.08 seconds behind the leader, the best result for a US rider in this early season.

European World Cup Jumping is an exciting indoor series because of the large public crowds and media attention. Show jumping was originally developed in Europe and still leads the world in spectators and dynamic, innovative presentation of the sport.

World Cup Show Jumping: European League Opens in Norway

Meredith_Michaels_Beerbaum__ShutterflyThe European season of World Cup Show Jumping opened today in Oslo, Norway.

The World Cup is an extensive series of indoor qualifiers across the globe, leading to the Finals in April.

It is an interesting odd fact that horse jumping is a  young sport: the ability of horses to jump with a rider was not discovered until the 1700’s. This intriguing competition continues to grow in popularity worldwide. The Show Jumping World Cup series was only begun in 1978, and today the series is contested in 14 leagues on every continent.

In essence, Show Jumping’s World Cup is the sport’s annual international indoor championship. Since the 1950’s, Show Jumping has evolved into a year-round sport, and the tight, colorful, electric atmosphere of indoor jumping is very different than the galloping expanses of outdoor courses. Some horses go better indoors, some prefer outside–this difference in challenge makes for interesting jumping competition year-round.

Equestrian Sport: ancestor of Circuses, Fairs, Parades & Festivals

Last weekend I visited our local Boston racetrack, Suffolk Downs, for an instant trip back in time. The white fences, the green landscaped infield, the mixed scents of horses, concessions and people, the growing excitement as a race approaches … it was a scene both nostalgic and modern.

Festivals and horses are an ancient tradition. Milling crowds, vendor booths and concessions, programs and barkers–the moving color and pageantry of our favorite public events trace a lineage through mounted cavalry exhibitions and roaring chariot racing “circuses” of antiquity.

At-The-Cirque-Fernando-Rider-On-A-White-Horse_Toulouse-Lautrec
Not so much has changed: clay tablets were once sold to eager audiences by shouting ushers of Roman times. Triumphal “parades” of horses drawing chariots marked victory in ancient ceremonies, and horseback entourages of through Medieval towns were an occasion of spectator celebration that continues in the parades of today.

Equestrian exhibitions of dressage in Renaissance Europe were the predecessors of the three-ringed Circuses beginning well before modern Barnum & Bailey and others. Even the modern Fair owes its beginning to harvest festivities with horse-racing and other competitive spectacles orbited by farmers’ stands and open-air markets.

Today equestrian sport has reinvented itself to keep pace with the modern world, and the ancients would have been amazed at the level of partnership seen in our modern horses and riders.  Today’s international equestrian sports place the welfare of the horse at the core, and the “thrill” of older sports like chariot racing and jousting have been replaced by new thrills in highly competitive, colorful and technical sports that demand the utmost partnership with the animal.

It is amazing–and heartening–to see the reinvention of horsemanship in our modern age. The crowds have changed, the sports have changed, but the atmosphere and tradition of the festival continues in echoes of what has gone before.