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.

10 Myths about Equestrian (horse) sports

Well yes, the horse does do all the work of transporting the human and itself … however that is only half the equation. Equestrian sport is an extreme sport on the human side, requiring skill, nerve, balance and timing that can be invisible to the observer.

A horse wearing glassesThe recent Olympics offered up excitement and inspiration … and revealed that much of the public does not understand one of the founding events: equestrian sports.

Horses challenge humans to look beyond surface appearances. Here are some examples of common misconceptions about horses and their sports:

1) The horse does all the work.

Well yes, the horse does do all the work of transporting the human and itself … however that is only half the equation. Equestrian sport is an extreme sport on the human side, requiring skill, nerve, balance and timing that can be invisible to the observer.

Most would never assume a pole vaulter was not an athlete because the pole did the actual lifting work. There are two athletes competing together in equestrian sport. The horse provides the living propulsion; the rider’s job is staying with the motion and directing: a different but not lesser challenge.

2) Horse riding is for rich people

Again we have a semi-truth that covers part of the picture. OWNERSHIP of top equine athletes is, yes, for rich people (or corporate sponsors). However ownership is separate from the actual competitive challenge. Top riders do not necessarily or even usually own the horses they ride in competition.

Riding is a professional sport requiring full time training and competition. Naturally the top riders are highly sought-after to pilot the top horses … in this way talented riders can come from any background if they have the ability. Many top riders are from very modest backgrounds and work their way into the higher levels, and that number is increasing.

3) Equestrian sports are cruel

Human history records much cruelty to horses in the past: war was cruel, ‘breaking’ horses and other mistreatment can be abusive … and these images stay with us. However, equestrian sport competitions are not won through cruelty–in fact the animals must be sound, attentive and willing, all of which abuse destroys.

The nature of horses is one of action and spirit, something quite different than other domestic animals we may be more familiar with. The feats of which horses are capable are superhuman–that is the point actually—but they are natural for the horse. Evidence that equestrian sport is not cruel or abusive can be found in the fact top competitive horses stay in the sport for many years. For example, a top horse in the London Games, Lenamore,  competed successfully at the age of 19.

Equestrian sports are also ‘no-tolerance’ for drug usage, and any sign of lameness is impermissible. The ‘scandals’ by media should be read more closely.

4) The horse is ‘forced’ to compete

It is a fallacy to assume you can ‘force’ a horse to do something he/she does not want to do. They are large prey animals, much bigger than humans, and are quite capable of saying ‘no’ … much of successful equestrian sport is determined by the horse’s mood and mental acceptance of the task to perform well. Forced performance is a failed performance.

It is true that the horses in equestrian sport have been asked to extend themselves athletically … part of the inspiring nature of horses is that they will respond and give of themselves if asked. This generous aspect of horses is honored in equestrian sport.

Also, people should understand that horses have always been a working animal. They are not pets, but very special partners of mankind. Their care and maintenance are expensive, but horses earn their keep and are worthy of respect and admiration.

5) Equestrian sports are unpopular

Actually though modern horse sports are quite popular and growing. Equestrian is one of the most well-attended attractions of the Olympic Games. Every Olympic equestrian event in London sold out immediately. The different sports attract millions of spectators across the globe.

The fact that horse sports are comparatively unknown is a function of the newness of the sports in the modern era, not because they are unpopular. Where horse sports are established and promoted to the public, competitions attract crowds similar to other major spectator sports.

6) Horse sports are ‘old-fashioned’ and declining

Actually horse sports are rapidly growing, and the ability to jump high is a very new discovery in horsemanship. Though some equestrian sports are ancient and obsolete, such as chariot racing and jousting (which is making a comeback though!), modern sports have taken their place and are bringing horses to new generations.

Perhaps the sense of decline comes from the recent ending of the horse’s role as mass transportation. The past century saw a huge change in horsemanship as the world’s cavalries were disbanded and actual horsepower was replaced by tractors and automobiles. Fortunately, intriguingly, at the same time new horse sports began to become popular and are still growing today.

7) Only a few nations compete

This claim was true in the first part of the 20th century when modern equestrian sports were being organized, but now the rest of the world has discovered them. Europe was the birthplace for many modern horse sports and is still its center, but virtually all nations have a historical tradition of horsemanship and the sports have spread worldwide.

The world equestrian body, the FEI, lists over 140 member nations … 49 countries competed in the London Olympic Games, from a competitive field in which many more did not qualify. Horse sports thrive in the Americas, Australia, Europe and South Africa, and recently the sport has taken hold in the Middle East and is gaining interest in India and Asia.

8) Horse sports are ‘easy’ … you just sit there.

Actually you ‘stand’ on the horse for most competitive sports; the form is similar to a skier’s position and has similar demands. The additional test is the unpredictability of the horse in motion.

In riding it is important to move with the horse and keep distracting motion to a minimum for the sake of the animal’s focus and balance: the appearance of sitting and doing nothing is actually indication of good riding, not ease.

9) The Olympics are for human athletes

The original Olympics were ½ horse show, ½ track meet (and poetry contest). The Games were never only about human excellence: instead they were about finding favor with Creation and celebrating man’s survival in nature through harmony. One could observe that, of all the forgotten events and athletic competitions in history, the Olympics thrive today and certainly benefit by equestrian inclusion.

10) Horse could do better w/out riders

It is the union of horse and human that produces the performances seen. Though obviously the human cannot win  a race or contest a big jumping course on foot–it is less obvious that the horse needs the human direction and assistance.

Using jumping as one example, equine vision is almost 360 degrees (a horse’s eyes are on side of its head) but the animal has limited depth perception: it is human guidance and balancing that allows the athletic performance over large obstacles. Other horse sports are a similar mix of human and horse cooperation: one of the amazing, symbolic aspects of horsemanship is that horses and riders together can do what neither can do alone.

Support humane equestrian sport and you support horses

Horses have chosen to be our partners, and have helped mankind build civilization. Today horses have the chance for a much better life and relationship with people through recreation and sport. This new day in horsemanship deserves support and acceptance, for it is helping fulfill the potential of our joy with horses, well cared for and honored.

Horses & the Olympics

In writing Eclipsed by Shadow, I researched the history of the original Olympic Games and their relation to horses. The original Olympics were a religious ceremony, and were as much a poetry contest as a sporting event. The equestrian events were considered an athletic poem. They were a major focus of the original Games.

We have chosen to honor the “Olympics,” but there were actually four major Grecian Games, the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian. These were held in yearly cycles, so that the largest Games near Olympia were held every four years. The equestrian events were the most popular and religiously significant. The contests included flat Racing, Dressage and Chariot Racing (today the sports are Dressage, Eventing and Jumping). Note that Dressage is the definition of “classical.”

The fact that the ancient Games were religious in nature has given a special moral character to the modern Olympic movement. There were two sports in the original Games: Athletics and Equestrian. Each type of competition held a specific meaning. Athletics represented the striving for human excellence, and Equestrian events represented man’s survival and conquest against the elements.

Inclusion of horses ennoble the Games, and the honorary aspect of equestrian sport is the origin of the famous “Olympic spirit.” The integrity of the Olympic ideal is upheld in the equestrian sport above all, for it is the horse which competes for no prize except the joy of taking part, and horsemanship which puts the mount’s welfare higher even than the Olympic rewards of money and fame.