Horses have been associated with elite establishment since civilization began. Chariot empires held rumbling sway for the (dusty) 1st half of human society; cavalry and kings continued the association. The tradition still echoes.
As an equestrian sport, Show Jumping shares in the image–and baggage–of that tradition. In its short history, the sport has provided popular occasions attended by heads of state and celebrity. Yet the sport has very humble beginnings.
Horse Showing has an elite origin … Show Jumping does not
Formal jumping of obstacles is a recent dimension of horsemanship, made possible by the renewed equine partnership that heralded the modern age. The new sport came from the elemental soil of a new society, more egalitarian and merit-based … it came from the soil of strong grassroots.
Show jumping may clean up well for a fancy setting, but it was born in rutted fields and muddy back pastures. The sport was sparked in farmers’ fields, the equine equivalent of baseball sandlots.
Horses that jumped cleanly were prized for the hunting field, which set a market price. Contests naturally arose. Just as skillful grooms of lower classes were used as jockeys in early flat racing, keen riders with a knack for jumping were needed to pilot the valuable mounts, regardless of their social background.
A Sport for the Masses … in theory
Horse showing has inherent physical limits: for one thing, judges cannot be everywhere at once. There is a natural limit on availability and occasion which bring inevitable expense. However, a 2′ or 3′ jump can be made any time or any place of suitable footing (jumping low height requires only average footing). The standard is universally and objectively available, without cost.
We know that rider skill and experience must improve in order to jump higher obstacles with acceptable safety. Since different baseline abilities can be correlated with objective measures (fence height/course difficulty), objectively-measurable levels can be established to serve as guideposts to learning and grassroots competition. This is something significant.
Many local organizations support fair and objective competition at the grassroots level, over small fences that compose the aspirations of many busy riders of today. These organizations are not unified, but their purposes are basically universal. Objective standards could bring about a more coherent competitor experience.
Horsemanship can continue to benefit both horses and humans if widely favored and supported by the public—but it’s also true that the history of horse sports does not include a great deal of participatory inclusion of all classes and backgrounds of people.
The horse industry is adapting to sustain itself in the modern era. Something new is needed, and it’s available.
Objective standards and scoring make it possible to develop show jumping into a publicly-accessible equestrian sport. The horse show world has nurtured the higher ranks of competition, but the grassroots element is a new frontier–and laboratory–for connecting the public with horses and the sport.
If developed with the public in mind, grassroots show jumping has the potential to help preserve and sustain benefits of the horse’s connection with human society. This connection may be worth more than the public knows … or remembers.