The Sport That Was: A Conversation with Eric Navet

Eric Navet at the 2017 World Cup Final in Omaha. Ph: Erin Gilmore for NF

Eric Navet reached the top levels of the sport in partnership with a homebred stallion from his father’s breeding farm. For the Frenchman and many fellow riders of his generation, when it came to reaching the upper echelon of the sport, capitalizing on opportunity was the name of the game. When talent spoke for itself, it was recognized and groomed into something much more, and through that, doors were opened and household names were born.

Navet has been an active member of the sport for over 40 years, and he has witnessed the various stages of change that define its nature today. He continues to find success at a competitive level, and splits his time between being a participant of the sport and a mentor to U.S rider Karl Cook. Navet, who was 1990 Double World Champion and earned Olympic Team bronze at Barcelona 1992, has been based in California since 2013. 

In a look back on the environment that helped foster the growth of riders like himself, Navet reflects on the sport that was and the culmination of its evolution today:

Show Jumping has evolved a lot since I started to show, especially from when I started to compete at the high level. The breeding has followed the evolution of sport, so it too has changed. The sport doesn’t require the same quality of the horses. They’ve become lighter with more blood and more feel, but they’ve also become more fragile.

I love the sport the way it is today because it’s more subtle and technical. Before, you needed to be brave and have a scopey horse, but now that isn’t enough. The fences are lighter, the cups are flatter, and the distances between the fences are shorter and much more difficult. It’s also a lot harder to get the horses that will take you to the high level.

When I was young my dad was a farmer and a breeder. He had a big breeding farm (Haras De Baussy) and he bred about 50 mares. I was in charge of breaking the young horses and taking them to the young horse shows, and I got a lot of mileage through that. I progressed in the national and international grand prix’s, and I was then picked by the French chef d’equipe to do the CSIO Nations Cups. I ended up going to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles with J’t’adore, and in 1990 I got a double gold medal in the Stockholm World Games with our homebred stallion, Quito De Baussy. The year after we got the Individual Gold at the Europeans, and the following year we got the Team bronze medal in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

What I mean to say is that at this time, everyone had a chance. You didn’t need to be wealthy or have a super sponsor to pay for a VIP table every week to get access to the shows. If an international show abroad invited three French riders, the only person who picked which riders would compete was the chef d’equipe from the National Federation, not the show saying that you’re going to pay more than this person to be invited. That was not the way it worked. It was not a question of money, it was only a question of sport.

Now it’s not the same game. With a ranking list, they’ll say okay, we’ll take the best three ranked riders on the list and they have to be in the top 50. If they are not they have to pay for a table, or, you can get a wild card if you are good friends with the show or you can get one from the FEI. We didn’t need a wild card system back then, because the decision came down to the chef d’equipe.

I think it would be a lot harder to emulate the success that I’ve had if I were born in say, 1989. I would have needed a sponsor because we couldn’t afford to pay for a VIP table every time we went to a CSI.

It’s much more difficult now. Before it was enough to be successful and then you were on the team to go to the nations cup or you were picked to go to certain CSI5* competitions abroad. If you were good you ended up being on the team for major events. Now it’s much more difficult to get access to the international shows that give you the way to go to the bigger events.

On the West Coast, Thunderbird is my favorite show in America, and there isn’t anything I can say about the show that isn’t good. I think it would be a shame if the shows like Thunderbird disappeared, and I think that the spirit of these shows should remain. Thunderbird reminds me of everything I’ve known since I was a kid in France; that spirit of organizing the shows to make everyone – the horses, riders, owners, sponsors – happy to be there. When you first arrive, you are welcomed. Every participant is considered to be someone important, and everything is done to make everyone happy so that they want to come back year after year.

“What I mean to say is that at this time, everyone had a chance. You didn’t need to be wealthy or have a super sponsor to pay for a VIP table every week to get access to the shows.”

Everyone has access to these types of shows, but if you think about the Global Tour or a lot of these CSI5* events in Europe, it’s tough to get access if you don’t have a good spot on the world ranking list or if you don’t have a sponsor. It’s expensive to be able to get to these shows, and I’d say that they’re not really for the horses or the horse people, they’re more of the jet set type of shows. Maybe it’s the evolution of the sport –I’m not against it – but it shouldn’t totally replace the real, traditional shows.

For the sport to evolve we need money, and to get into the system we need more and more money. On the good side of it, if you are lucky enough to produce a top-quality horse, you can sell it for a lot more money than before. On the down side, to get to the highest level, there isn’t as much access for someone who is a good rider with a normal amount of money.

In Europe, we now have to pay for a VIP table to go to some CSI3* if you aren’t in a good ranking.  Let’s say you have been injured so you lose your points, what happens then? You stop for a while and then it’s difficult. I think that paying for a VIP table should be only for top shows; the Global Tours, the big CSI5* shows. You shouldn’t have to pay extra to go to a CSI3*, but in Europe you’re seeing that more and more.

What’s painful is going to a very good show and seeing some people, who don’t have the level, compete just because they paid.  At the same time you have top riders in the stands with top horses because they can’t have access to the top shows. That is painful. You don’t see that in Formula 1. Before it was much more about the sport, and we were dreaming about getting to the high level and the big championships and the nations cups. Now it’s more about producing horses to one day make the big sale, because you know you won’t have access to the bigger shows with only one top quality horse.

I would be very sad if one day our sport is still in the Olympic Games without the best riders of the moment. It would be such a shame. The horses that we now need to become competitive at the high level are more and more expensive. On one side it’s a good thing, but in my opinion, what is very difficult is finding the right way to save both the business and the sport. How do you do both in the perfect way?


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