What’s Holding Show Jumping Back? Five Takeaways from the ‘Jumping into the Future’ Panel

What’s Holding Show Jumping Back? Five Takeaways from the ‘Jumping into the Future’ Panel

In an effort to have an honest, progress-oriented discussion on the future of show jumping, FEI Steward and Judge Cesar Hirsch organized an independent panel discussion called Jumping Into The Future in Wellington, Fla., on Tuesday, March 27th, 2018. The panel was organized independently of any governing body and was held “for the sport and by the sport”

“By the sport”, because the panel consisted of active and contributing members of the show jumping sport and community: successful trainer Max Amaya, Olympic silver medalist Lucy Davis, Olympic course designers Guilherme Jorge and Leopoldo Palacios, 10-time Olympian Ian Millar, show jumping legend George Morris, international owner and event organizer Juliet W. Reid, and Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward. International announcers and jumper judges Peter Doubleday and Steven Wilde served as moderators.

The night’s discussion centered around:

  • The increase and quality of CSI5*s/value of Nations Cups
  • Compensating officials/ the past, present, and future of course designing
  • The role of media/how to better commercialize the sport

The gathering addressed the above topics but it was a response to a singular question, “How do we develop our sport the right way?”

The Discussion (Abridged)

  1. Variety is the spice of life.

At the core of the two-hour discussion? The balance of viewing show jumping as a business versus a sport. Jorge believes that balance will come from a commitment to three things: the welfare of the horse, effectively selling a product to the spectators in a modern way, and broadening opportunities for the next generation of riders.

The panel discussed the importance of variety in this regard, i.e. varying levels of horse shows, supporting the Nations Cup format, and course design’s continued evolution. Growing a stronger and larger fan base won’t be possible if there is no variety in sport. “The FEI, for years the first page of their mandate said, ‘At all costs protect variety,’ ” Morris said. “That is gone.”

Morris spoke of equestrian Michael Ansell, who wrote that the intention of the sport used to be to bring the country to the arena. That, unfortunately, is not the reality that we see for show jumping in the 21st century. Why is that? Morris believes it’s a result of our current society’s comfort-driven mindset.

  2. Why does course design seem less demanding these days? Because it is. 

Members of the roundtable quickly commented on seeing the same types of fences and results in courses around the world.

“The sport today has grown to very light fences and is too fast in my opinion,” Palacios said. “I think we need to change the mentality of building to put in other questions, not only light poles and going fast. The number of clear rides and four-faulters is huge in each class, which means there are minimal mistakes. Rideability is not being asked.”

Amaya added that course building depends on the reality of horses competing. That means, the tendencies of horses and riders currently competing in the sport are the force that is changing and informing course design, not the other way around. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, course design will have to adjust accordingly.

    3. Not all five-stars are created equal.

While the panelists agreed that the significant increase in quantity of five-stars shows worldwide is a great advancement, they are not, however, all the same caliber of competitions.

“We’ve come to a point now where there has to be another category,” Ward said. “I don’t think a five-star every week is of the same level.” His suggestion- a super league as you see in sports like tennis and golf. “There’s a place for that in our sport where you take four to six major events a year where you can target and pinpoint those events with a top horse and a top athlete.”

If the shows are not all of the same level but are still all ranked at the five-star rating, what’s the point in having more/how do we ensure the shows are properly rated?

Jorge would push for the FEI qualification of the horse shows to meet certain criteria not based on the prize money, but rather the quality of riders and facilities.

It’s important to remember, as Ward stated, that with growth comes growing pains. The fact that there are more five-stars, however unbalanced their actual level, means that there is a demand within the industry. More riders, more horses, and more staff are a good indicator that the sport is thriving.

   4. Nations Cups: Focus on growth of younger generations.

Millar expressed his love for the Nations Cup and the unparalleled level of camaraderie, synergy, and unique pressure you learn from being a part of the team that younger riders need to develop.

The International Olympic Committe (IOC) is all for Nations Cups. If we want to secure show jumping’s Olympic status, then it’s about getting people to watch. How do you get people to watch? By showing them the best of the best. The only way to continually keep presenting the best of our sport to the world for years to come is by starting with the development of the lower levels in this particular format.

   5. How do we sell our sport to the masses?

This growth won’t be sustainable unless it can be commercialized, as Millar commented.

Our sport is a product that can be sold, as the panel discussed. Here’s why:

  • There is already high-level, top quality sport provided by experienced athletes.
  • You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t like horses.
  • It’s a sport where men and women compete equally and across varying age groups.

All of these elements, among others, should bring in a significant amount of people to attend events and watch live stream events… so why don’t they?

The general consensus among the panelists is that there’s a serious lag in promotion of our athletes. This in turn makes it difficult for the general public to relate to the sport, so potential sponsors outside the equestrian sphere may not see much value in getting involved.

Davis emphasized that if we don’t tap into promoting riders’ stories or developing sports personalities, there is a very slim chance that a larger audience will become interested, let alone invest, in our sport.

To grow fans, there have to be associations. Social media is one of the main ways forward for a larger exposure of our athletes to the public. Another measure that can only help how our sport is perceived and presented, Millar believes, is an investment in the needs and desires of our immediate and secondary fan base.

These topics in further detail as well as the audience Q& A are available to watch ON DEMAND, at this link.