Wellington, Fla. – March 28, 2018 – A large group of equestrians filled the Wanderers Club on Tuesday evening to listen to and participate in an open conversation about the development of the sport of show jumping. Hosted by Cesar Hirsch, “Jumping Into the Future: A Panel Discussion About Our Top Sport” brought together eight of the sport’s top names including McLain Ward, Max Amaya, George H. Morris, Lucy Davis, Ian Millar, Leopoldo Palacios, Guilherme Jorge and Juliet Reid. The star-studded group of athletes, trainers, course designers and show organizers was moderated by Peter Doubleday and Steven Wilde, who led the discussion through a variety of topics affecting today’s sport.
“I believe this sport changes lives, and being a leader in the sport brings responsibility. We are all connected but it is important to remember where we come from and where we are going. It is not just the sport of show jumping, it is our sport,” commented Hirsch.
Hirsch stressed to the audience that the meeting was not affiliated with any organization, but is instead for the sport by the sport. Panelists were encouraged to provide truthful, honest answers based on their experiences and opinions, and advised that they do not have to be politically correct.
With that, the insightful panel discussion began:
Max Amaya – “The way I see the sport today — it has evolved very much in the past 20–25 years, especially in the last 10 years. It went from being a sport to being an industry. There are a lot more shows and it requires a lot more horses. Some of these changes have been difficult for us to adjust to but everything, I think, is working towards bettering the sport. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but I think sitting here and having this discussion is the beginning of more changes for the good of the sport.”
Leopoldo Palacios – “My concern for many years is that, in our sport, we don’t have the correct principles or foundations. The sport was created by bringing horses jumping outside into the stadium — hence the name stadium jumping. That is the root of the sport. The definition of show jumping is a series of obstacles strategically placed in a ring to demonstrate a horse and rider’s bravery, ability to jump different types of fences, scope and carefulness, while showcasing speed, the capacity to gallop in good balance and preparedness in dressage. The horse and rider need to demonstrate all of these principles, and the competitions need to showcase good sport that’s both interesting and exciting. I think these are the principles and foundations of our sport.”
George Morris – “As a person and as a horseman, I am a traditionalist. Mike Ansell preached that it is the intention of the sport to bring the country to the arena — for friends, or enemies, to see who had the best horse. The intention of moving the country to the arena — that’s gone. That doesn’t exist anymore. I would say Calgary is the closest to hanging on to that original intention. This is the principle of show jumping. The first page of the FEI’s show jumping rulebook says, ‘At all costs, protect variety.’ That is wrong. It is called protectionism. We don’t have the time or space we used to have. It is expensive for show managers to protect variety. The professional hobby is very powerful and they have very, very precious, expensive horses. The best of the best don’t want surprises in the course. It is a risk. They have to practice guts. We practiced guts. It is an offshoot of our society worldwide, which is comfort-driven.”
Lucy Davis – “In the last five or so years that I have been trying to compete at the top of the sport, we’ve already seen so much growth in terms of amount of shows and prize money — it’s really been exponential. In general, I think that’s very exciting. I, as the token millenial on the panel, see the most potential in how we represent our sport to the global community, how we promote it and better educate people about our athletes, both horse and rider. I think we should really use social media to get more people involved and to keep younger people more engaged over time — I think that would really help our events and our riders continue to grow.”
McLain Ward – “When I walked in here today, I was very impressed by the amount of people here. This is Week Twelve of WEF — most people are pretty exhausted. For you all to make the effort to come here tonight shows what a keen interest you have in the development of our sport. With any kind of growth, whether it be business, sport or family, there is give and take. There’s compromises. With good, comes problems. For me, it’s positive to see so many people wholeheartedly engaged in trying to find solutions for the betterment of the horses’ lives, the betterment of the sport and the life we’ve all chosen. It’s really exciting to see.”
Juliet Reid – “I see show jumping as having four cornerstones: athletes, organizers, the FEI and owners. We need a direction and a business model that works. I think the growth has been so quick. There has to be a way so that it’s profitable for people to survive in the sport by being an athlete.”
Ian Millar – “Every sport that goes anywhere has to be commercialized. It must be a business or it will not be successful. You think of the NFL — they get $7 billion a year just in TV rights so right there they’ve already solved a lot of problems. I’m not convinced that our governing bodies, both national and international, are quite as sharp as they need to be about the whole business aspect. We have a top group of horse-and-rider combinations and we provide great sport. It’s a matter of taking that great sport that we provide and commercializing it, thereby reducing costs. I think we have an extremely sellable product. You have to go a long way to find someone who doesn’t like a horse. It’s also pretty interesting to everybody that it’s a sport where men and women compete equally and there’s quite an age diversity. I think our sport has grown so much, but with that comes growing pains. Overall, when I look at it, I would say that the state of our sport is very strong and very healthy.”
Guilherme Jorge – “How do we balance the welfare of the horse and how can we sell the product to the spectators and do it in a modern way that we can also grow the possibilities for the upcoming athletes?”
OVERALL DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT/NATIONS CUPS/CSI5*/WORLD RANKING SYSTEM
Overall Development of Sport:
McLain Ward – “I always said to Beezie [Madden], ‘The best thing that happened for her was that I came along, and the best thing that happened to me was that Kent [Farrington] came along.’ That’s because it forced us to be better, and there is no better example of that than Ian Millar. Every new generation that has come along in his career has made him better. It has made him more open minded and find better horses. He’s had to evolve, to stay physically fit, and that’s remarkable. I think that’s a testament to the sport improving, the horses improving, the riders improving and the training improving. Of course there is a lot of average everyday. I think the best of the best are always getting better, and I think the people who will be the best in the sport in 15 years will be kicking my butt.
“The increase of top-level FEI events throughout the world, not just in the mainstream show jumping regions but in the developing show jumping regions, is phenomenal. I think that shows growth in the sport and you see all of these shows on any given weekend — five, six, seven 3*, 4* and 5* shows around the world, and all full. Three tours in Spain — full. Three tours in Florida — full. Mexico, California, Asia and I’m sure South America this time of year as well. I think this is a phenomenal time of growth, but with all growth there is growing pains.”
McLain Ward – “I believe when we talk about Nations Cup competition, for me, I see this being based around nationalistic tendencies — countries and riders coming together as a team. I’m not convinced on this concept of a corporate team. I don’t think it is going to take off in our sport. If it does, I will be the first one to be part of it and to sing its praises, but right now I see the development of team sports from a nationalistic point of view to rally the country. Otherwise we are an individual sport, at least on the stage. We all have our teams. I am the biggest promoter of my behind-the-scenes team; we have a whole army.”
Lucy Davis – “I have participated on different types of teams and that is the only way that we are going to maintain our identity in championships and at the Olympics. If we start to mess with that model, it is really hard to follow for people who may happen upon the sport. The more random classes that are introduced to encourage engagement are sometimes more confusing than beneficial. Promoting the grand prix and events that we have like Nations Cups with riders from other countries sends a great, clear message and that’s where we should focus.”
Ian Millar – “I am very much a Nations Cup rider. That’s probably more interesting to me than the grand prix. When I think back over the years, I can pretty much tell you every rider I’ve ridden with on every Nations Cup team and tell you who the chef [d’équipe] was. I really remember that and the camaraderie that came from that. When you ride on a Nations Cup team, there is a very special bond that is formed between the riders, and that is why very good teams become great teams — because of that synergy. I’m a huge believer in Nations Cups and I think we need to have lower level ones to develop these young riders. How else are they going to learn how to ride in a Nations Cup? You can take a very successful grand prix rider and put them on a Nations Cup team, and their ability to ride a horse is dropped by 25 percent because of the unique pressure of the Nations Cup.”
George Morris – “In school, I never liked team sports. However, as a rider, I was brought up to love Nations Cups by Bill Steinkraus and Bert de Nemethy, and as chef d’équipe, I loved the Nations Cup. The grand prix was the icing on the Nations Cup. To be perfectly honest, I’m not so keen on these other team events. I think there should be different levels in the Nations Cups so that people gain experience and are protected. I think the sport is going forward as an individual sport with Nations Cups. As it used to be in my day, teams from all over the world would do the Nations Cup and then do the grand prix at the end of the trip, and I think now that has flopped, and it’s OK. I very much do believe in protecting, enhancing and preserving the Nations Cup.”
Guilherme Jorge – “One thing the FEI was trying to do was work on qualifications for the horse shows based not only on the prize money, but the quality of the facility and the riders. I think that’s very important. Coming from Brazil and seeing a lot of shows in Latin America, I’ve seen some very, very nice shows with great facilities and good levels of competition, but unfortunately our economies don’t allow us to have that level of prize money and reach 5* status.”
McLain Ward – “I think we have come to a point now where there has to be another category. I don’t think that a 5* every week is of the same level. I think there could be a super league and I think there is a place for that in our sport. Maybe you take four or six major events a year for the top horses and athletes to target or pinpoint. Then maybe those horses and riders wouldn’t have to do as many other events to be up in the ranking. If you could win those major events, it really would catapult you up the list and keep you at the top of the sport.
“As far as the development of the 3* and 4* competitions, I think it is an idea we pursue. We always have to find a balance between the top, highest level of the sport and giving the younger generations, people coming up the ranks, the opportunity to get a taste of that. We can’t have them all at that level at the same time, there is only so much room. We see that at WEF this week with the 2* and the 5* together, and I think that works beautifully. There was great competition at both levels. People can choose their level depending on their personal ranking or where their horses are at, but yet they are part of the greater sport, they are enthusiastic about what they are doing and at the same time possibly aspiring to do more.”
Juliet Reid – “From an organizer’s point of view, everyone wants more 5* and Nations Cups, but someone has to pay for it. What pays for horse shows are multiple rings and multiple weeks. That’s what we have created. If we want to have special events, then we need to not have the FEI holding our arms with regulations that they created to apply to a 12-week series.”
World Ranking System:
McLain Ward – “One thing that we have to be a little bit careful of is the computer ranking system. Course designers know that I’m going to work with them depending on which horse I’m riding, if I’m honest. We are going to see this in the ranking list. Different regions of the world have too much control over the ranking formula and are going to, without even realizing it, work those rules in favor of their style of jumping, their style of horse show or their particular situation. I think that’s something we have to be very careful of and ensure that a more neutral governing body controls that for the interest of the whole.”
Guilherme Jorge – “I think one of the most important things in an official’s career is his background. I think sometimes we lack a little bit of horsemanship, but most of the time everybody that comes to work at a horse show started as a rider or in some way was working with the horses and was brought into the sport because of passion for the horse. Only knowing the rules is not enough. It is very important that they have experience and they know what goes on with the athlete, the horses, and the team that is behind them. I can say that for most of my colleagues everybody is trying to improve and stay current. I do think that officials should be compensated. It needs to be a full profession because you have to devote yourself to improving, to learning and to practicing to become a top official.”
Lucy Davis – “I haven’t had too many occasions where I’ve had you approach an official, but on the rare occasion that I have it was well-received. I usually consult with other riders first to have some support, but I think that in general I wouldn’t feel like I couldn’t say something.”
McLain Ward – “I believe long term our sport has to go in the direction of having the events pay a fee to the Federation and the Federation hires the officials and maybe even the course designers. I think too many organizers try to influence or pick favorites because they control their livelihood. There needs to be a ranking system for the officials, and their compensations should be according to that. Throughout the year they should be ranked on their knowledge, quality of work, and consistency – all of the same factors that we as athletes are going to be ranked on. If I don’t jump clean rounds, I’m not going to make a lot of money or get future owners or have horses to ride. The kinks need to be worked out so that it’s fair and there is equal opportunity, but I do see that as the way forward. The best of them are the ones who have a great deal of knowledge, but also are open-minded, are horse people in their heart whether their background is horse-related or not, and that have the ability to have logical conversations.
Leopoldo Palacios – “I think in my role as a course designer, the sport today has grown to very, very light fences and is too fast in my opinion. Time alloweds are not long enough. 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.”
Max Amaya – “In a few years, we will not be allowed to use hind boots anymore. So that being said, as the sport evolved, the materials got lighter and asked the horses to be more careful. We as riders started using different methods to get our horse to jump a little bit higher and more careful. So when that gets changed, the course design will have to change as well, because I can tell you today that 80% of horses that are careful and competing in the grand prix with the help of hind boots will not be able to compete in the same class later. I don’t know if it is good or bad, but it’s going to put a change on for the course designer and what they are being asked.”
Leopoldo Palacios – “When I go to build a course I need to see who will ride, who the horses are, how strong they are, and how high I can go. This is simple, if we are no longer using hind boots, we need to build a little more solid to have the correct number of clears. I don’t think it’s really a concern for the course designers.”
Guilherme Jorge – “I think it’s difficult to generalize and say that we will have one formula for every competition. We are here on the 12th week of the highest level of competition we are probably going to see in the world, and you have competitions at 1.45m with 90 horses and 40 are going to qualify for the grand prix on the weekend. So I think that the time allowed is one of our tools and is one of the tests that we are going to ask from the riders. I agree with Leopoldo that carefulness is not only question, so we need to enforce what George said about the variety of the jumps and the difference of the depths. When we design a course, we want the best horse and rider to win – the one that is fast, careful, scopey, and brave. It is really a question of balance in all these aspects. I think 1.70m is a very specific situation that you can use on a handful of shows because it is the maximum height. I don’t think that is going to be the trend of the sport, but for us course designers it gives us the option to go over 1.60m on certain elements, but again you have to be very careful when and where you’re going to place that question.”
George Morris – “There are three ways to judge jumpers – carefulness, speed, high and wide. We have all three today. I’m not saying that competition today is not very difficult – I’m a leg rider and I would be a disaster today – but it is very one-dimensional. You can’t have speed without careful, you can’t go fast if the horse is not careful. It’s impossible. We are only teaching careful, and that bothers me as a teacher. It is part of what you want, speed, carefulness, and boldness – but we don’t teach bold. You can’t teach guts today to people, and to be perfectly honest we’re a bit apprehensive training horses to go to Old Salem, South Hampton, Calgary. It is a pity at Hickstead or Aachen to see all five fences next to the beautiful, natural old fences they used to use. Not that they all have to be quite so daunting as they used to be, but it’s sad to see that. It’s all just numbers, numbers, numbers, verticals, oxers, airy rails, and that’s the sport today. It’s all striding, which I like striding, and Bert De Nemethy taught us about striding, but that’s all it’s about.
“Every show has all the same courses, and all the same fences. That’s very sad in my opinion. As exciting as it is for me to still see some great classes, to look at the rings, it is boring. Why is water such a problem today? It didn’t used to be a problem, but it is now because it’s all rails, rails, rails, rubber liverpool, maybe a wall, water. The water is now like a fish out of water. Water used to be part of the course… walls, dry ditches, hedges, etc. You could still have the carefulness with all of that. This lack of variety is not an advantage to future riders of the world. I as a teacher know that, because I am not given permission to teach people to solve different problems. Variety is the spice of life, and actions speak louder than words. I want to see action.”
Juliet Reid – “Sponsors come from eyes, and eyes are there when it is interesting. We need to advance with technology. From an organizer’s perspective, it is very different to get sponsors.”
Lucy Davis – “I think this is where there is so much untapped potential in and for our sport. We are so lagging in promotion of athletes and horses. If I’ve learned anything in my short career, it’s that everyone comes from a different place, everybody has a different story and teams of people that have gotten them there. We don’t tap into any of that in the broadcasting, at least for mainstream media. It’s nice that we, as sport enthusiasts, have some outlets that we can plug into, but if you’re trying to communicate to a broader audience and get sponsors that aren’t involved already, there was to be better education about what our sport is. If my dad can watch golf for 12 hours on a Sunday, there’s no way that people can’t watch show jumping for an hour. I think changing the sport to attract more people is kind of backwards, we should promote what we already have. We should be able to merge business and sport.”
Ian Millar – “If riders want sponsorship, they must be able to sell product, it is as simple as that. To have sustainability, you better be selling product. That will make our sport more popular. How many people are the companion of the people that come? We have to entertain them. We need research on the fan base to bring them back again and again.”
Leopoldo Palacios – “Sponsors like a big crowd, a lot of TV and excitement. The problem of the sport is, at many shows, we don’t have the crowd or excitement. If we see the same, the same, the same, people don’t like it. Unlike tennis or other sports with only one arena, we can have differences in rings – square, circle, rectangle. People like that.”
McLain Ward – “There is a lack of connection and development of the stories of the athletes. To grow fans, they need to make association. I love sports, but I particularly like to watch the human interest stories. What were their struggles? What did they have to overcome? When I look at my own career, I am more proud of some of those accomplishments than victories in the ring necessarily. We need to develop personalities of the sport. We are bland right now and I’m guilty of that myself.”
QUESTION & ANSWER
Daniel Bluman – “Are there realistic opportunities for aspiring young, middle-class riders in the United States to pursue the sport, or is the sport becoming too exclusive for those who lack the financial background? Can a 12-year-old child today plan to reach the upper levels of the sport in the future, or is becoming too exclusive to the wealthy?”
McLain Ward – “I think almost all of the top 25 in the world right now come from a middle class or lower background. Did they have opportunities? Absolutely, and I have also said before and gone to bat for riders that come from affluent backgrounds, but that does not determine their ability level or their potential. I think the same conversation took place 15 years ago. Maybe it is more extreme now because the price of horses is a higher expense, but the same can be said for a person who aspires to be a Formula One driver. How is he going to get himself noticed by Ferrari? How is he going to get to that level? He has to obviously market himself to be noticed. Is it easy? No, no chance. But nothing worth it is.”
Lucy Davis – “One thing that has changed in the last 15 years is social media and the opportunity to broadcast our sport and our athletes, and educate. I think accessibility comes with education. The more we educate about our sport, the more corporate sponsors we can get involved in competitions that disrupt the cycle of athletes having to pay to play. When athletes can be compensated as athletes, that will allow for more middle-class, young riders to be able to move through the system. We should be promoting the sport better and trying our best to engage other industries.”
Dave Ballard – “The rules have been changed for Nations Cup for the World Championships and the Olympic Games? How do you think these new rules will affect the sport?”
Ian Millar – “I believe that the FEI has run the models, going back in the past over many past Nation’s Cups to see exactly how it would have changed things and how it would have played out. I find it intriguing because some years ago, they tested a system where four riders and a drop score [occurred] in the first round, and in the second round it was just the three riders with no drop score. It sure made that second round pretty dramatic because things could go upside down immediately, or a team could be eliminated, in fact. I understand that the pressure was from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they wanted more flags, more countries participating. If they dial it down to three, you increase the number of countries participating.”
John Madden, former FEI vice president and chairman of the FEI Jumping Committee – “I think this is a fantastic event. I want to reflect to you all that this is very valuable. The president of the FEI asked me to attend here tonight and to report back to him, so this is not futile at all. I took notes on all of the comments, and as a very positive thing, many of the thoughts we heard here are very similar and are already being worked on in a lot of ways, perhaps more slowly than we would like to see. A forum like this is valuable, not controversial, and it’s reinforcing the efforts of the FEI in every one of these areas. The FEI can’t do it all themselves, and your input is great to support us.”
*Please note this is a condensed version of events.