Back in the 60’s it was the showjumpers who made the headlines; and not just in the context of equestrian news. Showjumping was a true national sport, shown regularly on terrestrial T.V. But with no real success since the 1984 Olympics (team silver) the sport has lost all public interest. The overall coverage of equestrianism is now very low although it is notable that the eventers earn the most column inches; helped largely by the involvement of Zara Phillips.
However, we are now at a point where all three Olympic disciplines, showjumping, dressage and eventing are looking like true medal contenders and, for the first time in a long time, I believe there is true competition for places in the showjumping and dressage teams.
So what’s changed and why has it taken so long?
Traditionally dressage riders “survived” with just one top grand prix horse. This was mainly due the rarity of finding a capable horse and the time it takes to produce the horse able to withstand the precision and accuracy of a sport sometimes known as “horse ballet”.
Showjumping, by contrast, requires a string of horses with most top showjumpers having at least two, if not more, grand prix horses amongst specialist speed, derby and younger horses.
The problem for both comes from the difficulty in finding a horse that will make the top level. It is all too common to spend 7/8 years training a horse, only to find it cannot manage the very hardest tests and win championship medals.
It places riders in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, if they have a top horse they will do anything to keep hold of it, yet at the same time that horse will be worth a tremendous amount of money. That money could purchase several younger horses, some of which may make it to grand prix.
It must also be remembered now that the Olympics is not the true amateur event it once was; these riders have to make a living and if someone is willing to pay several million pounds for a horse that could fall tomorrow and never compete again, you’d be mad not to consider it.
The problem has caused many top British horses to leave the country, massively harming any potential GB medal success. Carl Hester’s 2004 Athens dressage horse Escapado was sold; Ben Maher lost both his 2008 Olympic ride Roulette and later a very promising team horse Wonderboy. In most cases it is not a rider only decision, more often the horse is owned by a 3rd party owner who will understand how fragile these animals are and will choose the take the sensible business decision.
It’s an exceptionally hard problem to solve but the national governing bodies have been working hard to try and ease the situation. Greater support is now available for riders to try and agree terms with owners about the timing of a horse’s sale along with settling financial arrangements so if a horse is sold the rider will be able to make some attempt to replace them. Moreover, there’s been a push in owner syndicates within the Olympic disciplines, which allow multiple owners the chance to enjoy the benefits of owning a top horse for a far reduced price.
The syndicate movement I feel will only grow in popularity as the sport generates success. If GB are able to gain global recognition and show the more glamorous, successful side of the sport, then it can only help their chances of engaging potential owners.
The second major factor in creating these new medal winning teams comes from better production of horses. Although sounding rather factory like, I’m referring to the assessment and competition structures that now exist for 4, 5, 6 and 7 year old horses that ensure that talented horses are known about and offered the correct training and funding so their riders can develop them to their full potential. Gold medalist Valegro is proof of the structure having been a prolific winner of young horse championships including wins at four and six years old helping him develop into an international championship winning horse.
The structuring goes further still, as serious development has been made to help on the breeding of horses to ensure that more high quality foals are being born each year and rewards now exist to recognise the work of British breeders. By increasing the number of correctly trained horses in Britain, we will begin to find more horses making the top level which eases the pressure. Injuries to horses will become less of a disaster if there are more combinations available to make teams.
Finally, some credit must lie with those at British Dressage and Showjumping for their overall team selection. Showjumping in particular, has a unique problem due to the longevity of the riders. As it stands, both the 1984 medalists John and Michael Whitaker could compete competitively in 2012.
Showjumping has needed a shake-up for many years but when you are in a situation whereby a 56 year old man is still winning internationally and earning his place on the team, trying to get younger riders to break through is exceptionally hard. As such Rob Hoeskra, performance manager of British Showjumping, should be commended for bringing the likes of Charlotte Platt and Scott Brash through and ultimately helping his own cause as there is now a wider range of combinations to select from.
Through the structuring we now have in place, a situation where a possible eight riders, each with two horses, are more than capable of competing at the showjumping European Championships. Six high class combinations are fighting for a dressage place and we are currently the world champions in eventing.
All in all British Equestrianism has never looked better.