It was quite a panel. The one and only George Morris. World Cup winner and Olympic medalist McLain Ward. Ten-time show jumping Olympian Ian Millar of Canada. Olympic course designers Leopoldo Palacios and Guilherme Jorge. Live Oak International Co-Chair Juliet Reid. Team Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist Lucy Davis, the Millennial in the group. Trainer Max Amaya, a native of Argentina.
Cesar Hirsch, the overall steward for September’s FEI World Equestrian Games, put these thinkers together last night at the Wanderers Club in Wellington, Florida, to discuss “Jumping Into the Future,” a title that included a host of topics such as course design, development of the sport and increasing its popularity and sponsorship.
Speaking before an attentive audience, and moderated by international announcers Peter Doubleday and Steven Wilde, who also are jumper judges, the panel members didn’t mince words or hold back opinions.
Max cited the way the sport has changed, especially in the past 10 years. “It has evolved from a sport into an industry,” he noted.
“Any sport has to be a business or it will not be successful,” Ian observed. “We have a wonderful product. We have to commercialize it.”
While there has been great success, with an abundance of prize money undreamed of by the previous generation of show jumpers, the evolution also has brought its share of problems to be solved.
Show jumping originally was created to bring the countryside into the arena, as George put it, but that idea is passé. The aesthetics were important, with different types of fences as the horses and riders demonstrated all the principles of the sport.
He noted, “We don’t have the time and the space we used to have; the best of the best don’t want risky surprises on the course.” Materials used in courses are lighter than they used to be, and there is less variety. These days, it’s all about striding, he pointed out.
George recalled a conversation with the only two-time Olympic show jumping individual gold medalist (1952 and 1964), France’s Pierre Jonquères d’Oriola, when that icon of the sport visited the 1994 WEG in the Hague, Netherlands. “He said, ‘All the jumps are the same. All the courses are the same. There are no spectators. It is boring.’ ”
There was a lot of discussion about the use of 1.70 metre fences, the maximum allowed, to make a real test that would add interest. “It can’t be every week,” warned Leopoldo, and Gui pointed out that designers “have to be careful about where you are going to place that.”
As Gui noted, “We have to balance the welfare of the horse and sell the product to spectators,” while opening up broader possibilities for the athletes.
According to McLain, the latter could include a super league of grands prix, where the top riders and their horses might not “have to do as many events to be up in the rankings.”
It would be the most successful riders meeting their counterparts, and that could lead to ever-improving competition. “The best thing that happened to me was when (World Number one) Kent (Farrington) came along and forced me to be better,” he said.
Juliet said the cornerstones of show jumping – athletes, organizers, the FEI and the owners – need direction and a business model that works. “Someone has to pay for it, and what pays is multiple weeks (of shows) and multiple rings. From an organizer’s perspective, it is very difficult to get sponsors.”
McLain noted “we have benefitted from the Watch Wars,” referring to the sponsorships of Rolex and Longines. “We are so lucky to have both of them, and they are competing,” he continued.
Then told everyone about someone who did well in show jumping with one horse, but did not have another, which left him unmounted when his top horse wasn’t going anymore.
In the case of the watch companies, he warned, “I can see waking up one day and not having the next horse.”
Commercial backers, Juliet noted, “come from eyeballs” on the sport, and technology can be used to make it more fun to watch.
“We are so lagging in promotion of people and horses,” said Lucy, who feels that through social media, “there is so much untapped potential” in that area.
“We’re bland,” McLain conceded of himself and his fellow riders, recalling the days of such vibrant personalities as Harry DeLeyer, Rodney Jenkins and Harvey Smith, who had plenty of avid followers who would go to shows to see them. The importance of entertainment when show jumping is presented also was emphasized, with Peter mentioning how well that worked during the World Cup finals in Las Vegas, and Ian mentioning the way it works for Saturday Night Lights at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
One thing that everyone agreed on was the importance of Nations’ Cups, with riders representing their countries rather than commercial enterprises. The panelists were skeptical about teams that weren’t based on riders’ countries, such as the squads formed by the Global Champions Tour that mixes nationalities.
Riders competing for their countries, “sends a clear message,” Lucy pointed out, and it was also noted by Ian that the Nations’ Cup is the heart of Olympic equestrian competition.
Pointing out how crucial Olympic participation is for show jumping, Ian said, “The Olympics want the Nations’ Cup.”