Written by: Kim Izzo

What’s happening to the young jumper divisions in Canada?

Thumbnail for The Demise of the Young Jumper Division

Ben Radvanyi Photo

For many show jumping owners and riders in Canada, affording a top international prospect is a pipe dream. It is often more viable for an emerging high performance rider (or even a veteran) to start with a young horse and develop it, hoping the years of hard work will pay off in the ring.

Canadian breeders have been producing quality youngsters for decades as a way to support this grassroots area of the sport. Yet for all the good intentions, a comprehensive and cohesive young horse jumper development program is sorely lacking in Canada. And for some breeders and riders, it’s a point of frustration.

Show jumping team rider Hugh Graham, who has represented Canada in over 23 Nations Cups, two Olympic Games and three Pan American Games, has been heavily involved in the development of young horses in his role as head trainer and grand prix rider for KingRidge Stables. He sees the problem as two-fold: a lack of promotion and availability of classes at the shows, and a lack of support at the national level from Equestrian Canada’s jumping department (formerly Jump Canada). “There’s no management or help; they leave it up to the shows,” he says of EC. “The competitors and breeders have been trying for almost twenty years to roll out a strategy. We had a little bit of support from Jump Canada, but that fizzled out, and then three or four years ago I was rider rep for Jump Canada and I said ‘we’ve got to put it together, it’s an important part of our industry and something we can sell the people and encourage people to buy young horses.’ The shows made some effort, but lacked consistency and coordination. There needs to be a team effort between exhibitors, shows, and the governing body.”

Such criticism of EC Jumping isn’t without merit. When contacted for this article, Karen Hendry-Ouellette, manager of jumping, issued this statement. “Many years ago there was a National Young Horse Development series that was run by volunteer experts in the industry. After a few years, these volunteers asked Jump Canada/Equine Canada (at the time) to take over the running of the program. Primarily due to the decrease in participation, it lasted for a few short years. Following a hiatus, a number of shows decided to include young horse classes in their schedules and I understand participation has been fair. That is where the young horse program is today.”

According to Graham, participation in Ontario has not been ‘fair.’ “I’m disappointed with our numbers, but we haven’t been promoted as a division at the horse shows and some shows make it a division and it just piddles out. They have one class and that’s it,” he says. “The show organizers need to make time in the ring and it seems like a burden; it’s not a big contributor to their bottom line. We need to sit down with the shows and riders who are interested and see if we can’t get back on track. It if would come from EC it would help.”

However, out west things appear less grim. Calgary-based Barbara Jackson is president of the Canadian Sport Horse Association (CSHA). “I personally I see the Young Jumper classes being well attended throughout the season,” she remarked. “Development for the young horse classes is somewhat young and has taken time for participation and development, but I see it getting stronger every year.”

The CSHA sponsors a three-year-old division that is run at Royal West and includes three components: a conformation class, an under-saddle class, and a free-jump class. All the horses are Canadian-bred and registered in a sport registry. This program is featured during the summer at Rocky Mountain Show Jumping, which holds the first two components all season long. As well, there are the young horse jumper classes held at the venue all summer. And of course, the CSHA famously hosts the Governor General’s and Lieutenant Governor’s Cups at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

Looking South for Inspiration

If show organizers, breeders and the EC Jumping Committee were inclined to pick up the pace on an official young jumper development program, they might want to look south of the border for inspiration.

Across the USA there are young horse development jumper series at many shows, divisions and classes which fall under the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and are regulated by the organization’s rulebook. For Canadians who compete in Florida at Wellington or Ocala over the winter, these classes will be familiar. But such a program didn’t just happen, it took work.

Lisa Lourie is the owner of Spy Coast Farm, a breeder of sport horses based in Lexington, Kentucky, with locations in Wellington and Tryon, North Carolina. Lourie has worked tirelessly to bring young jumpers to the forefront; as a member of the committee and one-time chair of the Young Horse Task Force at USEF, she helped create the Developing Jumper Series that is run at the WEF and Tryon.

Using the USEF standard for young horses, which is available in their rulebook, Lourie and the Task Force created a series to ensure the safe development of the four-legged athlete. But she also knew that to make her program a success she needed buy-in from everyone involved in the sport. And part of what makes it work for both competitor and show organizer alike is the “loss leader” approach. This a business model whereby, for example, a consumer walks into a store and sees something inexpensive, such as three pairs of jeans for $10. The store obviously isn’t making money on this promotion, but it’s getting people in the door. “We are treating the Young Horse classes as loss leaders for show management reasons,” explains Lourie. “You won’t make much money, but the more welcoming we make them and more often they are offered, the more we are building the industry from the ground up and creating more horses that will come to the shows.”

This has been a model that riders have noted and are excited about. “I was quite impressed with what they were doing in Florida,” says Graham. “At HITS Ocala they were letting you enter the regular 1.15 metre class, only pay a schooling fee, no nomination fee. You just couldn’t do the jump-off.” These classes give young jumpers a chance to school in the big rings and that sort of experience is invaluable to the horse’s development as a future high performance athlete.

To promote the program, Lourie, who is a co-owner of horse shows (which allows her to influence their management and programs), met with different show managers, walked them through the concept, and encouraged them to find sponsors for these classes. “You need to work well with show managers; the whole idea is to get people interested in training young horses and doing it right. It’s contributing to the industry.”

According to the USEF Rulebook, the standards for young horse classes include guidelines such as height restrictions. For example, for five-year-olds, courses are set 1.00m to 1.15m; for six-year-olds, courses are set at 1.20m to 1.25m; and for seven-year-olds courses are 1.30m to 1.35m.

Lourie stresses the importance of appropriate and inviting young horse course design at shows. “These prospects need simpler approaches to jumps and the obstacles need to be the appropriate jump height.” Part of the USEF strategy is adjusting heights after July 1. For example, the five-year-olds move from the 1.00m-1.15m range to 1.20m, with a speed of 325 m/m. “We’re trying to get into breeders’ and young horse developers’ minds that this is a stepping-stone program.”

For the record, there are no such rules under the auspices of Equestrian Canada. “There used to be Young Horse rules in our rulebook, but they were removed quite a few years ago due to the lack of interest in hosting those types of classes,” offered EC Jumping Committee chair Pam Law.

If a national young jumper development program is lacking in Canada, the dressage side of EC has recently reinstated a vigorous program. According to the website, “the Equestrian Canada (EC) Dressage Young Horse Development Program was created to identify talented horses between the ages of five and seven and prepare them for future international success. The program uses the training scale to promote proper development, and encourages owners to work with skilled, Canadian certified trainers.” The Dressage Committee has ensured that program benefits such as national rankings and training sessions with FEI young horse judges are promoted within the sport.

How did the Dressage Committee figure out a way to make it work and the Jumping Committee hasn’t? “You should remember that not every discipline is the same, it might work for one, but does not always work for others,” was Hendry-Ouellette’s response when asked about the dressage program. Which, given the success of the USEF program, doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

“Let’s face it, we’re just individuals with a bit of foresight into the future,” says Graham. “But Equestrian Canada’s jumper division is the power behind [the sport] and then the shows are all one big team. Getting them to come on side and be enthusiastic would be a big deal.”