In an exclusive interview with H&H’s showjumping editor Jennifer Donald, the British Showjumping chief executive responds to Nick Skelton’s recent opinion piece calling for a shake-up of showjumping in Britain...
As the nation emerges from a global pandemic, a skeleton staff at British Showjumping (BS) has made Herculean efforts to ensure the sport was one of the first to return competitively.
But in the midst of it all, an opinion piece in H&H penned by Nick Skelton put further spotlight on the sport’s governing body. The Olympic champion called for a major restructure of the sport, igniting some fierce debate among the membership, some of which we featured in H&H.
So what was the reaction of BS’s chief executive of 10 years, Iain Graham – does he believe British showjumping needs a shake-up?
“If we turn our minds back to 2014, we were getting blamed for shaking the sport up too much,” he replies, referring to the introduction of regional leagues and revamped winter shows, as well as a drive for more international shows.
“Changes have been made through the past eight years while still maintaining the county show circuit – keeping that as a shop window for showjumping to the public – and recognising that internationally the sport has ballooned, with the Global Champions Tour, other series and tours and new countries becoming involved in the sport which means new markets for our breeders and producers.
“We have tried to move with all that and in the past five years we’ve added Bolesworth and Liverpool, and we’ve seen Windsor go up to five-star level,” he adds. “There has been positive news in all aspects, from the grassroots with their amateur championships at Aintree, the national championships at Stoneleigh Park and the spring championships.”
Opinion is split on Nick’s suggestion to focus schedules on height and age classes, as is the norm through much of Europe, but there seems to be a strong call for simplification, namely reducing the number of classes. Would lockdown have presented an opportunity to deliver something new?
“I don’t think now is the time for change,” he states. “If we were to change the structure of the sport significantly, we’d firstly need to look at the impact that would have on show venues.
“Any organiser can schedule age and height classes, but the reason many don’t is that we don’t have a large number of members riding young horses. It may also restrict the numbers that would jump in those classes.
“One of the joys of jumping in its current format is that people who work full time can compete against an Olympic rider on a young horse. That would be lost if we went into a very different model of segregating the professionals producing young horses from the other members.”
Are we simply dragging our feet behind the rest of the world with the current system?
“It’s interesting because it depends who you speak to,” says Iain. “Some people in Europe think that the British system where you can jump a horse, regardless of its age, in the class that’s appropriate for its ability is a good thing.
“Let’s not forget, a lot of riders who have had Olympic success produced their horses up through the British system. So it’s not dragging our feet – there are other options and different countries have pluses and minuses.”
Other ways of investing
Another hot topic has been increasing investment and improving facilities in British show centres – Nick’s proposal was to raise the membership fee to fund it.
“We receive funding through British Equestrian from UK Sport, Sport England and from Scotland and Wales’ devolved funding,” explains Iain. “We can only access that if we show that we are accessible to everyone that wants to take part, regardless of their background or beliefs, and finance shouldn’t be an obstacle to being a member of a governing body.”
So he may not agree with Nick’s method, but are there other ways of investing?
“There was Sport England funding available for certain venues that fulfilled the criteria to bid for funds to help improve their facilities,” reveals Iain. “I’m aware there were venues in the past five years who made successful applications to help with specific projects.
“What BS can’t do is use members’ money to invest in a privately owned facility because the improvements to that facility then sit with the owner, even if they benefit the members. Many venues are also used by other organisations, who would all benefit from whatever improvement had been done.
“But we are very aware of the increasing costs to all venues, whether that be through staffing, maintenance or health and safety requirements, and that’s why we haven’t increased the show affiliation fee since 2010.”
With venues on the Continent benefiting from rate relief, one rider asked why no one has been lobbying for a reduction in UK business rates, which are a massive burden on venues.
“We have done work on this. Certainly twice in my time as chief executive of showjumping there’s been a concerted effort,” says Iain. “Latterly the effort was led by the British Horse Society on behalf of equestrian centres, which included riding schools and competition venues. Unfortunately the Government at that point was trying to reduce the deficit and they said there would be no reduction in money that they were receiving from business rates from sporting venues.
“While I appreciate that venues are suffering at this point, I have a feeling that as we come out of lockdown, the Government will again be looking at ways of reducing the deficit caused by the virus. But we will explore all opportunities.”
A global sport
We go on to discuss the mass exodus of riders overseas, particularly during the winter months.
“What we don’t have is the Sentower Parks and Vilamouras,” says Iain of the enviable equestrian venues across Europe.
“But we’re also not the only country that experiences an exodus of riders to Spain and Portugal.
“The sport has become global – I don’t think we can fight that – so we need to make sure that what we deliver in Britain is of a standard that is worth the people at home taking their horses to. That’s something we need to work on as well – to be a place that people want to come and base themselves.
“We have seen an increase in the past year or two in the numbers at our winter shows – and who knows what the travel restrictions may be post-Brexit. More people may choose to stay in Britain.”
Another reason riders cite for competing abroad is to jump better quality of tracks, especially for younger horses.
“We’ve been working with other federations to invite course-designers here,” he explains. “Equally we’re increasing the number of course-designers who have FEI qualifications and that requires them to go abroad and gain experience and work with other course-designers. It’s an ongoing piece of work.”
Overall, it appears that riders jumping at the lower levels seem fairly content with the current system – have the improvements in that area come at the expense of those higher up the ladder?
“I’d say those finding it most difficult now are our 1.20m to 1.45m producers or national riders trying to earn a living from the sport in that sector,” says Iain.
“Above that level, there’s the challenge of getting into shows, but actually there is sponsorship and prize-money, there is a model there of being able to bring horses on and sell them, or do a bit of teaching, and they manage to make it work.
“So I always say the lower end is OK – as long as we are accessible to them and give them nice shows that are not too far away and the occasional championship, that keeps them happy. It’s the other group where any small change can really affect their business.
“Then at the higher level, I regularly meet our international show organisers at foreign shows and FEI meetings, where we’re all working together to try to help move the sport forwards internationally.”
With such an outpouring of opinion on social media in response to Nick’s piece, are members being heard?
“We’re always looking at what we can do, and the structure we have now with the board, the national sport committee, the performance committee and the members council means there are routes for members to come with suggestions – and they regularly do,” says Iain. “Not all of them can be taken forward, but all are looked at. A lot of the changes that have taken place have come through those channels.
“I think in the past few years we have seen showjumping in Britain step up at all levels,” he concludes. “My hope for next year is that we are not in a big recession and that we are all out enjoying the sport and our horses in the way that we were prior to lockdown.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 2 July 2020
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