The big debate: showjumping’s response to Nick Skelton’s recent H&H comment *H&H Plus*

  • Nick Skelton’s recent H&H column has prompted discussion across the country. H&H’s showjumping editor Jennifer Donald seeks reaction from a cross-section of individuals including: Sarah Lewis – young horse producer and trainer of amateur riders; Matt Hoskins – course-designer, show organiser, business owner and former rider; Adam Cromarty – broadcaster, commentator, judge and husband to an amateur showjumper; and Jay Halim – rider, producer and breeder

    Never has a comment in H&H sparked such an impassioned response or inspired such feverish debate as Nick Skelton’s opinion piece (14 May issue).

    Whether people were nodding sagely in agreement with his proposals for British showjumping or wished to tear up their copy of the magazine in disgust, as showjumper Jay Halim shrewdly observes, “How lucky are we to have so many people who care so passionately about our sport?”

    It’s impossible to please everyone in such a diverse sport where both leisure riders and Olympic medallists need to be catered for, so it’s no surprise that so many are calling out for change. To reflect just some of the many opinions, we spoke to a cross-section of people involved in the industry to hear their views about what’s working for them and what isn’t, and where the sport might go from here.

    Do let us know your thoughts, too, at hhletters@ti-media.com

    Sarah Lewis, young horse producer and trainer of amateur riders, says…

    Nick mentioned the number of riders travelling to European shows and I am one of them. I buy and produce youngsters and I find they progress best by competing at international young horse shows. The number one reason is the courses.

    We usually start five-year-olds with a clear round on the day we arrive. This costs €10. On the first day of competition, the course might be 1.05m throughout, but straightforward with no water tray.

    On day two, the water tray is included as the last fence, then on the final day you have an up-to-height grand prix, with maybe a combination and a tray. Every day is slightly bigger and more technical, so horses learn and improve over the show.

    The mindset at these shows is that everyone should enjoy themselves, go well and that the best round will win. I’ve learned so much because everyone is supportive. No young horse producer is in it to win prize money – neither in Britain nor Europe.

    Nick’s idea of bursaries to improve British centres is excellent. We have many good venues that, with extra investment and help, could match European venues and encourage more riders to stay on home soil.

    However, I do wish showjumping in Britain was more cohesive. Maybe amateur riders could be categorised better, so that whatever the height of their comfort zone they are competing against their true peer group.

    There is so much in our sport to be proud of, not least because our riders have won gold medals at the past two Olympics. We just need to pull together.

    Matt Hoskins, course-designer, show organiser, business owner and former rider, says…

    Our biggest challenge is to get more exposure for our sport by making our riders, who are among the best in the world, household names again.

    The BBC and ITV are struggling to find sports they can afford to cover, so why not take a proposal to them to cover 16 riders doing a different type of competition each week? At the moment, viewers can find netball on the red button. Why isn’t showjumping there?

    The sport in Britain seems to have four sectors: amateurs, professional (higher level)amateurs, producers and the top level. To help everyone, we need consistency across the sport, especially when it comes to courses. At the moment, a newcomers track, for instance, could be at a different height and level of difficulty at three different venues. That’s not always the course-builder’s fault, but perhaps there is too much leeway in the rulebook.

    Foreign visitors cannot believe that a 1.10m newcomers class isn’t 1.10m from start to finish. With single-phase, it might be 1m to start with, then 1.10m, with the second half at 1.20m. Maybe we should adopt the FEI standard of a class being the height it says it is, with no technical tricks for young horses.

    I used to compete up to 1.30m when A7 was the norm, but I wouldn’t want to do that these days because the second half of a 1.30m single-phase is often 1.40m. That’s difficult for the professional amateur.

    I agree newcomers and Foxhunters should become age classes. But to do so, the course specifications must be looked at. At the moment, both second rounds are A8 classes (three-rounders) and start at 1.25m for newcomers and 1.30m for the Foxhunter. Would we be asking young horses too many questions by round three?

    Adam Cromarty, broadcaster, commentator, judge and husband to an amateur showjumper, says…

    My own opinions do not completely align with those of Nick, however he is a world-class athlete who has dedicated his life to equestrian sport and I applaud him for wanting to use his experience to better showjumping in the UK.

    I work at shows around the world, and this exposure gives a fascinating insight into how the sport is managed in different territories. It seems there needs to be a review of the requirements needed to host affiliated events in the UK.

    When going to shows as a husband (groom), I appreciate venues with exceptional horse facilities, but also where human amenities have been given some consideration. It may also be easier to attract sponsors if they could bring clients for dinner and feel like they are in a pleasing environment while watching our sport.

    Showjumping has moved from having multi-day events with evening entertainment to an abundance of single-day shows where we jump everything as fast as possible, using single-phase rules. To me, this isn’t sport; it’s a factory that allows for people to produce horses so they can sell them.

    I’m not idealistic and I can see the viewpoint of those who use the industry to fund their business. However, if we want to promote the sport, I would suggest cutting down the number of shows and ask event organisers to tender for weekend dates. What are they offering that is exceptional? Do they have sponsors? Are they using a commentator? Then weekday shows can be geared towards the express method.

    Instead of raising the cost of membership, we should look at increasing entry fees and creating an environment where the numbers in each competition make running shows a viable business. This could lead to facility investment and being able to pay show officials a fee that keeps the best expertise in the UK.

    The young horse events that have been added to the calendar are a positive step, but producers are only a proportion of the overall membership.

    Age classes are already run alongside the existing national series but perhaps they could offer dual qualification for age-specific finals.

    The term amateur always seems to cause a reaction, as if it is a derogatory term. I think the opposite is true. In North America, they run young rider and amateur classes up to 1.40m, and amateur riders who are jumping competitions such as World Cups want to maintain their amateur status so they can jump their young horses around less technical courses.

    I think they do have a place at Horse of the Year Show. We need to give the largest group of competitors something to aim toward.

    Constructive discussion between the correct parties is so valuable and I am sure our national governing body will continue to explore all proposals, but we also need to accept that it’s OK to have different viewpoints.

    Jay Halim, rider, producer and breeder, says…

    Why is more not being done to help our show centres? Nick’s point about putting money back in to them is really valid.

    The reason our winter circuit is so limited is because of someone’s apathy in getting the crippling business rates our show centres have to pay removed. The associations and British Equestrian should be lobbying parliament and doing more to support them.

    In my mind, there really are only three indoor venues in this country that are fit for purpose to cope with winter sport.

    A major change I’d like to see, starting at mid-week shows – predominantly attended by professional riders – is a five-class schedule starting with a 1m class, followed by 1.10m, 1.20m, 1.30m and ending with the 1.40m.

    Most importantly, the course should remain the same for every class – it should contain ground lines up to the 1.20m class, a Liverpool at the end, and a combination. My theory behind this is that, whether you’re on a young horse or you’re less experienced, if you get a line wrong you can go back in the next class and try again – it’s only two holes higher.

    Training and progression is all about repetition and continuity, and if you were riding at home you’d repeat the same line several times. The same principals apply here, and I’m sure British Showjumping would see an increase in entries as people would be more inclined to jump more than one class, wanting to progress.

    This continuity of courses would cater for both professionals and amateurs so it’s win-win. Many people see duplication of courses as laziness on behalf of the course-designer but it’s preferable to change for the sake of it – far better they build one excellent course and stick with it.

    Shows should also be able to alter the schedule according to supply and demand – every show centre should know their clientèle, so if you’re in an area with a stronger base of professional riders you could start at 1.10m and finish with a 1.50m class instead. They shouldn’t be afraid to break the mould.

    If you feel the need to call it a newcomers or a Foxhunter to get double clears for a final, then that’s OK too. But Nick had the good idea to focus on young horse classes, which are split to accommodate open horses.

    Eventually this system could be rolled out at three-day Premier shows where the first day would be your “double clear day”, building towards the grand prix, as is the norm overseas.

    Nick brought up so many good points and may have divided the nation with some of them, but how lucky are we that we have so many people who care so passionately about our sport? Now it’s time for course builders, venue owners, producers and riders to have their opinions taken seriously and move this forward in a positive way.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020

    You may also be interested in…