Graham Fletcher: Archaic rules holding back young showjumpers *H&H VIP*

  • My thoughts and enthusiasm are always for tomorrow, not yesterday. But along with William Funnell (20 October) and Peter Charles (27 October) I’ve been thinking how few of our younger riders make it to top level now compared with yesteryear.

    Netherlands-based Jessica Mendoza was the only rider under 25 on the British squad at the Rio Olympics. Not only were there no others on the shortlist, they weren’t even on the horizon. So what did we do so differently when a 19-year-old John Whitaker was winning internationally, Robert Smith claimed the King’s Cup at 18 and 20-year-old Nick Skelton set the high jump record of 7ft 7in.
    I too jumped on British teams in Rome and Rotterdam at 18 and won four classes to be Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) leading rider aged 19. The point is, we were all given a chance. For years, I was on the British Showjumping (BS) selection committee until it was abandoned in favour of a manager picking the team. I’m not suggesting it should be revived, but its members knew what made the sport tick. They also developed ideas to improve the standard of national jumping which, in turn, helped more riders to international level. It’s unclear now who’s looking after the bigger picture.

    It’s great that the Liverpool International Horse Show and the new London International Spring Show have young rider classes. But these riders also need to get into the mainstream, rather than be protected in their own category. So what about two extra wild cards for an under 18 and an under 21 to jump in the international classes? If we don’t open the door and give younger riders the experience, the long list for Tokyo 2020 will be as alarmingly short of under 25s as Rio’s was.

    Unnecessary age barrier

    A change to the FEI rule that bars under 18s from grands prix — not just at five-star shows, but even at three-star level — is overdue. It’s a ridiculous rule that’s holding youth back. For sure, today’s courses are more complicated and technical than years ago. But collapsible back cups and lighter rails make them far safer than the old fashioned lumpy fences with heavy poles.

    I remember being relieved to get round at Hickstead one year when the privet hedge was so tall it was flush with the top of a 5ft (1.50m) high, 6ft 6in (2m) wide oxer. More fell that day than jumped it. The Munich and Montreal Olympics reputedly had the biggest fences. But Mexico (1968) had an oxer with six poles in front, the top rail being 5ft 4in (1.63m), it was 7ft (2.10m) wide and had a 5ft 7in (1.72m) back bar. Only two horses cleared it.

    But these days there are more falls through going fast in speed classes than jumping big fences. No other Olympic sport has an unnecessary age barrier. Swimming and gymnastics put competitors’ young bodies through incredibly gruelling training. The media applauds when a 16- or 17-year-old footballer makes his Premier League debut. Back in the day, when someone suggested lobbying the FEI about a rule change, Harvey Smith said it was a waste of time: “They’re just a bunch of old farts.” Well, if today’s enlightened, democratic governing body can’t amend this archaic rule, I’ll have to agree with Harvey.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 3 November 2016