Graham Fletcher: ‘Course designers take themselves too seriously’ *H&H VIP*

  • There is no doubt that international showjumping is enjoying a golden era.

    Three new locations have been added to the Longines Global Champions Tour (GCT), with the series now also hosting a team competition (the Global Champions League). The prize-money is mind-boggling, with horses flown in from all over the world to compete at various prestigious venues.

    The indoor European shows I’ve seen have all been sold out. Olympia was never better and Liverpool’s inaugural fixture was a fantastic success.

    As I write, our yard is heading to the Chepstow International (28 April-2 May) and organiser Matt Broome tells me they’ve already had record entries.

    With more of these top shows televised and with livestreaming becoming popular, more people are watching showjumping. So far, so very good…

    However, am I the only one who finds that, from a televisual point of view, the courses are becoming very samey? And does it mean that modern tracks are in danger of costing our sport some of its wider appeal?

    Dull jumps and, in the oft-used commentator’s phrase, “the course is very technical” frequently sum up the offering.

    “Technical” means a horse must be able to shorten or lengthen at the push of a button. And therein lies the problem.

    Top horses are so well schooled that most find that easy. So a rider has to find only four or five different strides or approaches in a course of fences — the rest just becomes a mathematical equation. And that’s what’s keeping the drama and excitement to a minimum.

    Less art, more drama

    A formulaic approach with set striding patterns and predictable related distances might appeal to the connoisseur. But it can also look robotic.

    Some course-designers take themselves too seriously. They tend to think of a course as “art deco” rather than something to add to viewers’ interest.

    For instance, one of the hardest doubles to jump is a big vertical, then one stride to a big, square oxer. So, just for a change, instead of putting another fence three or four strides before it to set up a partnership, why not leave the vertical on its own with a clear run to it? That would definitely put more emphasis on testing the rider.

    By all means, keep all the usual combinations, but I would also allow designers 5cm leeway over two single fences. So, in a 1.50m course, he could include two single jumps at 1.55m.

    Watch any six-bar competition and you’ll see second-rate horses often jumping 1.65m or more. So a couple of bigger, single jumps gives a designer more options and more flexibility.

    Nobody appreciated the importance of showjumping as theatre more than the late Douglas Bunn. That’s why the last fence in the Hickstead Derby — a big rustic oxer — is a long way from the previous one. The run down to it alone creates its own tension.

    The double of gates Douglas made a feature of in the King George V Cup came down more than any other fence in last year’s competition. These are just two reasons why Hickstead is still great viewing.

    Last season’s stand-out classes were the Aachen and Calgary grands prix. Both for €1m (£780,000), big colourful jumps and water ditches tested accuracy and bravery. They were compulsive viewing for anybody interested in showjumping. Let’s have more like them.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 5 May 2016