Graham Fletcher: ‘Is showjumping too exclusive?’


  • Former international showjumper turned highly-respected trainer Graham Fletcher on promoting showjumping to a wider audience

    THE question I’m asked more than any other is why there’s no showjumping on mainstream television. Coupled with the dearth of newspaper column inches we get, it’s a fair question – especially considering how many millions watched the extensive coverage of our sport from the 1960s
    to ’90s.

    Last year some fantastic competitions played out to packed venues, with Ben Maher’s Olympic gold medal to boot. So I think it’s time a top media company was called in to analyse where we’re going wrong.

    We need to take off the blinkers and look at other sports – and other countries where showjumping has a really healthy following. Sweden, for example, has a great fan base. Their equestrian federation has 150,000 paid-up members, but hasn’t rested on its laurels.

    As sports professor Susanna Hedenborg, of Malmö University, told H&H recently (news, 30 December 2021), “It’s in the interests of the state and politicians to support the riding schools.”

    Acknowledging that riding is “not a cheap sport”, she points out that it is nevertheless more accessible in Sweden today than in many other places.

    “It’s an important part of youth sport. Young people aren’t as active as they were, but riding is still one of the 10 biggest sports overall and the second biggest for girls,” says Susanna. “I think everyone should be able to choose what they want in their leisure time. It shouldn’t be your background that dictates.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    The late Tim Stockdale, a postman’s son who made it to the top, was always very complimentary about the time he spent with me in his formative years. Jay Halim, the son of a mechanic, arrived at our yard with only a passion for showjumping. Will the future hold the same opportunities for such riders?

    “We can’t turn back the clock”

    ANOTHER reason why the showjumping of yesteryear was so popular was that most major cities ran shows; London alone had four. Held in parks so townspeople from all walks of life could enjoy watching our sport, the majority were run by Labour councils. Can you imagine that happening now?

    Of course, we can’t turn back the clock, but I do sometimes think we’re getting too exclusive.

    Jan Tops has done a huge amount for showjumping. The fantastic prize money at his Global Champions events has encouraged other top shows to increase their prize pots. But to finance it all, riders well down the rankings list pay to compete…

    Naturally, the best combinations win the grands prix. But what future would there be for Wimbledon if somebody outside the top 500 got to play on centre court because they’d paid for the privilege? Or what if a director of Manchester City FC could let his son play for five minutes in a Premier League game? That would take some explaining to the fans.

    Racing has done a great job of getting back onto mainstream television. With the falls and injuries involved, it’s not an easy sell. However, with a
    well-informed, enthusiastic team, they’ve improved their ratings and done their sport proud.

    We too have a great sport. But we must do a lot better at selling it to the general public. If we can do that, the media will look at us differently and the household name companies that used to sponsor us will view us more positively.

    No frills

    THE next few weeks will be busy for us with 21 horses in Vilamoura, Portugal. And if I told you how much extra it’s costing for all those horses since Brexit, you wouldn’t believe me!

    Thankfully, one thing about the trip remains remarkably cheap. And that’s flying. Although when Ryanair is described as a “no frills” airline, you get exactly what it says on the tin.

    I hope Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary’s racehorses come out of their stables much fitter and fresher than I do when I’ve sat for hours in one of his aeroplane seats!

    This exclusive column will also be published in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 24 February

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