I hate to say it, but showjumping in Britain is in danger of becoming a sport purely for the elite or for unaffiliated riders.
By “elite”, I mean those who can afford to travel to shows most others dream about. No longer can riders like mine, Phillip Miller and Ben Walker, start at the bottom and go on to compete at the highest level, while also producing horses for elite riders to buy.
The main reason is because all over Britain riding schools are going out of business. It was at our family riding school where Phillip, who is from a non-horsey background, first sat on a pony. That same school now runs at a loss. With health and safety requirements, insurance and inspections, the cost of our licence this year was around £4,000. No wonder most riding schools struggle to keep going.
And when talented riders without financial backing make the grade, they struggle to keep going due to lack of opportunities.I applaud British show centres for trying so hard with little encouragement. I know the amount of effort our local venues, such as Bury Farm, put in, but they’re up against European tours that run year-round.
Also, to be considered for teams, riders are encouraged to compete abroad, so British centre owners must wonder why they bother running bigger shows.
I fear for the county circuit, too — the way things are going, I can’t see jumping carrying on much longer at those shows, which are the traditional training ground for future international horses and riders.
It’s now time for British Showjumping (BS) to step up and support venues and members at every level. They could begin by removing the centres’ affiliation fees for classes at 1.40m and above, which might encourage more good prize-money competitions.
To help put us on a more level playing field, courses must became more European in style. We went to the world young horse championships in Lanaken, Belgium, this year, and the difference between courses there and those we often meet in Britain was staggering.
There were two huge differences between the courses at Lanaken and those in Britain. The first was that the surfaces were so much better because they watered and harrowed them after every 40 horses.
The fences were big and the oxers much wider than you find here, but because there were no trappy distances, horses found them easy to jump. By trappy distances, I mean that in Britain course-builders often produce tracks that favour the shorter-striding horse and you can’t get a youngster into a good forward rhythm.
The courses in Lanaken were set on a big loop and you never had to pull a horse because you met a fence as soon as you came round a corner. As the horses progressed the tracks became tricker, but horses came out of there having been educated.
In Britain, we have no consistency. At one show, the riders spends the whole course pulling the horse because of short distances and then at the next, they have to keep kicking. The end result is confused horses and riders.
Maybe BS should send course-builders to European centres to work with designers there. Now he has more time, could Bob Ellis help with a scheme like that?
It would need forward thinking and real investment from BS, but if we want to continue producing top horses and riders in Britain, we must make changes now.
Ref Horse & Hound; 14 November 2019