How has British showjumping turned it around? [H&H VIP]

  • Just a few years ago, showjumping was British horse sport’s poor relation to eventing — with disappointing results it had faded from the spotlight.

    Gone were the golden days of David Broome, Harvey Smith and Milton — and nightly BBC coverage of Horse of the Year Show.

    But in the past couple of years, a dramatic turnaround has taken place. Britain is the current Olympic and European champion and the world rankings are topped by two British riders, for the first time in decades.

    And they remain on top form — only at the weekend Ben Maher won the CSI3* grand prix at the World Equestrian Festival in Wellington. Scott Brash was second, while John Whitaker won in Amsterdam (see p78).

    So how did this turnaround come about, and can Britain sustain its dominance through this year’s World Equestrian Games and the next Olympics, as horse values rise and developing jumping nations continue to buy top horses?

    The only way was up
    “We were at rock-bottom a few years ago, so the only way was up,” said British showjumping performance manager Rob Hoekstra.

    “We’ve always had the talent, but what we have now is some fantastic owners. There’s no doubt without their financial backing we wouldn’t be where we are now.

    “What I’ve tried to do over the past few years is to give the younger generation more opportunities to mix with the best and show they are as good as the older riders.”

    A turning point was the 2011 European Championships, when Britain took team bronze and Nick Skelton individual bronze.

    “Confidence is one of the most important things in any sport — when we did well in Madrid, it was a great stepping stone on the way to the Olympics,” said Rob Hoekstra, who took over as team manager in February 2010.

    “We had never been very successful in championships and then it started to change. Success breeds success.”

    And in September Ben Maher became the first Brit in more than two decades to top the world showjumping rankings. He was knocked off the number one spot by teammate Scott Brash in December, after his Global Champions Tour win in Qatar in November.

    The pair remain at the top of the table, thanks in part to loyal ownership backing from Lords Harris and Kirkham for Scott and a new owner in American Jane Clark for Ben.

    Retaining owners
    However, Rob admits keeping horses and owners is “certainly a concern”.

    “We have a number of really good riders but they can only function at the top level if sitting on a good horse,” he said.

    “It’s easy to fall into the void of being a producing nation — especially with the Qataris, Brazilians and Ukrainians offering tremendous amounts of money for horses, there’s a big pressure. But I don’t think on the whole people are walking away from ownership.”

    David Broome, who enjoyed success in the heyday of the sport, told H&H he believes the resurgence is due to “a lot of things coming together at the right time”, including owners, strong leadership, good jockeys and the World Class programme.

    “I think our team manager has played a big part in it and brought a bit of discipline into the team,” he added. “And the Olympics in London gave us a surge of spirit to some of the local owners, especially with the Widdowsons and Lord Harris and Lord Kirkham. They’ve been rejuvenated in their desire to keep showjumping going.

    “To be fair, we’ve always had some very good jockeys — Michael and John Whitaker, Nick Skelton, Robert Smith — but they were only four spokes in the wheel; there are 20 nowadays,” David pointed out.

    Rob believes the future remains bright.

    “We have a number of younger riders — such as Louise Saywell, William Whitaker and Dan Neilson — who are coming up and who, with the right horses, can make a mark on the international scene,” he said.

    “I’m not saying we’re going to go out and win every championship — but now we can be competitive at that level.”