As I sat and watched our top riders in great form at Olympia, I thought we must find a way of getting our top young riders into shows like Olympia so that they can learn how to cut it at this level.
It’s a nonsense perpetuated over the past few years that our up-and-coming competitors need protecting from big classes. Admittedly, courses are more technical nowadays, but with features such as collapsible cups, they are far safer.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, when some of the biggest courses ever seen comprised far heavier material, our current show jumping elite were winning classes at top international level.
Robert Smith (pictured) won the King’s Cup at 17, the Hickstead Derby went to a 19-year-old Michael Whitaker and Nick Skelton took the high jump record at 20. And if today’s young riders need a confidence-boost, I can tell them that I was leading rider at HOYS at 19 — and that was when Harvey Smith and David Broome were at their peak and all the top foreigners came to Wembley.
To rectify the current lack of youth, we need a mechanism for our young riders to get to Olympia, RIHS and HOYS. Perhaps the IT list could be used, as it genuinely reveals who is capable of jumping bigger courses.
Some will say that it’s still possible for young riders to qualify for these shows, as in the case of Robert Whitaker. But, while taking nothing away from Robert — his talent has shone through at every level — it has to be said that he got “off the blocks” quicker than his rivals by being part of a well-oiled machine, with his father’s experience and access to a large string of horses.
Our current leading senior riders compete at 20-40 international shows a year. By contrast, our young riders struggle to get to any at all — apart from shows in their own division that don’t necessarily give them that vital experience.
This situation needs addressing urgently. If the same 30 riders return to Olympia this year, 19 of them will be over the age of 40 — with at least seven being near 50 or more. Only two riders will be in their 20s — and that isn’t a healthy situation for any sport.
As long as riders stay fit and well mounted, experience can be advantageous. But as some older ones inevitably drop out, who’s going to fill what will be a huge void?
More immediately, today’s young fans need to see riders with whom they can identify. I’m sure that every show jumping supporter respects the abilities of our senior riders, but I can’t see many young fans putting up posters of them on their bedroom walls. That used to happen before, and it’s time it happened again.