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The Olympic Disciplines: Part II - Showjumping

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The Olympics: for many sports, the pinnacle of international competition. One of the most popular sporting events in the world, the Olympics are what thousands of sportsmen and –women aspire to.

Of our many disciplines, only three have made it to the Olympics. Unfortunately for Western riders, all these disciplines are English: showjumping, dressage, and eventing.

This three-part series started with dressage, and will now continue with arguably the most crowd-pleasing English discipline: showjumping.

Showjumping Basics


Showjumping is a fast-paced, high-action sport that is highly popular due to its simple, spectacular nature, making it appealing even to the non-equestrian. While deceptively difficult in its execution, the principle of showjumping is not hard to grasp. A fixed pattern of jumps (known as “fences”) is set out in an arena, usually at least 60x40m. Depending on the level, the height of the fences can vary from poles on the ground for beginners to upwards of 1.70m (about 5’ 7”) at international competitions. The mission is simple: Clear all the fences in the correct order and from the correct direction. Knocking down a fence incurs four faults; stopping at a fence incurs another four, unless the horse stops three times, in which case he is eliminated. An error of course or a fall of horse or rider also spells elimination. Time penalties can also be acquired.

If in the first round of a competition, the horses with the fewest faults are tied, they will enter into the jump-off. The jump-off is ridden over only a selection of the most challenging fences on the course, and in this round, speed counts even more than before. The cleanest and fastest round in the jump-off wins.

Another very popular form of showjumping, usually as an unofficial sideshow at the big events, is the puissance or power jump. A thrilling challenge of skill, talent and courage, in this event horses and riders take turns to jump a single fence. The fence gradually gets higher, and horses are eliminated should they stop or knock the fence down. Eventually, the horse that jumps the highest wins.

In 1949, a Thoroughbred stallion named Huaso (originally Faithful) set the International Equestrian Federation’s record for the highest fence cleared by any horse. This talented equine and his rider Captain Alberto Larraguibel managed to clear a staggering 2.47m (over eight feet).

Showjumping Origins


This horse sport found its origins not in war or agriculture, but in hunting. Foxhunting on horseback was a popular pastime for the English gentry of as far back as the nineteenth century, and since foxes can dash under fences and hedges, the horses and hounds had to follow. The obstacles the original jumping horses – known as hunters – had to clear in those days would make many of today’s showjumpers think twice. Stonewalls, hedges with deep ditches on the unseen side, banks, and rivers were all considered quite manageable, no matter how awkward the approach might be.

As can be imagined, this early form of showjumping was quite ungainly and did not involve a lot of control. However, as better methods of pest control came into the scene, horseback hunting began to die out. Devotees of jumping horses learned to confine their sport to the arena, where it became safer and, eventually, much more technical. The original hunter only had to be fast, brave, and able to jump virtually anything from virtually any angle; but today’s showjumper has to manage tight corners and be adjustable to ensure a quick, clean round in the jump-off.

Showjumping Horses


For years, the ideal showjumper was the Thoroughbred. Because of his natural athleticism and speed, the Thoroughbred can tear around the fences at a terrific pace. His spirit and courage makes him a game jumper and many Thoroughbreds have good technique.

In recent years, the Warmblood took over the showjumping scene. Showjumping courses became slightly smaller, but much more technical. Balance and obedience became more important than before, with spirit and speed declining in importance. Because of the Warmblood’s milder and quieter temperament, it became the breed of choice.

Another reason for the Warmblood rising to the top in showjumping was that while most Thoroughbreds are bred for racing and change to showjumping later in life, Warmbloods are bred specifically for showjumping. This means that they have more scope and can jump better than Thoroughbreds.

Some of the best jumping lines come from the Hanoverian Warmblood, such as the mighty stallion For Pleasure, or from the Dutch Warmblood, such as the famous Hickstead. French lines have also been successful in the showjumping arena. However, many showjumpers today still have a goodly dose of Thoroughbred blood, notably from the stallions Furioso, Orange Peel and Ladykiller.

Any horse can learn to do showjumping, and indeed some of the best jumpers in the world have been of dubious breeding. Although most jumpers are very tall (16.1hh and taller), smaller horses and even ponies have been successful. Stroller, a British pony who participated in the 1968 Olympics, stood only 14.1 hands high.

Showjumping Fences


There are many different types of fences to be jumped in any given jumping course, but all fences have some features in common. Unlike cross country fences, showjumping fences are constructed from light poles or blocks that fall when struck, minimising the danger to horse and rider. They are usually made of poles or planks, but in some competitions (such as derby events) solid walls made of light “bricks” are part of the course. Fences are usually painted in bright colours, making them easier for the horse to see.

Some of the basic types of fences include:

  • The upright or vertical. This is the simplest fence, and is merely a set of horizontal poles set between two uprights (vertical poles). Whilst it is only as wide as the poles, it can be an intimidating obstacle for a horse to jump.
  • The cross or cross-rail. This fence is seldom seen in serious competition, but is a very popular training fence. It consists of two poles set in a flat X shape between their uprights, with one end resting in a cup and the other end on the ground. It is a highly inviting fence and helps to train a young horse to jump straight.
  • The oxer. This jump consists of two pairs of uprights with their horizontal bars, making the horse jump far as well as high. There are many types of oxers, but the most common ones seen in competition are the ascending oxer (an oxer with the front bar being lower than the back bar) and parallel oxer (an oxer with both bars at the same height).
  • The triple bar. A very wide jump with three bars, with the front being the lowest and the back being the highest, also known as a staircase.
  • The liverpool. This jump is usually an upright, and unusual in that the jump itself is in the middle of a pool of water. The water and the jump must all be cleared in one leap.
  • The water jump/water tray. Simply a shallow pool of water, this is usually a wide obstacle which the horse has to clear without touching the water.
  • The combination. A combination is a set of two or more jumps that are set close together, usually meaning that the horse has to adjust his length of stride and fit one to four strides in between fences. Combinations are usually doubles (two jumps) or triples (three jumps). A combination is referred to as a single fence, the individual jumps known as efforts.

Showjumping: Enjoyable for All


Showjumping is an extremely popular discipline and is available in most areas, although there is no special division for disabled riders. Any horse and rider can learn showjumping at the lower levels, and even small children can compete on a lead rein at training shows. Many horses thoroughly enjoy jumping and it is a welcome break from hours of flatwork for both horse and rider.

You don’t need to have a horse or any type of skills to enjoy showjumping, though. It has become a wonderful spectator sport; visually appealing with its sleek horses and bright fences; engaging with its exciting action and fast pace; and easy to understand with its simple rules. A day at a horse show, watching the brave riders and beautiful horses strut their stuff, can be a wonderful day out.

Showjumping as a Celebration of Creation


Thrilling, exciting, spectacular. Showjumping is less an art than it is an adventure. It seems almost impossible that half a ton of sweating, snorting, plunging horseflesh, with the spirit and strength to clear huge obstacles at high speeds, would allow a puny human being to sit on its back and guide its movements.

And yet, in this wonderful world that God made, it can be done. The horse is so much more powerful than a human that it could hurt us with just one movement. In fact, we have only to look around us to realise how physically superior many animals in our world are. But God made us in His image and gave us dominion over the earth, and He alone made it possible for horse and man to showcase their breathtaking combination of speed, power, intelligence and bravery together. All the glory goes to Him.

In the next part, we’ll investigate the ultimate competitive test of horsemanship and equine talent: the three-day event. Until then, may God bless you.