A couple of blog posts ago, I began introducing the eight equestrian disciplines that will be featured at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. I started with eventing, which in many ways is the bedrock of modern English equestrian sport. This week, let's take a look at eventing's close relative: jumping.
Jumping (aka show jumping or stadium jumping) is one of eventing's three phases: in an arena, over a course of "frankly fake" obstacles. No pretenses of navigating hill and dale, logs and split-rail fences, here: The obstacles are brightly colored, often extremely fanciful in nature (a car! a row of beer bottles! a lady's fan!), and topple at little more than the touch of a hoof. And in jumping competition, it's all about going fast and "clean" -- without time penalties or "faults" incurred by knocking down a rail, putting a foot in the water jump, or a horse's refusing an obstacle.
Because jumping is easy to follow and colorful and exciting to watch, it's the most popular English-riding sport, and the one that gets the most sponsorship, the biggest audiences, and the best TV coverage. Of the WEG disciplines, it commands the highest ticket prices and will undoubtedly sell out.
Jumpers are supreme equine athletes, and jumper riders are pretty gutsy people. Just look at the size of the obstacles. In Olympic competition, for example, obstacles have a maximum height of 1.6 meters (about 5.3 feet). Spread obstacles can be two meters (6.7 feet) in breadth, while triple-bar jumps can be 2.2 meters (about 7.2 feet) wide. Water jumps can have spreads of up to 4.5 meters (14.9 feet). The courses range in length from 500 to 600 meters. Course designers may arrange obstacles as single jumps or as combinations, the latter meaning that the distances within them are related (translated: get to the first one out of synch with the necessary striding and you're in a heap of trouble).
Speed is essential, as are jumping ability and bravery. A good jumper also needs to be careful, meaning that he does everything in his power to avoid "rubbing" an obstacle. He must be able to swap leads in midair so as to land primed for a quick turn, and he needs to be "ratable" enough to allow his rider to set him up for a good approach instead of charging wildly with excitement. Some jumpers indeed give the impression of being nearly out of control, but more often than not those aren't the ones with the fastest, cleanest rounds. Good jumpers don't waste energy, effort, strides, or space. They can collect and extend their strides gymnastically, much like a trained dressage horse. In fact, there's an old saying in the jumper world that dressage is what you do between the fences -- or that jumping is dressage with fences in the way.
The sport of jumping seems to attract colorful characters, both human and equine. Some riders are known for a flamboyant style, or a less-than-classical position in the saddle, to name two examples. And some well-known horses have become successful jumpers in spite of (or is it because of?) unruly behavior, unorthodox jumping style, and distinctly oddball pieces of tack and equipment, especially when it comes to bits and bridles. In the end, it doesn't matter if a horse looks like a cow or jumps like one; if he can get over the fences in a fast, clean, reliable fashion, he's good to go.
And in that same vein, jumping is one equestrian sport that's refreshingly free from subjectivity. There is no judging of performance per se; the results are objective and quantifiable. Your Uncle Ned can tell whether a horse knocked down a rail just as well as the jumping experts can, and so the sport is spectator-friendly. It's glamorous, exciting, and often complete with a nail-biting finish as the final few riders compete in a "jump-off" to decide the winner, complete with blazing speed and eye-popping turns and maneuvers that would give a cutting horse a run for his money.
PHOTO CREDIT: CleanPix/Courtesy of Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau