JUMPING THROUGH HISTORY
Although a relatively new sport, show-jumping has a back- story with all the hallmarks of a genuine thriller... politics, exhilarating races, impressive prize- pots, blood- sports, and an upstanding military gentleman all play their part in the sport we've come to know and love. Yet it took an Italian, initially exiled for his radical new technique, to truly bring the sport into the 21st century and allow the skill, precision and dizzying heights we've come to appreciate today
Image credits- LGCT/Stefano Grasso
The origins of showjumping date back to the Enclosure Laws of 1604 which saw the common land in England and Wales being taken from rural communities and enclosed by the ruling elite. Foxhunters who had been used to miles of open galloping were suddenly faced with fences, boundaries, and obstacles. The focus of good hunt-horse breeding and selection changed from speed to jumping ability.
By the 1700s, riders had come to realise the exhilaration of jumping large fences and foxhunting gained in popularity. Riders began racing each other from village to village, jumping whatever lay in their path. Starting from one church, competitors raced to the next – using the church steeples to guide their course. The sport of ‘steeple chasing’ was born.
In 1788, showjumping got its first mention in a French cavalry manual. By the end of the century the French, Spanish, Italian, and Austrian cavalry schools had all taken up jumping too. However, for safety purposes, their technique dictated a heavy backward-leaning seat. Believing the hind legs are stronger than the front, riders approached fences leaning back – with long stirrups – in an effort to encourage a landing on all four legs.
But it was 1865 before the first formal jumping competition took place- held at the Royal Dublin Society Show, the class was called ‘Wide and High Leaps.’ The competition opened with an impressive 366 entries and a combined prize pot of £520 was offered – the equivalent to approximately £114,500 or AED 500,000 in today’s money.
In 1883, showjumping fever reaches the US with the first competition at the National Horse Show held at Madison Square Gardens, New York.
Fast-forward 19-years more to 1904 and Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli earns the title ‘The Father of Modern Riding’, after devising the modern jumping seat. Using new photography techniques, Caprilli studied horses free-jump and hypothesised (quite rightly), that the 'classic seat' was damaging the horse.
He experimented with moving the rider up and forward over the horse’s back. While horses everywhere rejoiced, the Italian cavalry establishment were less enthusiastic. Caprilli was removed from his position and transferred to Southern Italy. But his exile didn’t last long. After three years, Italian officers realised just how effective Caprilli’s new technique really was, adopted it, and began dominating the sport. But Caprilli did not live long to enjoy his new fame. He died in 1907, the same year his exile ended, after falling from his horse
Show-jumping went global in 1912 when it became part of the Olympics. The inaugural event had a field of 40 riders from eight nations competing over a 15- obstacle course with a maximum height of 1.40 metres and width of 4.0 metres. Jacques Cariou took home the first ever jumping gold for France.
By the mid-1920s showjumping still reflected its origins in the hunting field. In newly published rules, four faults were given for a pole knocked with the forelegs but only two for the same offence with a hind. The idiosyncrasies can be directly linked to the dangerous nature of fox-hunting where a trailing foreleg is far more dangerous and likely to tip a horse and rider, than the hind.
At the 1956, Melbourne Olympic Games (although due to quarantine issues the event itself was held in Stockholm) women competed in Olympic equestrian events for the first time with eleven female competitors taking part across all disciplines. Patricia Smythe riding her horse Flanagan represented Great Britain in the team jumping competition and helped secure a Bronze Medal for her country.
In 1991 Germany’s Franke Sloothaak riding Optiebeurs Golo sets an incredible Puissance world record when he cleared 2.4 metres (7ft 10 1/2 in) in Chaudfontaine, Belgium. And, although regular Puissance classes still take place around the globe, Franke’s record has never been beaten.
in recent years, the sport has begun to draw some of the biggest prize purses in equestrianism. Thanks to the BIG leagues such as the Longines Global Champions Tour, Rolex Grand Slam, Global Championships Tour and more, the prize money now regularly tops many millions.