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Writing the Disciplines: Show Jumping

Writing about horses can be hella hard for those in the industry, and even harder for those outside of it. There are all kinds of details to worry about, from legal and illegal tack to how we dress to those ridiculous little nuances that only writers who ride would know about. There is so much room for error that it's no surprise to those of us in the industry that people mess it up All. The. Time.

So, in the hopes of helping future authors get it right, I wanted to write a short (<<lol) post about show jumping, which seems to be one of the most popular and most messed up disciplines in the written world.

For starters, what even is show jumping?

Show jumping, also known as “stadium jumping”, “open jumping” or “jumpers” is the competitive sport of riding horses over a course of fences in an arena, with penalty points for errors.

As defined by the United States Equestrian Federation:

“Spectator friendly and easy to understand, the object for the show jumper is to negotiate a series of obstacles, where emphasis is placed on height and width, and to do so without lowering the height (knocking down) or refusing to jump any of the obstacles. The time taken to complete the course is also a factor. The show jumping course tests a horse’s athleticism, agility and tractability while simultaneously testing a rider’s precision, accuracy and responsiveness.”

What are the rules?

Easiest part, in my opinion.

Depending on the competition, there are one, sometimes two, qualifier rounds and a jump off round. During the qualifiers, the riders must make a clear round in the time allowed. All riders who ride clear in the qualifiers then come back for the jump off, which is a modified version of the qualifier course with fewer jumps included in the course. They have to not only ride clean and in the time allowed, but the fastest clean round wins. There are no style points or anything, making this an objective discipline.

What constitutes a clear round? What are the penalties?

  1. Lowering the height/knocking down a rail – 4 faults per fence (not per pole)
  2. Refusal to jump or running out on a fence – 4 faults
  3. Over the time allowed – 1 fault for every second over.
  4. 2nd/3rd refusal – disqualification (whether 2nd or 3rd depends on the competition)
  5. Rider comes off – disqualification

Pretty straightforward.

In show jumping, the jumps are usually decorative and colorful. Upper level shows typically have a few jumps made in the likeness of the show’s sponsors (ex. Coke) or of local landmarks (ex. Bridges or towers). There are several types:

Vertical or Upright – a single jump of varying height and pole style.

Oxer – two verticals placed close together, giving the horse a “spread” or short distance to jump. The types of oxers include: square, where the top two poles are at the same height; ascending, where the back pole is higher than the front pole; descending, where the front pole is higher than the back pole; and Swedish, where the top poles are set at opposing angles, making an X shape when seen head on. (The Swedish oxer was a favorite of my college coach, and they messed with my mind.)

Triple bar – three verticals set in ascending height.

Wall – a jump normally made to look like a brick wall, but made of lightweight material so that it falls easily should a horse hit it.

Combination – two to three verticals in a row with, on average, two to three strides between each. Two in a row are double combinations while three in a row are triple combinations. Individual jumps are generally verticals or oxers. Should a horse refuse a second or third element in a combination, they must retry the whole combination, not just the obstacle missed.

Liverpool – a vertical or oxer with a ditch or large tray of water underneath. THIS CAN MESS WITH YOUR HORSE’S MIND. Not common (thankfully) at lower level shows.

Open water – a ditch or large tray of water usually several feet wide; used as a distance jump as opposed to height jump. Also not common at lower level shows.

Cross rail – not used in sanctioned shows, these are jumps where two poles are crossed with one end of each on the ground and are used to teach horses how to jump in the middle.

Filler – items underneath fences used to create the illusion of a solid fence. Can be anything from brush or flower boxes to rolltops and gates.

What about the tack?

Jumpers ride in smaller, shallow saddles, called close contact or forward seat and it allows the rider to really move with the horse. Lower level riders also use all-purpose saddles, which have a little deeper seat with thicker knee rolls. Saddle pads are generally square in shape, allowing the rider to display things like sponsors, national flags, or affiliations. Often, riders will double up on pads and use a fitted fleece pad on top of the square pad to enhance comfort for the horse. Girths come in many shapes, but most commonly have contours behind the horse’s elbows to allow freedom of movement and, in the upper levels, have a belly guard to protect the horse from the shoe studs (horse cleats, if you will) when the horse tucks his front feet.

English bridles come in the same basic style, but the noseband, called a cavesson, varies depending on the horse and rider. Some riders use a regular cavesson, others use a flash, yet others a figure eight, which is the most popular type. Bits vary and there is a long list of approved and illegal bits that varies depending on the association. Most common bits are snaffles and they work off of direct pressure, meaning when the rider pulls the left rein, the bit is pulled to the left, cueing the horse to go left. (I’ll get into indirect pressure a.k.a. shank bits in a future post.) Other bit options include the mechanical hackamore or bitless bridle, both of which allow the rider the option of not putting a bit in the horse’s mouth. These are seen but not very common at the upper levels, and rarely seen at all at the lower levels.

Extra tack includes things such as breast plates, which help keep the saddle in place over jumps; boots, such as bell boots to protect the hoof and open-front tendon boots on the forelegs; running martingales, which gives the rider a little extra control regarding the horse’s head placement; and bonnets, which help keep flies away from the horse’s ears so it can focus.

What do show jumpers wear?

Well, that’s a fun question! When we show, we kind of look like something out of the 1700s. We rock hunt coats, breeches, and tall boots like they’re going out of style! We also cringe a little when we see variations of our clothes on the runway.

  • For shows, breeches are generally light in color. Lower levels are more commonly light tan or fawn, while in the upper levels white is more common.
  • Jackets are typically dark colors, such as black or blue. In the upper levels, riders may also wear coats in their country’s colors when competing internationally, like the Olympics or World Equestrian Games.
  • Shirts are ratcatcher-style, with a tight collar and choker, and can be white or another light color. Some riders have their chokers monogrammed with their initials or barn insignia while others prefer the more traditional choker pin (which can be TERRIFYING to put in if you put your choker on before your pin). Yet others leave their chokers blank. (Note: In recent years, dark shirts have come into style, but I don't think they look as good as light shirts.)
    • Guys wear ties. NOT FAIR.
    • Tall boots are required and are always black, though some men wear traditional brown-topped boots.
    • Gloves are required and should be black as well.
    • Also, hair nets. I don’t know why and I hate them so very, very much, but they’re pretty much required for girls and you can get heavy-duty show nets at most tack stores. They are, however, handy for stuffing one’s hair up under a helmet because buns are nearly impossible. (see next)
    • Helmets must be Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) approved for competition and are required. Generally, they have a small brim, a chin strap, and the back of the helmet goes to the base of the skull, making anything more than a low ponytail difficult.
    • Belts are optional depending on your breeches (belt loops, obviously) and the belt is a great way to learn about your fellow riders.
      • Plain = serious about riding.
      • Bling = rebellious but serious OR western rider faking it.
      • Belt buckle in the front = Normal.
      • Belt buckle on the side/hip = I’m more concerned with looking like I have a flat stomach while I ride than my riding. (At least, this has been my experience living in Texas.)
      • In practice, our attire is a little more on par with athletic wear. We also have funky colored saddle pads and dress a lot more casually. We even have fancy, moisture-wicking breeches in cool colors. Sometimes we ride in jeans because, damn it, we can.

On a more personal note (and this may help you guys with authenticity):

  • If you’re writing about show jumpers who live somewhere hot, hunt coats are EVIL. Especially the tweed and wool ones! I cannot tell you how many times I had to have someone peel my hunt coat off at a summer show because the lining was stuck to my skin. Also, heat stroke if you don’t get them off fast enough.
  • Breeches can be comfortable, or not, depending on the maker. They are skin-tight on women, marginally looser on men, sometimes have what’s called a full seat (where the part where your body touches the saddle is covered in leather panels) and can be low- or high-rise. They also come in varying weights, like thermal or summer. I have a pair of Tropical Rider breeches that are literally leggings like you’d find at Target with a really nice, soft full seat. RARELY are breeches flattering, though. I still don’t understand why. Also, in hot climates, imagine sweat stains in all the uncomfortable places.
  • Breaking in tall boots is hell. There are blisters, aching feet, and occasionally bruises behind your knees, depending on how tall your boots are (they should be tall!). In cold climates, they’re great. In hot climates, your feet melt. It’s also rare that you find a pair that fits perfectly off the shelf. Some are too tall, others are too loose around the knee while being too tight around the calf (my problem), and yet others just hurt no matter what you do. They also come in zip-back or pull-on versions and trust me when I say there isn’t a preferred type. Zip-back don’t break down as well behind the knee and pull-on boots have been the cause of many pulled muscles while trying to pull them off. I once dragged a college teammate across our hotel room trying to get her boot off. That made for a funny Facebook video!

What are the main types of competition?

Grand Prix – this is the top, the best of the best, the there-is-nothing-better-than-this level. Grand Prix shows are run under FEI (International Federation for Equestrian Sports) rules, the course is 10 to 16 jumps, jumps can be as tall as 5’3” with spreads as wide as 6’7”. Some Grand Prix shows include: the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and the Olympics.

Six-Bar – riders jump six fences set in a straight line an equal distance apart (usually one to two strides). The first fence is lowest and they get progressively higher. Horses are either penalized or disqualified for knocking one down. The jumps are heightened with each round until one rider remains.

Gambler’s Choice – (these are so fun!) In Gambler’s Choice, the fences are given a point value, but there is no defined course. The winner is the rider who accumulates the most points within the time limit.

Maiden, Novice, and Limit – these classes are limited to horses with fewer than one, three, or six wins, respectively. Fences tend to be lower and time limits higher.

Now the fun part: the horses!

Show jumpers must have several things: athletic ability, scope, agility, courage, and “handiness”. Handiness is not an official term, but we throw it around in reference to horses who can handle difficult courses easiest. (“That gray horse is pretty handy, especially from that water jump to the vertical.”) Athletic ability is pretty generic and it can be used as a catch-all for scope, agility, and handiness. Scope is used in reference to the horse’s ability to clear jumps. A “scopey” horse is one who tucks his front feet, leaves lots of room between himself and the top rail, and in general looks like he clears the jumps easily.

Breed is not as much of an issue in jumpers. Most show jumpers are tall and of Warmblood or Thoroughbred breeding, but horses of all size and stature can be successful. It all depends on the individual horse’s talent. I once had a mini who was scopier over jumps than my Warmblood mare. She had NO talent; he practically flew. (Note: we didn’t ride the mini. Mini show jumping is done by leading the mini around the arena rather than riding and is an amazing workout, especially when said mini decides he wants to race you.)

As with all disciplines, there are superstars.

Ian Millar, a.k.a. Captain Canada. He has ridden in 10 Olympic Games, competes everywhere, wins practically everything, and is a living legend. Also, my hero.

Richard Spooner, a.k.a. The Master of Faster. One of America’s most successful show jumpers, this man can turn it ON in the jumpoff. You better hope and pray he isn’t the last rider to go… (I once saw him go last in the jumpoff and come in almost a full second faster than the second fastest horse!)

Ludger Beerbaum, Markus Beerbaum and Meredith Michaels Beerbaum. Markus and Ludger are brothers from Germany and Meredith is Markus’ wife. She’s American but rides for Germany now. The Germans are renowned for their equestrian skill, and this trio is no different. Markus has taken some time off, but Ludger and Meredith are still competitive and killing it.

Rodrigo Pessoa. *sigh* This man is a machine and can ride anything. Seriously. He’s one of the most successful show jumpers ever to come out of Brazil and even has his own line of tack.

And finally, the god of show jumping, George Morris. He’s the chef d'équipe (French for ‘team leader’) of the United States Equestrian Federation show jumping team, he’s considered a founding father of hunt seat equitation, there’s a whole subculture of memes dedicated to him, and nobody is anybody in the show jumping world until they’ve been dressed down by Mr. Morris. Seriously, I would pay unreasonable amounts of money to ride in a clinic with him knowing that he would literally do nothing other than tell me how much I suck.

To help y'all out, I put together a checklist you can print out and refer back to while writing.

Hope this helps you guys! If you’re writing about show jumping, I’d LOVE to know! 

Happy writing!