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Show Jumping

Show jumping did not start out as a sport but rather a necessity. Read on to learn how this way of life turned into the world class sport it is today.

History of Show jumping

Show jumping has been around since the 1780s and has had ups and downs, times when its development stood still and times when progress leapt forward. Although cited in a French cavalry manual from 1788 it was really when fields started being fenced in the eighteenth century that jumping become more widespread. People used to ride across country to get to their destination and with the introduction of fences getting from A to B meant jumping became a must. This was jumping over natural obstacles such as banks, ditches and stone walls and was the forerunner to steeplechasing. It took another hundred years before show jumping with manmade fences was first officially registered. One of the first shows to include show jumping in its list of events was the Royal Dublin Society Annual Show in 1865. (This show continues in the present day.) This forward thinking Irish show held competitions for “wide and high leaps”. The following year France and Italy added jumping competitions to their shows, but unlike Dublin, this meant starting in the arena but leaving it to jump in the country. A further nine years saw the French Cavalry School hold “An exhibition of Show Jumping”. Back in Britain jumping was incorporated into agricultural shows, (where in many cases it still exists today), with the first of these being held in London in 1876. A Master of Foxhounds judged this competition based on skill, so although there were no rules, style won the day. In 1883 in Madison Square Gardens the National Horse Show was introduced, and like Dublin show, this still runs. Around the end of the eighteenth century many shows were held all over Germany and at the Paris Olympic Games in 1900 three show jumping classes were featured; a high jump, a wide jump and prize jumping. The first International Horse Show was recorded in 1901 in Turin, but this was mainly Italian and German army officers vying with each other for first place, so should perhaps be called a bi-nation show. The first truly International Horse Show was at Olympia in London in 1907, and was not the forerunner to the present day Olympia Show, but indeed to the Royal International Horse Show. The show was run by a board comprised of members from Europe and America with The Earl of Lonsdale as director. There were two categories; the wide jump and the long jump, and prize money was quite good. At the time two Belgian riders Haegemann and Van Langendonck were sweeping the boards nearly everywhere they went and this show was no different. There may seem little strange in this fact, but there is little or no mention of Belgium with regards to show jumping up to this period and how two riders from a country where the sport seems virtually non-existent came to be so good, remains a mystery. While the Paris 1900 Olympics had included jumping it was absent from the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. For that reason in 1906 Count Clarence von Rosen suggested to the International Olympic Committee that equestrian sport should become part of the permanent program. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Games, asked for a detailed proposal. When it was presented in 1907 it included dressage, an equestrian pentathlon and something called “Jeu de Rosa”, (apparently a game). The next games were scheduled to be held in London in 1908 and Britain agreed to include these three disciplines. The committee who ran the International Horse Show were asked to organise this and they accepted on condition they got at least twenty four competitors from six different countries. There were no worries on this score as what they got were eighty eight entries from eight different countries, but something went wrong and these sports were dropped from the program for unknown reasons. The next Games were in Sweden, Count von Rosen’s own country, so he was able to organise three horse disciplines for the 1912 Olympics, which are the same ones that remain today – dressage, a three day event, and show jumping. By now show jumping competitions were appearing in more countries and more nations were sending riders so “teams” started competing. In 1909 International Horse Show in London held a team event, and this was the beginning of what is known today as The Nation’s Cup. Show jumping had taken off and in 1912 for the Olympic Games new rules were laid out. Points were awarded for each fence and marks taken off for any errors. In the team event a team was to be comprised of four riders with only the top three scores counting – this is still how team events are judged. Now that jumping is claiming a place in the sporting world and starting to be recognised, everything grinds to a halt as war breaks out. Post-war sees the 1920 Olympic Games in Belgium with Italians winning individual gold and silver medals. Both these riders were trained by a man called Federico Caprilli who would change the face of show jumping for ever. Jumping styles favoured the backward seat in the belief that by putting your weight further back on the horse you were saving its front legs on landing. Caprilli believed shorter stirrups and a forward seat improved a horse’s balance, and he was right. This style is the one riders use today. Show jumping is now a recognised sport and an official Olympic Game, but it still had no governing body to set rules, organise and mediate. Hence in 1921 the F.E.I., (Fédération Équestre Internationale), was created by the Frenchman Commandant Georges Hector. In 1923 the B.S.J.A., (British Show jumping Association), was started and the first secretary was none other than the father of Dorian Williams the famous sports commentator, Colonel V. D. S. Williams. This takes us up to the next war, which again brought halt to sports. Before the war a British rider Mike Ansell had had a lot of success and finding himself a prisoner of war he worked out a way to take show jumping in Britain to international levels. After the war his chairmanship of the B.S.J.A. for more than twenty years did not stop him from organising other events, one such was the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley. He also set about creating shows at The White City where two riders came to fame; Colonel Harry Llewelyn and his famous partner Foxhunter, (his ashes were scattered where Foxhunter’s grave is), and Douglas Bunn who founded and ran the All England Jumping Course at Hickstead. Around this time the rules were refined and honed; a time limit was introduced, circling now brought penalties and a lathe was positioned on each jump which, if dislodged carried penalties. To try and bring about fair competitions a grading system based on winnings was introduced. It was only after the Second World War that civilians started competing in show jumping events and not until 1948 that the F.E.I. introduced junior championships. An interesting note is that in this first junior championship the Italian team won, (there were only two countries taking part), with Graziano Mancinelli as one of those juniors. The first Men’s World Championship was held in Paris in 1953, and initially this was held every year before changing to be held every four years. Women's World Championships started much later and there were only a handful of these. It took many years but finally in 1973 women could compete against men and a team event was introduced too. In the 1990s other equestrian sports were combined with this to become The World Equestrian Games. Meantime the European Championships medals in one year had been won by; 1st Nelson Pessoa of Brazil, 2nd Frank Chapot of America second and 3rd Hugo Miguel Arrambide of Argentina, so it was decided that this should be confined to European riders, as in deed the name suggested. In 1956 women were allowed to compete in Olympic show jumping for the first time and in 1957 the first Woman’s European Championships were run. One of the most successful combinations was Marion Mould and Stroller, made even more amazing by the fact Stroller was a pony! He was 14.1hh and remains the only pony to compete in an Olympic Games. During the last twenty or thirty years things have remained more or less the same in the show jumping world. A few of the changes include;

  • The Olympic Games opened up to professional riders, where it had only allowed amateurs
  • Less shows are televised despite their popularity and sold out tickets
  • There are some major new competitions like The World Cup
  • Faults and penalties were changed, (if you fall off now you are unfortunately eliminated whereas before you could continue)

Who knows what the future of show jumping holds, but the past is certainly checker and fraught with obstacles, as well as some incredible feats of horsemanship.


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