British showjumpers fall from great heights

Dearth of quality horses has forced once-powerful nation to become poor cousin to Continental counterparts
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The Independent Online

Anybody who has followed show jumping with even half an eye did not need reminding – as they were during last week's Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead – that the sport is in serious decline in Britain.

While the enterprising Irish stayed on the crest of the wave, with a repeat of last year's win in the Nations Cup at Hickstead to add to their European Championship victory, the British continued to flounder through lack of horsepower. At this rate – and despite having some of the best riders in the world – they face an uphill struggle in even qualifying for the next Olympic Games, let alone winning a medal.

It is a far cry from the years spanning 1954 to 1972, when Britain held the proud record of gaining at least one medal at each of six consecutive Olympic Games. Olympic team silver medals followed in 1984 with the help of the gifted Whitaker brothers, who also contributed to three successive European team titles from 1985 to 1989. This year Britain finished a dismal ninth for the European title, which was their worst ever result.

So how did the rot set in? Michael Bullman, the acting manager of the British team, believes that Continental countries have gone ahead in a number of areas: better breeding programmes for producing top horses, excellent shows with good sponsorship, better and more technical courses, wealthy patrons who enjoy owning show-jumping horses and are prepared to buy the best. "We need to nurture our owners as they do in racing, where big sums of money are spent in acquiring top horses," Bullman said.

According to Bullman, the whole team would be lifted by the acquisition of one or two first-rate horses. "Unless we have new blood we have a serious struggle ahead," he said. "At present we don't have a single top-class grand prix horse in Britain."

With proven show jumpers costing anything between £1-£2m, there is no easy, quick fix. Looking to the future, Bullman believes that British owners should be encouraged to go shopping for the best six- and seven-year-olds on the market and that breeders should improve their chances of producing stars of the future by using proven stallions with top-class mares.

In order to bring horses up to international standard – including some exceptionally promising youngsters who are already under British ownership – it is obviously important that they should have the chance to compete over the right type of courses. According to Peter Charles, a member of Ireland's winning European Championship team, this has become a major stumbling block.

Charles used to ride for Britain until switching to Irish nationality in 1992 – ironically because he was having great difficulty in getting selected for British teams. He continues to live in England, but says that he now needs a Continental base. "England used to have good enough competitions, but there's been a massive decline in the quality of the shows and the heights of the fences," he said. When Charles won a recent Grand Prix at the Wales and West Show, he was appalled to see many of the riders struggling over a course which he considered far from difficult himself.

Other Irish riders are also honing their skills (and those of their horses) abroad. Kevin Babington, winner of last week's Grand Prix at Hickstead, lives in Pennsylvania and has stabling for his horses in Germany; Dermott Lennon has a base in the Netherlands; Jessica Kurten has settled in the homeland of her German husband. Some young Britons, notably the brothers Richard and James Davenport, have also realised the benefits of Continental experience and they are now based with Jan Tops in the Netherlands.

Notwithstanding the phenomenal success of the Irish, Germany remains the strongest show-jumping nation. Ludger Beerbaum, their European champion, believes that his country's strength lies in its breeding programme which resulted in some 40,000 foals being registered this year alone. With more than 50 good international shows (compared with half a dozen in Britain if you include the two indoor meetings at Braintree) there are also ample opportunities for young German riders and horses to cut their teeth.

One of the saddest aspects of Britain's lack of horsepower is that John Whitaker (the rider Beerbaum has always admired more than any other) is without a horse of the right calibre. He expects to be taking a step down while he concentrates on his younger horses in the hope that one or more of them will make the grade.

Bullman believes that Britain will find some light at the end of the tunnel "if everybody pulls together and forgets about their vested interests." When he took on the role of acting team manager on a voluntary basis (until a lottery-funded performance manager could be appointed) he had expected it to be a disastrous year. "I asked myself: do I want to suffer? The manager always gets the blame, but not even Alex Ferguson could improve a second division team without spending some money."

The top riders will miss Bullman's humour and his integrity when he bows out, probably after the Rotterdam Nations Cup meeting at the end of this month – no doubt leaving somebody else to suffer. The riders have nominated Derek Ricketts, a member of the winning world championship team of 1978, as their preferred choice for the manager's job – but he is unable to work miracles. To use one of Bullman's favourite proverbs: "You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

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