Showjumping gets sexy

Gyrating cheerleaders, rock music and confetti used to draw in the crowds

The image of showjumping hasn't changed much since the days when Raymond Brooks-Ward was the gentlemanly voice of the sport.

From next week, however, showjumping's governing body hopes to turn those dated perceptions on their head as the equestrian discipline undergoes a radical makeover, which, it is hoped, will restore the popularity of leaping horses to levels not witnessed since the early 1980s. Quite what the late commentator would make of the changes is anybody's guess.

In a controversial rebranding effort, riders competing at the prestigious Barclays Wealth British Masters Invitational, due to be held at Chester Racecourse, will ditch the traditional jacket and tie in favour of trendy Team GB polo shirts.

Drawing on the kind of razzmatazz already successfully deployed within Twenty20 cricket, competitors will emerge gladiator-like in front of the 5,000-capacity crowd to the thumping strains of rock music. Confetti canyons will fill the air with colour while cheerleaders gyrate in time to the music, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy of excitement as riders race head to head.

In perhaps the most far-reaching development, the crowd will be able to bet on proceedings – bringing showjumping some much-needed cash.

However, not all the innovations have gone down well among the sport's elite, which is gathering this week at Hickstead. Not least the release of publicity pictures this weekend of the leading horsewomen Laura Renwick and Georgie Strutton posing for photographs while brandishing whips and no jodhpurs.

But according to the British Olympic hopeful Tim Stockdale, who will be compering as well as competing in the two-day event at Chester next Thursday, it is time to move on. "Too many people in our sport are a little bit backward, harking back to the good-old days of Harvey Smith and David Broome. We have got to change," he said.

"It is already causing a stir. There are one or two people out there who don't think it is correct and think we shouldn't be jumping in polo shirts and there have been complaints."

Mr Stockdale believes that the sport has long languished with a crippling image problem. "We are so misunderstood. Most showjumpers have never been to school let alone public school. Those who think we are hoity-toity, hanging on to the purse strings of Zara [Phillips] are wrong. We are down to earth and very normal," he said.

Though showjumping may have largely faded from primetime television screens since Brooks-Ward died in 1992 and Harvey Smith went off to pursue an unlikely post-equine career as a wrestler-cum-pop singer, the sport itself has continued to go from strength to strength. Riders going to Beijing for Team GB next month are firmly in the running for medals and the junior youth team remains among the best in Europe. Stars such as 18-year-old Daniel Neilson and senior riders including Ellen, William and Robert Whitaker will be taking part in next week's event.

Maria Clayton, of the British Showjumping Association, said there was a ready market for the changes among the 4.2 million regular horse riders in Britain.

"It is so, so popular but is stigmatised as a posh, minority sport which it just so isn't," she said. "Showjumping had incredible high street popularity a couple of decades ago and we need to revive that.

"We're hoping that on-course betting will attract a newer and wider crowd to the sport."

It will also help boost the amount of money in the sport. Chester will carry £60,000 in prize money as well as affording the winning riders a place in the Horse of the Year Show.

The sports consultant Jason Harborow said showjumping has been able to draw on the lessons learnt by other sports such as darts and rugby league.

But it is Twenty20 cricket which offers the best example, said Mr Harborow, who was brought in to help devise the new competition form.

"You have to simplify the experience and make it more interesting and then you have a winner. The problem is that showjumping unfortunately has had an image which is quite stuffy. We have taken the core components and tweaked them a bit." He added: "Five years ago, it was unusual to see young people or women at a test match series. Today, with Twenty20, it is the norm."

In an attempt to promote the identity of individual riders, each will select a personal signature tune. Mr Stockdale, the Olympic hopeful, said that he had toyed with the idea of the theme from Rocky before settling on a track by Dire Straits.

Music will also greet a clear round while the former Olympic gymnast Suzanne Dando will interview competitors.

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