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January 18, 2013

We Have To Examine Show Jumping's Prize Money Structure

Prizes like big ribbons, coolers and trophies could be viable alternatives to prize money in amateur and junior jumper classes. Photo by Mollie Bailey

Our columnist believes there’s something wrong with the system if a young rider can make more money competing as an amateur than as a professional.

If you’re a junior or amateur reading this column, please keep your mind open and don’t feel that I’m against you. I want to create a better future for you. 

The issue is prize money, but it’s more complicated than who wins what; it’s about the sport as a whole. I want us to create a system of solid grassroots riding so that we can develop high-level riders in every division.  

We have a wonderful business system of jumping throughout America, with lots of divisions for those who don’t want to jump very high. It’s given us an industry and a business, and it’s creating a lot of involvement, but it works at odds against the “sport” of jumping. A lot of it revolves around an issue with the prize money—specifically that many shows are putting up huge amounts of money to children’s, adult amateur, junior and amateur jumper classes.

We’re the only sport that I know of that awards prize money to juniors and amateurs. I think that to right our sport, the children’s, junior and amateur divisions should be meant for learning. You work at home on your skills, then you put that homework to the test in the children’s, amateur and junior classes. And then when you want to play with the big boys, you go compete with professionals and win prize money.

Why is it that a children’s/adult class is offering $10,000, and yet when I have supportive people who are willing to buy 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds that are potential future international team mounts, those horses are competing for $1,000 or $1,500 in a class against 80 or 90 horses at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.)?

I got so much pushback at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association convention about this issue. The USHJA is trying to pass a rule to cap the prize money for children’s and adult amateur classes at $10,000, but it’s being met with resistance. Isn’t $10,000 more than enough? Opponents are saying that if a sponsor wants to put up the money, so be it. Then they say that all their customers will ever want to jump in is the children’s/adult division and that they don’t aspire to be professionals in the open divisions. But I ask, “If that’s so, why are they earning money for it?”

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We need to create goals for our amateurs to aspire to that don’t focus on winning prize money. This means creating national finals and rankings for amateurs that carry as much prestige as our equitation finals like the Pessoa/USEF Medal and the ASPCA Maclay Finals. These are competitions with no prize money, yet they have driven juniors to improve their skills for more than 70 years.

The title of Medal and Maclay finals winner is still mentioned in every article about George H. Morris, despite the professional accolades he earned afterward. We need to create similarly prestigious competitions for amateurs that spotlight their truly incredible accomplishments of riding at a high level despite other responsibilities and often limited time in the saddle.

Bigger Jumps, Bigger Payoff

There are so many rules in the prize list dictating what amateurs can do and what juniors can do, to try and prevent the situation where a capable high amateur-owner rider drops down a division or two to win prize money. If you took the prize money out of the equation, no one would drop down unless they needed the confidence or their horse wasn’t fit. But right now, when a rider who wins at the grand prix level is showing in the low amateurs, he’s going for the money. 

I think the U.S. Equestrian Federation is really missing on their responsibility about this. It’s the duty of the federation to create a sport that encourages people to get better. It should be that the higher they jump, the more money they may win.

I think the USEF also has the responsibility to say, “At some point, $25,000 pony jumper classics are probably going to be unsafe.” No matter how good the course builder is, it’s not going to stop some people from trying to put one stride into the two-stride combination. What happened to the days of winning a saddle or a bridle or a free weekend at the horse show hotel? There are so many other things they could offer to winners besides money. 

Taking the focus off prize money could also help improve the quality of shows. Right now shows are substituting prize money for pomp and circumstance. They attract riders with dollars, not quality. When there’s less prize money, I think juniors and amateurs will start selecting shows that have a more prestigious feeling, better quality and conditions. The show managers will have to start creating important classes and events so that people actually want to attend and feel good about it. 

Smaller shows that are doing a nice job but can’t afford to put up the prize money are hurt by the current system. There are some nice smaller shows with a nice grass field, a nice course designer and quality conditions, but if there’s a show competing with them with huge prize money, they don’t get the entries. 

What most people don’t realize is that only a very small percentage of the entries win all the prize money over and over. It’s the same people winning it. All the rest of the entries are just donating their entry money to show management. Show managers make much more money when they have more prize money in these classes because they can charge a lot more in entries. That’s why it is show managers who are the most resistant to this change. 

There are riders who could be showing in the professional divisions who know that they make more money by showing as an amateur than by becoming a pro. This poaching also hurts the real adult or amateur rider whose time is limited by work or family.

That’s the wrong spirit for our sport. When it’s more profitable to be an amateur than to be a professional, is that right? It just doesn’t make sense to me, when the mandate of the federation is to be developing riders for the international disciplines, the Olympic sports. But we’re catering to profit-making in the guise of opportunities for juniors and amateurs in our country.  Profits grow, but the sport and the amateurs get hurt.

Encourage Improvement

As the system stands now, you’re not providing young riders, after their junior years, with an opportunity to make a living as professional riders. You’re not providing them any new goals. We have so many wonderful junior goals, like the equitation finals and the FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. 

But the minute they turn 18, it’s like their life is over. They see this gap between being 18 and being a professional riding at the grand prix level. It’s not possible for them to become professional riders because they can’t support themselves. 

As someone who wants to help develop the next generation of international competitors, I find it very frustrating. The numbers of good, quality professional grand prix riders in our country are dwindling. 

I think we can significantly change the sport so that we have a system that caters to our clients, creates a desire to improve our skills and train our horses, and also creates the desire to be an international rider and represent the country. To do that, I think there has to be a paradigm shift from our shows. 

Spruce Meadows (Alberta) has a few special junior and amateur classes, but most of them offer $1,000 or $1,500 in prize money. Those kids who are showing in the high juniors in the United States are entering in the 1.45-meter classes at Spruce Meadows and going against the professionals for the bigger prize money. The numbers in the 1.40- and 1.45-meter classes are huge up there. 

We’re missing the boat. I think show managers could be holding more sponsored classes and offering more prize money at the 1.40- and 1.45-meter level and be making as much money if not more than they are now. But I can’t get past my first sentence of this suggestion without them totally shooting me down.

When you start creating strong 1.40- and 1.45-meter open classes with worthwhile prize money, you can do so many other things. The riders who need experience and are challenged by competing against their peers will stay in the junior and amateur divisions, but those who are ready will move over and show against professionals.

When that happens, you’re going to create better, stronger competition. You’re going to get people wanting to ride better so that they can jump for more prize money, and at the same time you’re improving the quality of competition, discouraging people from showing in the low amateur classes one week and then dropping down to the adult amateur division the next week because there’s more money. 

If juniors and amateurs don’t have prize money, their entry fees must be reduced. I think a lot of people would feel good about no prize money if the entry fees were less. And at the same time, those divisions would be doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is training people how to ride in the ring and providing a forum for them to compete against their peers.

For the last three years, we at the North American Riders Group have proposed a rule change that we believe could help formulate a new system. Children’s and adults win up to $1,000 a class; low juniors and amateurs win $2,500, and high juniors and amateurs win $5,000 per class. There could also be a few special championships authorized by the USEF with more prize money. 

We want to offer up solutions, and introducing caps like these will get things going in the right direction.

Chris Kappler spent 25 years working and riding for George Morris at Hunterdon before starting his own riding and training business at Chris Kappler Inc. in Flemington, N.J. In 2004, Kappler rode Royal Kaliber to team gold and individual silver at the Athens Olympic Games. They also won team gold and individual silver from the 2003 Pan American Games. Kappler has won the American Invitational three times and has coached young riders to medals at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. He currently serves as the president of the North American Riders Group.

3 years 51 weeks ago
Prize Money for Children/Adult Jumpers
I agree with Chris Kappler that the amount of prize money should go up with the level of difficulty of the competition. I believe this is currently the case. It is very rare for competitions to offer... Read More
3 years 52 weeks ago
The underlying problem...
Prize money is a symptom of an underlying problem- a sport from our agricultural heritage (multi national heritage) that has divorced itself from the process of raising and making horses. No other... Read More


4 years 6 days ago

I suppose it all depends on what the goal is

I suppose it all depends on your perspective. If you believe the goal of shows -and the primary mission of the USEF - is to develop the very small number of riders who will reach and be successful at the international level, then I suppose you can make an argument for creating a system that incentivizes and rewards that path. I am not at all sure that that is the majority view. By far the majority of riders who show are juniors and amateurs whose goals are far more modest than making the Team or showing at, or anywhere near, the GP level. For one thing, although all of us who show are certainly financially privileged compared to much of the rest of the population, the number of individuals who can afford horses of sufficient talent and quality to make that a realistic goal is very small (and I don't think shifting the majority of the prize money to the higher levels is going to change that, because a rider is still going to need a succession of very nice horses to *get* to the level where the rewards are being suggested.) Show managers are pushing back on this idea because they are in the business of providing opportunities for their customers to show their horses - not the business of developing Teams. Since the overwhelming number of customers want classes for their children's hunters or adult jumpers or other relatively modest heights and levels of difficulty... that is what the show managers provide. Those same customers are also the people who keep the great majority of trainers afloat financially, and the show managers know they have to support that model if they want those trainers to show up with their clients week after week. Back in the day, the USET used to be the organization charged with developing talent for the international circuit. They had training sessions and developed relationships with owners who would support the riders on the Team or in development to be on the Team, with equally talented horses. Certainly all of us "regular" members who showed on a much more modest scale were encouraged to support that effort and donate money, and those who did proudly put those USET stickers on our cars or wore our little USET pins as a mark of that support. Supporting that program did not come at the expense of those "regular" members - and in my opinion, should not do so now.
4 years 6 days ago

Prize money allows more show miles

If the goal is to produce more high level riders, I think an acknowledgement needs to be made about the enormous costs of getting a rider to that level and the hours of experience necessary as well. The shows are very expensive. Period. And unless there are many and frequent Jr/Am $10,000+ classes (certainly not in zones 9 or 10), it is going to be a rare event that a jr/am has their show costs covered completely. For my daughter, a good jumper paycheck means that the show budget is stretched to one more show that year. And one more show means more time in the saddle competing. To do something well takes experience (10,000 hours if experts are correct). Prize money is the difference for most Jr/Am competitors that allows more shows and perhaps a second horse. I've been on this journey with my daughter who made into her first grand prix's last summer as a junior. But it's taken every scrap of prize money she could gather along with this single mom's every dime and very supportive kind trainers who've tried to help out. If there are jr/am riders out there getting rich, I've yet to meet them. Let's not discourage the very experience that will allow our riders to move up the ranks...cap the money, okay...but have the concept that jr/am should ride for prestige only, and you will make this sport even more of a ultra-rich-only sport!
3 years 52 weeks ago

The underlying problem...

Prize money is a symptom of an underlying problem- a sport from our agricultural heritage (multi national heritage) that has divorced itself from the process of raising and making horses. No other nation has a "amusement park ride" format of horse showing that prizes the made horse so far above the young horse. Every other nation we compete against makes it a point of national pride to raise their own horses, and thus dozens of people have touched and contributed to their champions on the way up. No wonder why they fill stadiums of 60,000 to watch equestrian events. Great Show Ring Performances are a moment in time, that is a culmination of literally years of preparation. What our modern culture has done is to denigrate all that precedes a show ring win, and lose the education, challenges and rewards of day to day care and training, and the perspective of the arc of time and goal setting that underlay the real horse experience. We have ratcheted up the cost of showing far above what it costs anywhere else in the world- in several ways, and impoverished our culture in the process by depriving the estimated 100 million americans who love horses but can't participate because: You have to import the horse, you have to keep it off your own property, you have to pay others to care for it, train it, haul it, and finally, you step on right before your class at the horse show. Ask anyone over 50 and they will tell you that was not their experience or exposure to horses. Am I sympathetic at all to the single mom? Of course, but there are so many other ways to plug in to the process, and not get caught up in the "show to make money" idea, that really should be the domain of the pro's. Here's why: If our most prominent competitions are a career reward and culmination for all the breeders, backyard horse owners, mom and pop, part-time trainers that raise kids that take the Hometown Hero up the funnel, you'll have real cheering, real loyalty, real fans that have watched the whole process, and appreciate the whole arc of horsemanship. We have a family out here in California that are such heroes- the Hardins, who raise and train, and compete and strive and sell, but almost exclusively domestically raised horses. Everyone loves their stories (and they can be found on facebook daily!) If the focus returned to the whole agricultural cycle of raising horses and *showing* them off a few times a year (yes, that's where the term comes from!) then the domestic industry would be supporting and producing hundreds of millions, and yes, billions more, just because of all the trucks, tractors, and even farms and feed we don't buy, because we sent that $50,000 overseas to buy a horse we didn't raise here. One related point- we lament the lack of professional standards and certification for our sport, but the easy solution to prove that you are qualified, is that *you have raised and trained a young horse into a champion*. Simple isn't it? If that became the goal, then the the sport would truly have a "funnel to the top" with a broad grass roots support, crowds that attract sponsors, and competitors that manage their costs by, wonder of wonders, doing much of their own work... I know Chris has created winners from scratch because I had the good fortune to buy one he took from a raw filly to the top of the best rings in America. My Mother bred a colt, who won on the line, and in the futurities, and was sold to a family that had a pro compete him until he was a national champion, and then he became a national amateur champion, and then stood at stud and sire dozens of champions. An all american success story. (Viscount...) And he was horse who everyone "showed", and appreciated and understood where he was in his career. So do i have sympathy for those who scrimp to show? Sure, but I don't have sympathy for shows that have become opportunities to "run for money" instead of show where your horse is in his or her growth and development, and where you are in appreciating and supporting it. Shows used to be about breeding classes, young horse classes, green classes, pro classes, and kids and amateurs plugging in when they had done enough work at home to earn it. What are american horses now? $50,000 skateboards and bikes raised somewhere else? And what are the shows like, somewhere else. Jus' sayin'...
3 years 51 weeks ago

Prize Money for Children/Adult Jumpers

I agree with Chris Kappler that the amount of prize money should go up with the level of difficulty of the competition. I believe this is currently the case. It is very rare for competitions to offer prize money of $10,000 or anything close in Children/Adult Jumpers. Those shows generally offer substantial prize money in the higher divisions. If a limit is set on the amount of prize money that can be offered, it should be proportional to total jumper prize money at the competition rather than absolute. While encouraging capable riders to move up is a laudable goal, we need to be mindful that jumping bigger jumps is not a reasonable goal for most amateurs and many juniors due to physical and financial limitations, life circumstances, and other obligations. It does not further the sport to demean its base of support. Most of us compete to see if we can do a little better than our last ride. Shows can incent our participation with nominal prizes, money or other items, an opportunity to compete in the grand prix field or in rings with banks, liverpools, a good course designer, offering 2(a) classic or other special class. I personally avoid any shows that only put speed classes in the prize list.
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