Horse Riding

Jumping through history: a look at the evolution of equestrian jumping

Jumping is a thrilling and exciting equestrian sport that involves a horse and rider navigating a course of obstacles, including fences and jumps.

Jumping is one of the most popular equestrian disciplines, though it is a relatively new equestrian sport.

Horses and their riders have been jumping over natural obstacles together for a very long time.

At first in the ordinary course of going places, and then, many centuries ago, for sport (hunting), and war.

However, it was not until the 19th century that jumping became a particularly admired, special equestrian skill.

This was a natural result of following hounds over country that had been fenced in compliance with England’s 18th century Enclosure Acts, and the subsequent advent of horse racing over obstacles—steeplechasing.  

The Inclosure Acts brought boundaries and fencing to many areas of the country as common ground was distributed among separate landowners.

This meant that riders pursuing this sport now needed horses capable of jumping these obstacles.

Early horse shows in France featured a parade of competitors who then took off across the countryside to participate in jumping.

However, this format was not popular with spectators as they could not easily follow the jumping.

Consequently, fences were introduced into the arenas, which became known as Lepping.

In 1869, ‘horse leaping’ gained prominence at the Dublin horse show.

Fifteen years later, Lepping competitions were introduced to Britain and by 1900, most important shows included Lepping classes.

Separate classes were held for women who rode side-saddle.

By the middle of the 19th century, private matches to settle wagers had evolved into public competitions, incorporated in the programs of agricultural fairs and a growing number of horse shows.

Before the auto-mobile came along, much interest centred on draft, harness and saddle horses.

But from the very beginning the biggest draws for the general public were the high jump and the broad jump.

The first recorded jumping competitions simply attempted to determine who could jump higher (high leap) over rails or a wall, and sometimes, wider (wide leap) over a water jump with a hedge, in separate competitions.

The Olympics in Stockholm in 1912 more or less defined the form international jumping.

Stockholm staged the whole modern Olympic equestrian program with a show jumping Nations Cup in a beautiful, dedicated stadium, with scoring and courses not so different from today’s.

There were separate competitions for the team and individual medals (as again in 1920, 1960 and since 1968).

Show jumping and its growth were severely impeded by the catastrophe of World War I.

Both civilians and the various horse cavalries sustained huge losses during the war.

The 1914 National Horse Show was not held, the 1916 Olympics were cancelled, and many other horse shows on both sides of the Atlantic were necessarily suspended.

However, horse show activity resumed surprisingly quickly after the war.

The 1920 VII Olympic Games in Antwerp were organized on schedule and considered a success, though only six nations competed in show jumping.

By the 1920s, it was evident that a serious impediment to the growth of show jumping was the fact that each national and international competition determined its own program, rules and conditions.

The sport had no governing bodies to regulate the sport.

This problem was finally addressed by the creation of the American Horse Shows Association (now the U.S. Equestrian Federation) in 1917, and the establishment in 1921 of an international federation, the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI).

As the sport evolved, so did the techniques and equipment used in jumping.

Since its origins as a competitive sport in the 18th and 19th centuries, the principal cavalry schools of Europe at Pinerolo and Tor-di-Quinto in Italy, the French school in Saumur, and the Spanish school in Vienna all preferred to use a very deep seat with long stirrups when jumping.

This style of riding, while it may have felt more secure for the rider, impeded the freedom of the horse to use its body to the extent needed to clear large obstacles.

An Italian riding instructor, Captain Federico Caprilli, heavily influenced the world of jumping with his ideas promoting a “forward position” with shorter stirrups.

This style placed the rider in a position that did not interfere with the balance of the horse while negotiating obstacles.

This style, now known as the forward seat, is the general standard today.

The deep, Dressage-style seat, while useful for riding on the flat and in conditions where control of the horse is of greater importance than freedom of movement, is less suitable for jumping.

The forward seat allowed riders to jump higher and more safely, contributing to jumping courses becoming more complex and challenging, with obstacles such as water jumps, double jumps, and combinations requiring a high degree of skill and precision from both horse and rider.

The sport continued to grow in popularity throughout the 20th century, with the introduction of new disciplines such as eventing and the development of specialized equipment such as safety stirrups and protective vests.

Today, jumping remains one of the most popular equestrian sports, with competitions held at local, national, and international levels.

Riders from all over the world compete in events such as the Olympic Games and the World Equestrian Games, showcasing their skill and athleticism as they navigate challenging courses and obstacles.

As the sport continues to evolve, it remains an exciting and thrilling display of the partnership between horse and rider.

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