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Show jumping

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A youth competitor show jumping in Denmark

Show jumping, also known as "stadium jumping" or "jumpers," is a member of a family of English riding equestrian events that also includes dressage, eventing, hunters and equitation. Jumping classes are commonly seen at horse shows throughout the world, including the Olympics. Sometimes shows are limited exclusively to jumpers, sometimes jumper classes are offered in conjunction with other English-style events, and sometimes show jumping is but one division of very large, all-breed competitions that include a very wide variety of disciplines. Jumping classes may be governed by various national horse show sanctioning organizations, such as the United States Equestrian Federation in the USA. However, international competitions are governed by the rules of the Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI).


Hunters or jumpers

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Proper show jumping attire, as seen in the show jumping phase of a three-day event. Attire at an event includes a mandatory armband as seen here, although the armband is not required in general show jumping.

People unfamiliar with horse shows may be confused by the difference between working hunter classes and jumper classes. Hunters are judged subjectively on the degree to which they meet an ideal standard of manners, style, and way of going. Conversely, jumper classes are scored objectively based entirely on a numerical score determined only by whether the horse attempts the obstacle, clears it, and finishes the course in the allotted time. Jumper courses are often colorful and at times quite creatively designed. Jumper courses tend to be much more complex and technical than hunter courses, because riders and horses are not being judged on style. Hunters have meticulous turnout and tend toward very quiet, conservative horse tack and rider attire. Hunter bits, bridles, crops, spurs and martingales are tightly regulated. Jumpers, while caring for their horses and grooming them well, are not scored on turnout, are allowed a wider range of equipment, and riders may wear less conservative attire, so long as it stays within the rules. However, formal turnout is always preferred, and a neat rider gives a good impression at shows.

In addition to hunters and jumpers, there are equitation classes, sometimes called hunt seat equitation, which judge the ability of the rider. The equipment, clothing and fence styles used in equitation more closely resemble hunter classes, though the technical difficulty of the courses may more closely resemble jumping events.

Courses and rules

A show jumping course.
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Show Jump Course
Diagram of a show jumping course

Jumper classes are held over a course of show jumping obstacles, including verticals, spreads, double and triple combinations, usually with many turns and changes of direction. The purpose is to jump cleanly over a set course within an allotted time. Time faults are assessed for exceeding the time allowance. Jumping faults are incurred for knockdowns and blatant disobedience, such as refusals (when the horse stops before a fence or "runs out"). (see "Modern Rules" below) Horses are allowed a limited number of refusals before being disqualified. A refusal can also lead to a rider going over the time allowed on course. Placings are based on the lowest number of points or "faults" accumulated. A horse and rider who have not accumulated any jumping faults or penalty points are said to have scored a "clear round." Tied entries usually have a jump off over a raised and shortened course, and the course is timed; if entries are tied for faults accumulated in the jump-off, the fastest time wins.

In most competitions, riders are allowed to walk the course but not the jump-off course (usually the same course with missing jumps e.g. 1, 3, 5, 7, 8 in stead of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) before competition to plan their ride. Walking the course is a chance for the rider to walk the lines he or she will actually ride, to decide how many strides the horse will need to take between each jump and at which angle. The more professional the competition, such as "A" rated shows in the United States, or the international "Grand Prix" circuit, the more technical the course. Not only is the height and sometimes width ("spread") of an obstacle increased to present a greater challenge, technical difficulty also increases with tight turns and shorter or unusual distances between fences. Horses sometimes also have to jump fences from an angle rather than straight-on. For example, a course designer might set up a line so that there are six and a half strides (the standard measure for a canter stride is 12 feet) between the jumps, requiring the rider to adjust the horse's stride dramatically in order to make the distance.

Unlike show hunter classes, which reward calmness and style, Jumper classes require boldness, scope, power, accuracy, and control; speed is also a factor, especially in jump-off courses and speed classes (when time counts even in the first round). A jumper must jump big, bravely, and fast, but he must also be careful and accurate to avoid knockdowns and must be balanced and rideable in order to rate and turn accurately. A jumper rider must ride the best line to each fence, saving ground with well-planned turns and lines and must adjust the horse's stride for each fence and distance. In a jump-off, a rider must balance the need to go as fast as possible and turn as tight as possible against the horse's ability to jump cleanly.


The jumping course in Balve
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Grand Prix show jumping.

Show jumping is a relatively new equestrian sport. Until the Inclosure Acts which came into force in England in the eighteenth century there had been little need for horses to routinely jump fences. But with this act of parliament came new challenges for those who followed fox hounds. The enclosures act brought fencing and boundaries to many parts of the country as common ground was dispersed amongst the wealthy landowners. This meant that those wishing to pursue their sport now needed horses which were capable of jumping these obstacles.

In the early shows held in France, there was a parade of competitors who then took off across country for the jumping. This sport was, however, not popular with spectators as they could not watch the jumping. Thus, it was not long before fences began to appear in the arena. This became known as Lepping. 1869 was the year ‘horse leaping’ came to prominence at Dublin horse show.[1] Fifteen years later, Lepping competitions were brought to Britain and by 1900 most of the more important shows had Lepping classes. Women, riding side-saddle, had their own classes.

At this time, 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 was perhaps more secure for the rider, but it also impeded the freedom of the horse to use its body to the extent needed to clear large obstacles.

The Italian Instructor Captain Federico Caprilli heavily influenced the world of jumping with his ideas that a forward position with shorter stirrups would not impede the balance of the horse negotiating obstacles. This style, now known as the forward seat,is commonly used 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 sometimes referred to with disparagement as a "backward" seat in some jumping circles.

The first major show jumping competition held in England was at Olympia in 1907. Most of the competitors were members of the military and it became clear at this competition and in the subsequent years that there was no uniformity of rules for the sport. Judges marked on their own opinions. Some marked according to the severity of the obstacle and others marked according to style. Before 1907 there were no penalties for a refusal and the competitor was sometimes asked to miss the fence to please the spectators. The first courses were built with little imagination; many consisting of only a straight bar fence and a water jump. A meeting was arranged in 1923 which led to the formation of the BSJA in 1925. In the United States, a similar need for national rules for jumping and other equestrian activities led to the formation of the American Horse Shows Association in 1917, now known as the United States Equestrian Federation.

An early form of show jumping was first incorporated into the Olympic Games in 1900. Show jumping in its current format appeared in 1912, and has thrived ever since, its recent popularity due in part to its suitability as a spectator sport which can be viewed on television.

Original scoring tariff

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Riders walking a course.

The original list of faults introduced in The United Kingdom in 1925 was as follows:

1st: 4 faults
2nd: elimination
(at first, stadium jumps were set as a single rail that would be sometimes up to 5 feet high. the horses eventually began to duck under the jumps, which is perhaps were the term 'ducking out' at a fence originated from)
  • Fall of the horse, the rider, or both: elimination
  • Touches: If a horse touches a fence without knocking it down, zero faults
  • rail down with front hooves:4 faults
  • rail down with back hooves: 4 faults
  • Foot in the water jump: if a horse lands with any number of feet in the water—4 faults. However no faults were incurred if the raised block in front of the water was knocked down.

Water jumps were once at least 15 feet (5 m) wide, although the water had often drained out of them by the time the last competitor jumped. High jumping would start with a pole at around 5 feet but this was later abandoned, as many horses went under the pole. It was for this reason that more poles were added and fillers came into use. Time penalties were not counted until 1917.

Modern rules

This knockdown will incur 4 penalties or "faults."

Rules have since evolved, with different national federations having different classes and rules.[2] The international governing body for most major show jumping competitions is the Federation Equestrian Internationale (FEI). FEI The two most common types of penalties are jumping penalties and time penalties.

  • Jumping Penalties: Jumping penalties are assessed for refusals and knockdowns, with each refusal or knockdown adding four faults to a competitor's score.
  • Penalties for knockdowns are imposed only when the knockdown changes the height or width of the jump. If a horse or rider knocks down a bottom or middle rail while still clearing the height of the obstacle, providing the rails are directly underneath the top rail, they receive no penalties. Penalties are assessed at the open water when the horse touches the water or white tape with any of his feet. If a rail is set over the middle of the water, faults are not accumulated for landing in the water.
  • Refusals: Refusals now are penalized four faults, up from three. Within the last several years, the FEI has decreased the number of refusals resulting in elimination from three to two, and this rule has trickled down from the top levels of FEI competition to all levels of horse shows (at least in the United States).
  • A refusal that results in the destruction of the integrity of a jump (running into the fence instead of jumping it, displacing poles, gates, flowers, or large clumps of turf or dirt) will not receive four faults for the knockdown, but instead the four faults for a refusal and an additional penalty while the timer is stopped for the repair or replacement of the jump. A refusal inside a combination (one- or two-stride) must re-jump the entire combination.
  • Time Penalties: In the past, a common timing rule was a 1/4 second penalty for each second or fraction of a second over the time allowed. Since the early 2000s, this rule was changed by the FEI so that each second or fraction of a second over the time allowed would result in 1 time penalty (e.g. with a time allowed of 72 seconds, a time of 73.09 seconds would result in 2 time faults).
  • Combinations: a refusal at any of the jumps in a combination results in the horse having to repeat the entire obstacle, not just the element refused. So a horse may jump "A" and "B" without issue, but have a refusal at the third fence (C), at which time the rider would have to circle and return to jump fence "A" again, giving the horse a second chance to refuse or knock down "A" and "B". Despite being considered one obstacle, each element may result in penalty points if knocked down. Therefore, if each of the three fences in a triple combination were knocked down, the rider would receive 12 faults (4 per rail), instead of 4 faults for the entire obstacle.


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Common show jumping tack:jumping saddle, open-front boots, running martingale, and figure-8 noseband.

Show jumping competitors use a very forward style of English saddle, most often the "close contact" design, which has a forward flap and a seat and cantle that is flatter than saddles designed for general all-purpose English riding or dressage. This construction allows greater freedom of movement for the rider when in jumping position, and allows a shorter stirrup, required in order for a rider to allowing the rider to lighten his or her seat. Other saddles, such as those designed for dressage, are intended for riders with a deep seat, can hinder a rider over large fences, forcing them into a position that limits the horse's movement and may put the rider dangerously behind the movement of the horse.

At international levels, saddle pads are usually white and square in shape, allowing the pair to display a sponsorship, national flag, or breeding affiliation. (In contrast, riders in show hunters and equitation often use "fitted" fleece pads that are the same shape as the saddle.) Girths vary in type, but usually have a contour to give room for the horse's elbows, and many have belly guards to protect the underside of the horse from its shoe studs when the front legs are tightly folded under.

Bridles may be used with any style of cavesson noseband, and there are few rules regarding the severity of this equipment. The figure-8 cavesson is the most popular type. Bits may also vary in severity, and competitors may use any bit, or even a "bitless bridle" or a hackamore. However, the ground jury at the show has the right, based on veterinary advice, to refuse a bit or bridling scheme if it could cause harm to the horse.

Boots and/or wraps are worn by almost all horses, due to the fact that they may easily injure their legs when landing or when making tight turns at speed. Open-fronted tendon boots are usually worn on the forelegs, because they provide protection for the delicate tendons that run down the back of the leg, but still allow the horse to feel a rail should it get careless and hang its legs. Fetlock boots are sometimes seen on the rear legs, primarily to prevent the horse from hitting itself on tight turns.

Martingales are very common, especially on horses used at the Grand Prix level. The majority of jumpers are ridden in running martingales, as these provide the most freedom over fences. Although a standing martingale (a strap connecting directly to the horse's noseband) is commonly seen on show hunters and may be helpful in keeping a horse from throwing its head up, it can also be quite dangerous in the event of a stumble, restricting a horse from using its head to regain its balance. For this reason, standing martingales are not used in show jumping or eventing. Breastplates are also common, used to keep the saddle in place as the horse goes over large fences.

Rider attire

Rider attire may be somewhat less formal than that used in hunter riding. However, an approved ASTM/SEI equestrian helmet with a harness is always required, and is a practical necessity to protect the rider's head in the event of a fall. Tall boots are required, usually black. Spurs are optional, but commonly used. Breeches are traditional in color, usually white, tan, or beige. At approved competitions, depending on sanctioning organization, a dark-colored coat is usually worn (though under the rules of the USEF tweed or wash jackets are allowed in the summer and lighter colors are currently in fashion), with a light-colored (usually white) ratcatcher-style shirt and either a choker or stock tie. However, especially in the summer, many riders wear a simple short-sleeved "polo" style shirt with helmet, boots and breeches, and even where coats are required, the judges may waive the coat rule in extremely hot weather. Gloves, usually black, are optional, as is braiding of the horse. At FEI Grand Prix levels, tradition is very strong and riders dress in a more formal manner. White shirts and breeches are worn with black boots. Members of some national teams, including the United States, may be seen in red jackets, a color reserved for only riders of the Grand Prix level; otherwise international competitors usually wear a dark navy jacket, sometimes with national insignia added.

Types of competition

Grand Prix Competition
  • Speed derby
  • Puissance: a high-jump competition, where the final wall may reach over 7 feet tall.
  • Six-bar: riders jump six fences set in a straight line. In most places, fences are placed at equal distances apart, the first fence is the lowest and each subsequent fence is higher than the one before. Horses are either penalized or eliminated from competition if they knock down a rail. After each round where more than one competitor goes "clean," or is tied for fewest faults, the six fences are raised in height each subsequent round until there is a winner. Occasionally, if there are multiple jump-offs, the final fences can be raised to well over 6 feet.
  • Gambler's choice/accumulator: An event where exhibitors choose their own course, with each fence cleared worth a given amount of points based on difficulty. The entry who accumulates the most points within a set time limit on course is the winner.
  • Calcutta: A jumping event where spectators bet on which horse will win by means of an auction where the highest bidder has the exclusive bet on a given horse. Though the exact mechanism varies by region and culture, as a rule, the spectator who bets on the winner collects all money bet and then splits the purse with the owner of the winning horse.
  • Maiden, novice and limit: Jumping classes limited to horses with fewer than one, three or six wins. Fences are usually lower and time limits more generous.
  • Match race or double slalom: two identical courses are set up in a split arena, and two horses race over the courses.
  • Touch class: A class held much like a normal showjumping class, except that if the horse touches the jump it is considered four faults.
  • Faults converted: A class in which any faults are converted into seconds on the clock, usually at the rate of 1 second per fault (i.e. one rail = 4 seconds)

Types of show jumps

Show jumping fences are often colorful, sometimes very elaborate and artistic in design, particularly at the highest levels of competition. Types of jumps used include the following:

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An oxer. England, 2004
A Liverpool. California, USA, 2005.
  • Vertical (or upright) - a jump that consists of poles or planks placed one directly above another with no spread, or width, to jump.
  • Oxer - two verticals close together, to make the jump wider. Also called a spread.
    • Square oxer (sometimes known as Box Oxer): Both top poles are of an equal height.
    • Ascending oxer (usually called a Ramped Oxer): The furthest pole is higher than the first.
    • Descending oxer (usually called an Offset Oxer): The furthest pole is lower than the closest.
    • Swedish oxer: The poles slant in opposite directions, so that they appear to form an "X" shape when seen head on.
  • Triple bar - Is a spread fence using three elements of graduating heights.
  • Cross rail - not commonly used in sanctioned horse shows, and sometimes called a "cross-pole," two poles crossed with one end of each pole is on the ground and on jump standards so that the center is lower than the sides. Used at small shows and for schooling purposes to help the horse jump in the center of the fence.
  • Wall - This type of jump is usually made to look like a brick wall, but the "bricks" are constructed of a lightweight material and fall easily when knocked.
  • Hogsback - A type of spread fence with three rails where the tallest pole is in the center.
  • Filler - This is not a type of fence but is a solid part below the poles, such as flower boxes or a rolltop. It can also be a gate.
  • Combination - usually 2 or 3 jumps in a row, with no more than 2 strides between each. 2 jumps in a row are called double combinations, and 3 jumps in a row are triple combinations. If a horse refuses the second or third element in one of these combinations, they must jump the whole combination again, not just the obstacle(s) they missed.
  • Fan: the rails on one side of the fence are spread out by standards, making the fence take the shape of a fan when viewed from above.
  • Liverpool: a ditch or large tray of water under a vertical or oxer
  • Joker - a tricky fence comprising only a rustic (or unpainted) rail and two wings. The lack of filler makes it difficult for a horse to judge their proximity to the fence as well as the fence's height, making it a tricky obstacle usually found only in the upper divisions, and illegal in some competitions.

Jump height levels are governed nationally until reaching a high enough level (usually 1.50 meters) that will be governed by the international body, the FEI. In the United States, jumping levels range from 0-9:

USEF JUMPER LEVELS Level 1. Fences 2’9” to 3’0” in height and 3’0” to 3’6” in spread. Triple bars/liverpools to 4’0”. Level 2. Fences 3’0” to 3’3” in height and 3’3” to 3’9” in spread. Triple bars/liverpools to 4’3” Level 3. Fences 3’3” to 3’6” in height and 3’6” to 4’0” in spread Triple bars/liverpools to 4’6”. Level 4. Fences 3’6” to 3’9” in height and 3’9” to 4’3” in spread. Triple bars to 4’9”. Water to 8’. Level 5. Fences 3’9” to 4’0” in height and 4’0” to 4’6” in spread. Triple bars to 5’0”. Water to 9’. Level 6. Fences 4’0”to 4’3” in height and 4’3” to 4’9” in spread. Triple bars to 5’3”. Water to 10’. Level 7. Fences 4’3” to 4’6” in height and 4’6” to 5’0” in spread. Triple bars to 5’6”. Water to 12’. Level 8. Fences 4’6” to 4’9” in height and 4’9” to 5’3” in spread. Triple bars to 5’9”. Water to 12’6”. Level 9. Fences 4’9” to 5’0” in height and 5’0” to 5’6” in spread. Triple bars to 6’0”. Water to 13’.

In Germany, levels are denoted by the letters A-S, and correspond to heights ranging from 0.80 to 1.55 meters.

The horses

A show jumper must have the scope and courage to jump large fences as well as the athletic ability to handle the sharp turns and bursts of speed necessary to navigate the most difficult courses. Many breeds of horses have been successful show jumpers, and even some "grade" horses of uncertain breeding have been champions. Most show jumpers are tall horses, over 16 hands, usually of Warmblood or Thoroughbred breeding, though horses as small as 14.1 hands have been on the Olympics teams of various nations and carried riders to Olympic and other international medals. There is no correlation between the size of a horse and its athletic ability, nor do tall horses necessarily have an advantage when jumping. Nonetheless, a taller horse may make a fence appear less daunting to the rider.[3]

Ponies also compete in show jumping competitions in many countries, usually in classes limited to youth riders under the age of 16 or 18 years, depending on sanctioning organization. Pony-sized horses may, on occasion, compete in open competition with adult riders. The most famous example was Stroller, ridden by Marion Coakes (married name Mould) who only stood 14.1 hands (57 inches, 145 cm) but was nonetheless a Individual Silver medal winner and part the United Kingdom's show jumping team in the 1968 Summer Olympics, jumping one of the few clean rounds in the competition. Significant jumpers from the United States are included in the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.[4]


  1. History of Dublin Horse Show
  2. USEF Web site, USA
  3. Barakat, Christine. "Why Size Matters." Equus, October 2007, Issue 361, pp. 36-42
  4. Show Jumping Hall of Fame inductees

  • Clayton, Michael, and William Steinkraus. The Complete Book of Show Jumping. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. ASIN: B000HFW4KC
  • de Nemethy, Bertalan. Classic Show Jumping: The de Nemethy Method; A Complete System for Training Today's Horses and Riders. Doubleday, 1988. ISBN 0385236204

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