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Showjumping for beginners: How to get into the sport

04 August 2020

If you’re thinking of starting a journey into the exciting sport of showjumping, you’ve got lots to look forward to! Jumping is a great way to deepen the bond between you and your horse or pony, as well as being a great test of your horsemanship. And, it’s possible for almost any rider to get involved.

Before you dive headfirst into the world of showjumping, there are a few things you will need to get to grips with, including rules and levels of progression. In this beginner’s guide, we will get you up to speed with all of the things you need to know. We’ll cover:

What is showjumping?

Showjumping is an equestrian sport in which a rider and horse try to jump over all of the fences in a course without knocking them down and within a set time limit. It is performed in an arena in front of a judge and, often, a crowd. Sometimes, showjumping can be referred to “stadium jumping”, “open jumping”, or simply “jumping”.

This activity requires a high level of teamwork between horse and rider, while testing the rider’s skill and the horse or pony’s power, scope, speed, athleticism, and carefulness. With training and practice, competitors can clear increasingly higher fences and will be able to compete at higher levels up to Olympic standards.

On an international level, showjumping is regulated by the International Federation for Equine Sports (FEI), the body that oversees global competition. In the UK, affiliated competitions are run by British Showjumping, who also control membership and horse registration.

Showjumping takes place at either standalone competitions or as part of eventing (in which riders compete across three equestrian events: showjumping, dressage, and cross country).

What are showjumping competitions?

Showjumping competitions are events in which riders and horses at the same level tackle a set course of jumps – that must be cleared in a certain order and time limit. Competitors compete one by one and then times and scores are compared to determine the winner.

There is at least one judge, who determines whether fences are successfully cleared and assigns penalties and points, and a course designer, who oversees the layout of the course, at each showjumping competition.

Affiliated vs non-affiliated competitions

In the UK, there are two types of showjumping competition: affiliated and unaffiliated. Riders can compete in either or both of these competitions.

Here are the main differences between affiliated and unaffiliated showjumping competitions:

  • Affiliated events are those overseen by British Showjumping and can count towards your points record, while unaffiliated events are not regulated by the body.
  • Many unaffiliated events follow the standards set by British Showjumping, but you will find they aren’t applied consistently across the board like they are in affiliated events.
  • Some rules that you will find at affiliated events, such as penalties for horse resistance, may not be enforced at some unaffiliated events.
  • To compete in affiliated competitions, you must become a member of British Showjumping, while you can compete in non-affiliated events as a non-member.

When just starting out, many people like to test the water at a non-affiliated event as it is usually a more cost-effective option of trying the sport. Then, when you’re certain that showjumping is for you, you can go ahead and start your affiliated progression. If you become a British Showjumping member, you still have the option of entering unaffiliated events.

British Showjumping membership

If you want to compete in affiliated competitions, you will need to become a member of British Showjumping. There are three different categories of membership available: Club membership, Just for Schools membership, and a National membership.

Club membership

Club membership allows horse and rider combinations to compete for regional club league points and qualify for their Club League Final at jump heights between 60–100cm. The horse and rider combination must have no results at National Amateur 85cm, Senior British, Novice, Stepping Stones, Pony British Novice level or above in the previous three years (though new riders on horses that have points can be Club members).

Just for Schools membership

Just for Schools membership is available only to riding schools, who can submit teams of three or four riders within a single jump height category of 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, or 110cm. Each jump height category has a league table, with the top riders competing at the Just For Schools Winter Summer Championships. Just for Schools members can only compete in their associated events.

National membership

National membership is the full membership for British Showjumping and has several categories that you might want to consider:

  • 12-month Full Jumping membership: Available from the beginning of the calendar year that the rider turns 19. Allows the member to compete as a rider of a registered horse.
  • 6-month Full Jumping membership: Available from the beginning of the calendar year that the rider turns 17. Allows the member to register a Grade C horse for 6 months only.
  • Junior membership: Available until the end of the calendar year that the rider turns 16. Allows the rider to compete on horses or ponies (horses only from 1 October in the year that the child turns 11). A parent or guardian needs to join as a full or non-jumping member.
  • Associate membership: Available from the beginning of the calendar year when the age of 17 is reached to the end of the calendar year in which the age of 18 is reached.
  • Non-jumping membership: Available from the beginning of the calendar year when the age of 19 is reached. For anyone who wants to support the sport without being a rider or horse owner (parents or guardians of Junior members can be owners of a registered horse).

For full details of the various levels of membership on offer, please visit British Showjumping’s membership advice.

What are the showjumping levels?

Showjumping levels are the different difficulty levels that British Showjumping members can take part in at affiliated competitions. Each level has its own set jump heights, meaning that you will jump higher fences as you improve and progress through the levels.

British Showjumping assigns points for every competition you place at (i.e. are assigned a finishing position and aren’t disqualified), which are recorded and added up as you compete. These affect which level you are eligible for.

If you are a senior rider (i.e. not a Junior member riding a pony) the classes are:

  • British Novice: This class is for novice horses (won less than 125 points) and the start height is 90cm. Qualifying for the second round means the height goes up to 100cm.
  • Discovery: This class is for horses that have accumulated less than 225 points and the start height is 100cm. In the second round, this goes up to 105cm.
  • Newcomers: This class is for horses that have won less than 325 points and has a start height of 110cm. The second round has a height of 125cm.
  • Foxhunter: This class is for horses that have won less than 700 points and has a start height of 120cm. This height goes up to 130cm in the second round.

Note: Junior members riding on horses must compete in the senior classes. Ponies can enter senior classes, but permission must be given by the owner.

British Showjumping records and points

British Showjumping keeps up-to-date records of every horse that is registered with the body, which means that they will track any successes and prize money you attain at affiliated showjumping competitions.

To make it easy to monitor progress, they have a system in place that awards points if your horse places (finishes without being disqualified) in a competition or performs a double clear, which is when you jump a clean round with zero penalties in both rounds of a competition.

For the starting heights you’re likely to begin with (up to 115cm), you will earn:

  • 1st place: 10 points
  • 2nd place: 8 points
  • 3rd place: 6 points
  • 4th place: 4 points
  • 5th place: 3 points
  • 6th place or below: 2 points
  • Double clear: 5 points

When it comes to progressing through the showjumping classes, British Showjumping has a rule in place that’s known as upgrading. Should your horse accumulate enough points to exceed the points limit in your current class, you can no longer compete competitively at that level and must move up to the next class. The horse points limits are:

Class   Points limit
British Novice   No more than 125 points
Discovery   No more than 225 points
Newcomers   No more than 375 points
Foxhunter   No more than 700 points
Grade C   No more than 999 points
Grade B   No more than 1,999 points
Grade A   2,000 points or more

Note: There are typically open classes running alongside the registered competition so that you can still jump at your current height if you need more practice but have exceeded the points level.

British Showjumping League

Alongside the points records British Showjumping keep, they also run something called the British Showjumping League, which is used to determine which horses and riders are invited to compete at League Semi-final or Championship shows. The aim of this system is to provide a progressive environment where all competitors have a chance of qualifying.

There are four league tiers and each one has its own rankings and attached competitions:

  • Club Leagues: Regional league tables for Club members competing in Club shows between first-round heights of 70–100cm. The rankings are used to invite riders to compete in a Club Championship.
  • Bronze Leagues: Regional leagues for National members competing in all classes at first-round heights of 90–110cm. The top 15 riders/horses will be invited to compete in a Semi-Final for the chance to qualify for the Bronze League Championship Final.
  • Silver Leagues: Regional leagues for National members competing in all classes at first-round heights of 90–110cm. The top 15 riders/horses will be invited to compete in a Semi-Final for the chance to qualify for the Silver League Championship Final.
  • Gold League: National league for National members for horses and riders who have five wins or double clears at 135cm. Any results at 140cm or higher will automatically place you in this league. The two highest-placed riders that are eligible for British Team selection are invited to compete at the Horse of the Year Show.

What are the showjumping rules?

You’ll need to get to grips with the showjumping rules before you can compete in the sport. The aim is to jump cleanly over the course obstacles within the set time limit. As the run commences, faults are for the likes of time faults, jumping faults, and disobedience faults. Each individual fault has a number of points assigned to it. The basic faults are:

  • Pole knockdown: 4 points
  • Foot in water: 4 points
  • First refusal (horse stops) at a fence: 4 points
  • Second refusal: Elimination
  • Fall of horse or rider: Elimination
  • Time fault: 1 point for every second/fraction of second (show dependent) over set time

Under the most commonly used rules for competitions, the first round is judged purely on faults, and all riders/horses with clear rounds (no faults and within the time limit) progress to the second round across a shorter, heightened course. In the second round, time is considered: if there is a tie on the number of points, the rider and horse with the quickest time is considered the victor.

As with any sport, the number of rules goes beyond just the way the competition is scored and how the winner is declared. While we can’t cover everything in this beginner’s guide, we can direct you to British Showjumping’s member handbook and rule amendments page, which contains the most up-to-date affiliated showjumping rules.

What is a showjumping course?

A showjumping course is the planned route of jumps laid out across an arena that you must follow during a competition. There are usually 10–15 obstacles and they will be set out in a pattern that allows them to be tackled in a set order. The course will also have a start and finish line to cross, as well as an entry and exit point that you must use when entering and leaving the arena.

The setting for the showjumping course will either an indoor or outdoor arena, with an arena that is either fenced or roped off from spectators. The surface of the arena can vary in material, ranging from grass to specialist mixes of sand and fibre. Outside of the main arena, there will be a warm-up ring, often known as a collecting ring, where riders can warm up or cool down with their horses. This area will also contain two obstacles — one vertical and one oxer — that do not exceed the height of the jumps on the course. Riders can practise clearing these as they wait for their turn to compete.

Showjumping course design and layout

Each showjumping course is designed and set up by a course designer, who is tasked with creating a series of tests that are appropriate in difficulty for the level of the competition. They will consider all aspects of the course, from the height and type of jump to the distance between and position of each obstacle. The aim of the course is to test the athleticism of the horse and the skill of the rider. The ideal course will be able to distinguish the best riders but still allow all competitors to complete it.

Before a competition, the designer will make a plan of the course available to all of the riders so that they can learn it and walk the course to plan their distances. Just like our example above, the course layout plan will show the start and finish posts, all of the fences with their type and number, and any required routes or turns. It will also display the exact distances, the track to be followed, marking system, and time allowed. Jump-off fences will also be labelled, as well as the distance and time.

What are the types of showjumping fence?

The fences are the focus of a showjumping course, ranging from a single bar held between two posts to very ornate designs that make use of water, flowers, shapes and colours. However, no matter what they look like, they all have a meticulous design in common that has been specially chosen to test the rider and horse’s skills. For scoring and safety reasons, each fence is intended to give way easily if it’s touched by either rider or horse.

There are a number of different types of fence you will come across as you get into showjumping, so it’s important to familiarise yourself with them. To get you started, here are some of the basic fences you’re likely to come across in the first classes of showjumping.

  • Vertical: An upright jump that consists of at least two poles or planks arranged directly over one another in a vertical fashion. They are held in place by wings designed to drop the bar if any contact is made.
  • Oxer: A jump that involves two verticals being placed close together to add more height and width, which is why it’s also known as a spread. Each pole can be arranged to add a new challenge to the jump, such as: both at the same height (square oxer), furthest pole higher (ascending oxer), nearest pole higher (descending oxer), poles slanting opposite directions to form an “X” (Swedish oxer).
  • Triple bar: A jump that features three verticals placed close together to add extra height and width. The most common format is the rising triple bar, where each pole is placed at a graduating height with the first bar as the lowest.
  • Liverpool: A jump featuring a shallow water tray or ditch placed beneath a vertical or oxer jump. The water is present so that the horse looks down, testing the rider’s control and the horse’s focus to clear the jump.
  • Combination: A combination is a series of fences that are placed near to each other in the course, so the competitor has to clear them in a quick sequence. They are usually made up of two (double combination) or three (triple combination) verticals or oxers placed one or two cantering strides apart. The whole set is considered to be one obstacle and a refusal or missed fence at any point requires the competitor to tackle the combination from the start.

Other elements of a showjumping fence can include: a filler (a solid construction, like a flower box, sponsor sign, or plank, which is not part of the jump and is usually placed beneath the fence) and a set of flags and numbers to mark the fence in the course order and direction it should be jumped.

What are showjumping distances?

A showjumping distance is the number of strides required from a horse between each fence in order to have the best chance of clearing it. If there are less than six strides between landing after one fence and taking off for the next, this is usually referred to as a “related distance”.

One of the major challenges of a showjumping course is to manage the number of strides your horse takes between each fence — too few and you will likely jump early, and too many and you may jump late or your horse might refuse. Typically, a horse stride at canter covers twelve feet, though a stride can be shortened or lengthened to adjust to a distance. When you’ve “missed your stride” you’ve misjudged the required strides for the distance, which could result in a failed jump. In addition to the athleticism of your horse, developing an eye for distance management is key to showjumping.

When it comes to jumps that have a related distance between them, managing your horse’s stride becomes even more important. For instance, when fences have just a two-stride distance between them, you cannot afford to take anything but those two strides — one more or one less will almost certainly end in a failed jump. On the other hand, you have more leeway to alter your stride when two fences have a greater distance. A huge part of getting your distance planning right is by walking the course before a showjumping competition begins.

How should I walk a showjumping course?

Once the course for a showjumping competition is completed and approved by the judge, competitors get an opportunity to “walk the course” to familiarise themselves with it in person. During this process, you should aim to memorise the route, learn where the fences are placed, and pace out the lines you will need to ride to find out how many strides you can take between each obstacle and what angle you will need to approach each jump.

From your practice, you should have a good idea how long one of your horse’s strides are, and it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with pacing them out accurately. Doing so will put you in the best position when it comes to walking the course, as you should be able to get a pretty good idea of how many strides to take between each jump. Remember to allow half-strides for your horse’s landing and take-off points, as well as the full strides between the fences.

In addition, you should pay attention to the condition of the surface and how it might affect your horse’s footing. For example, if it’s muddy, you may need to allow for some give upon landing. Also, if you have a mentor or coach, don’t be afraid to walk the course with them and get their opinion on your plan — it’s allowed, and two heads are always better than one!

Show outfit and tack: What clothes and equipment do I need?

Before your first competition, you will need to ensure that you and your horse are looking your best. While the spotlight on dress and tack in showjumping is not as intense as it is in dressage, you still need to obey the British Showjumping regulations if you wish to compete in affiliated classes.

What to wear for showjumping

As a British Showjumping competitor, you will need to wear the following in the arena:

  • Riding hat: A riding helmet or skull cap that meets current safety standards (see the British Showjumping handbook) in black, navy, or a conservative, dark colour that matches your jacket. Hats must be worn at all times when mounted, including warm-ups and exercising.
  • Riding jacket: A traditional fitted style riding or hacking jacket, or a new style jacket, in a dark, conservative colour.
  • Shirt and stock or tie: A white or pastel long- or short-sleeved shirt with a white collar (white cuffs if long-sleeved). Ladies can wear a white high-collared shirt with no stock — a tie or stock must be worn otherwise. Coloured ties or stocks can be worn with a hacking jacket.
  • Legwear: Breeches or jodhpurs must be white, pale yellow, beige, grey, or fawn coloured. Black or navy are not allowed.
  • Footwear: Riding boots must be plain black, black with mahogany or patent tops, plain brown, brown with patent tops, plain navy blue, or navy blue with mahogany or patent tops. Junior riders can wear plain black, brown, or navy traditional jodhpur boots, while adults can wear them with matching gaiters cut in the traditional riding boot style.

There are also a few optional items you’re permitted to wear:

What showjumping tack you need

There are also strict rules for what tack you need for your horse at British Showjumping affiliated competitions. These are:

  • Saddle: An English or continental saddle must be used. Side saddles aren’t allowed. Stirrup iron and stirrup leather must hang freely from the bar of the saddle and outside the flap.
  • Martingales: Only standing and/or running martingales can be used. A standing martingale must be attached to a cavesson noseband.
  • Snaffle: You can use a gag snaffle. Market Harborough reins, or any other running or check reins, or reins acting through sheaves or pulleys, are not allowed.
  • Tongue guards: Tongue guards are permitted provided they are detached from the rein and bit. Tongue straps or the use of string, fine wire, twine, or cord in or around the mouth are not allowed.
  • Rein handles or loops: Rein handles or loops are not permitted unless given permission on medical grounds.
  • Blinkers: Blinkers are not allowed, apart from in the practice area in senior levels (140cm and above). You can use leather, sheepskin, or similar on each cheek piece of the bridle as long as the material does not exceed 3cm in diameter from the horse’s cheek.
  • Curb chains: Curb chains are not allowed apart from on Pelham/Kimblewick and Weymouth bits.
  • Horse boots and leg protection: Horse boots and leg protectors can be used in some British Showjumping competitions but are subject to FEI weight, measurement, and design rules. Check the British Showjumping member’s handbook for full details.

What should I expect at my first show?

At the majority of affiliated shows, there will be competitions to suit rides from all skill levels, from novices like yourself right up to experienced professionals. There will also be classes just for Junior riders (under 16s) riding ponies, so all age ranges will be catered to. This means that there will likely be a jam-packed schedule, so you’ll need to know when you need to arrive and be ready.

On the schedule, you may come across two types of class: single phase and two phase:

  • In a two-phase competition, there is a first round where riders that achieve a clear round go straight into the timed second round, while riders that incur faults are eliminated. Depending on the class, the judge might halt a rider at their first fault by ringing a bell.
  • A single-phase class, on the other hand, sees all riders go through to the second round automatically and faults are accumulated in both first and second rounds. You’ll need to check what format your class is, though two-phase are most common.

Before the competition, you should get access to the course plan, allowing you to see the type and number of jumps you’re up against, as well as distances. It’s a good idea to turn up early for your competition so you will have time to walk the course and plan your pace.

When it comes to determining when your ride will commence, a running order is created for all of the competitors. At most shows, this is done via a draw by the judges before the class begins. At smaller competitions, it can just be a case of writing your name on a board in the collecting ring and waiting until you are called. If you are one of the last riders, be sure to spend time watching the other competitors to see if any common faults are made on the course.

The start of your ride will be signified by the ringing of a bell, after which you have 45 seconds to enter the arena and cross the start line. There is timing equipment with sensors at the start and finish lines, so the clock will start and stop accurately when you cross each line. Most classes also have a display board that will show a countdown so both rider and audience can track progress.

During the ride, you will be observed by the judge and any faults will be marked. If you are taking part in a two-phase competition and ride a clean round, you will progress to the second round. Otherwise, you will be eliminated. If it’s a single-phase event, you will progress regardless.

In-between rounds there will be an interval while the course is adapted for the jump-off, where some jumps are removed and others are heightened. The course plan should indicate what changes are being made, so you should be aware of what to expect. Once you and the other riders have completed the second round, your scores will be calculated on faults and time to determine the winner.

What are some showjumping exercises for beginners?

At the first levels of showjumping, your main objectives will be getting your horse used to jumping and mastering the control and pace management required to navigate basic courses. Here, we’ll give you some tips for starting out as well as some ideas for exercises.

Consider dressage training alongside jumping training

Many riders who start jumping also begin training in dressage techniques, as it helps to teach the essentials of good control and build understanding between rider and horse. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to undertake some dressage training or incorporate some dressage activities into your training regime. Our beginner’s guide to dressage is a great place to start if you are not experienced in this sport.

Below, you will find some of our most popular masterclasses to help you and your horse develop ‘on the flat’. You can access these and even more content by subscribing to Horse & Country.

Improving or establishing the paces (i.e. walk, trot, canter)

Learning or improving movements basic Dressage movements

 

Focus on improving your gridwork

Gridwork is an essential part of showjumping training that uses poles and fences set at measured distances, replicating the process of navigating a jumping course in a way that can be tracked and improved. It will not only help to teach your horse the best pace for a successful jump, but it will also help you to improve your control and management skills.

It should be noted that this training can’t be undertaken alone, as you’ll need an experienced set of eyes to see whether you’re on track and a pair of hands to adjust poles and fences. So, either work with your coach or instructor, or buddy up with another rider to improve each other’s form.

To begin with, build your first grid down the centre of the paddock so it can be approached from two directions, which is good for improving turning and balance in the reins. Use a placing pole to mark the first take-off point and build the first fence, keeping heights low. You can then measure out the rest of the grid from this point — be sure to keep distances shorter than competition distances, as this will encourage your horse to bide his time and jump with better technique.

Keep early gridwork lessons to a trot as you will find it easier to control the horse and maintain a regular rhythm and balance, and make sure your distance planning and grid measurements reflect this. Try to get your horse used to jumping at the placing pole, as this will help to teach them to use their feet in pairs for an even take-off. You should also stick with low fences to begin with, but you can increase height and add more fences as you both develop.

Eventually, you’ll both feel comfortable and confident enough to move from a trot to a canter in your approach to gridwork. This means you’ll have to adjust your measurements and planning to suit your horse’s canter strides. You can vary your grid by adding more strides between each fence and switching up the type of fence.

Some of our top rider masterclasses, that focus on improving showjumping style and technique, can be found here.

Showjumping is a fantastic sport that offers amazing progression opportunities and fun for you and your horse. We hope this beginner’s guide helps ease you into what can be a slightly overwhelming new world of course plans, gridwork, and rules and regulations.

It’s also worth considering the other equestrian resources we have at Horse & Country, including training and learning videos, sports coverage, and entertainment and documentary programmes. We will also keep you right up to date with news and live events. Simply by subscribing to our service, you’ll be opening a whole world of quality equestrian content.

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