Chris Kappler is an Olympic gold and silver medalist with a storied career in the show jumping ring. After a successful junior equitation career, Chris transitioned to the senior levels of show jumping, picking up several Gold Cup and Invitational wins en route to his Olympic success in 2004. He shares his thoughts on rider development.
I’ve often been asked for my thoughts on the emerging athletes within the American show jumping system. I do think that for a while, America really felt the gap between the younger riders and the senior riders. But thanks to the development of several programs by the USEF and USHJA, this gap has closed significantly. The process of developing our future team riders is an involved one, and it’s far from short. Say what you want about barriers to the sport or difficulties rising through the levels – no matter what, the best riders will always emerge.
I know some may ask where the next riders are coming from. Often, it seems they come out of nowhere to take the spotlight. Take the example of Devin Ryan. He was working for George Morris and I at just 16 years old (he is 36 now), and even then I knew he was something special. But he’s been working for a very long time. He wanted it more than just about anyone else, and now here he is.
A common misconception from other disciplines is that it’s easy to step into the irons on a new horse that’s just been purchased and take it immediately to the top.
I’ve been around long enough to see the sport evolving. Another common complaint is that of show expenses are a barrier of participation. Here my answer is: it’s always been expensive. It certainly has become more expensive over time, and I know that both the federations and the shows are working on ways to help make this sport more approachable. But the fact remains that it has always been expensive – think of the wealthy owners of the past, the Sears, the Butlers. There have always been great, wealthy owners who have supported our sport, and we hope that they will always continue to have a presence. We would be remiss not to be appreciative of the support that families and individuals of wealth have given to our sport over the years.
And, finally, it’s a process. Developing riders – and their horses – is no simple undertaking. A common misconception is that it’s easy to step into the irons on a new horse that’s just been purchased and take it immediately to the top. While many riders excel at riding lots of horses well, there is still a lot to be said about developing a partnership with each horse.
Even Mclain Ward’s great HH Azur and Sapphire were both purchased as developing seven year olds and produced to what they became. Mclain knows his horses backward and forward – and I think that is paramount to anyone’s success. Those relationships take the better part of a year to develop and really solidify.
Think about it from the horse’s perspective. Sure, the rider is used to getting on multiple different horses, but the horse only knows one rider at a time. So, a new rider gets on and is suddenly giving different signals than what the horse is accustomed to. At any easy level of competition, it’s possible to have plenty of good results, but the top level isn’t easy for any horse or rider. Consistent success doesn’t happen at the top without strong partnerships.
All of these elements of success: work ethic, financial support, and a proper partnership, are don’t come easily overnight. The future of the sport of show jumping (and of all disciplines) relies on the emerging and developing athletes. No matter what barrier truly dedicated rider will come out on top. Even our idols who make success look effortless worked for every bit of it.