Show jumping is one of the most popular and recognizable equestrian sports in the world, featuring incredible acts of athleticism from both horse and rider.

Jumping appears alongside eventing and dressage in the equestrian events featured at the Olympic Games. While well-known for attracting celebrities at the international level, show jumping is fun for equestrians of all backgrounds.

Show jumping is popular with spectators because it is easy to understand and exciting to watch. This sport continues to grow from grassroots to international competition at the Grand Prix level.

Read on to learn everything riders and spectators need to know about the discipline of show jumping, including the sport’s history, modern competition, training, and the incredible horses who make it possible.

What is Show Jumping?

Show jumping is an equestrian discipline that involves horses and riders navigating a jump course in a riding arena. All athletes ride over the jumps in the same order and score penalties, or faults, if they knock down rails (fence poles) or a horse refuses to clear the jump.

Show jumpers must complete a jumper course within a time limit. Going over the time limit incurs more penalties. The combination that completes the jumping course fastest with the lowest faults wins the class. [3]

History of Show Jumping

The equestrian sport of jumping is relatively new. For most of history, there was no need to train horses to jump big fences.

This was true until the Enclosure Acts were passed in England, creating legal property rights to common land. Between 1604 and 1914, the British Parliament enclosed 6.8 million acres of the English countryside. [1]

As these enclosures were laid down, equestrians riding and fox hunting over the countryside now needed horses capable of jumping the fences separating private land.

Eventually, competitions began featuring classes over fences in the late 19th century so riders could showcase their horses’ abilities in front of spectators.

An early form of show jumping appeared in the 1900 Olympic Games, but the rules across different competitions weren’t consistent. Show Jumping in its current format first appeared at the Olympics in 1912. [2]

Jumping Sport Organizations

Efforts to standardize early show jumping sport led to the formation of some of the first national equestrian organizations. Show jumping still relies on jumping governing bodies to develop rules and regulations for national and international competition.

FEI

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) is the international governing body for horse sports recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This organization oversees all international jumping events and championships, including the Olympic Games.

There are seven recognized FEI disciplines, including the three Olympic equestrian disciplines, including:

  • Jumping
  • Dressage
  • Eventing
  • Para-equestrian
  • Endurance
  • Vaulting
  • Driving

USEF

Originally established as the American Horse Shows Association in 1917, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is the national governing body for horse sport in the United States.

In addition to the seven international disciplines recognized by the FEI, the USEF also recognizes 11 additional national disciplines:

  • English Pleasure
  • Carriage Pleasure Driving
  • Hunter
  • Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation
  • Parade Horse
  • Reining
  • Roadster
  • Saddle Seat
  • Western
  • Western Dressage
  • Western/Reining Seat Equitation

USHJA

The United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) is a national member organization representing all levels of hunter and jumper participants in the United States. USHJA is the official national affiliate for the jumper discipline recognized by the USEF.

USHJA offers competition, education, and award programs for jumper riders. The association also provides input for national jumping rules and regulations.

Hunter and Jumper Classes

Wondering what the difference is between hunter and jumper equestrian sports? Although commonly grouped, hunter and jumper are distinct disciplines. Both sports involve jumping over fences in an arena.

Hunter classes are subjectively judged based on performance and movement quality. Jumpers are objectively scored based on time and the horse’s ability to clear all fences without faults. [4]

Jumper courses are typically more technical and complex than hunter courses, with higher jumps to challenge the horse’s athletic ability.

Equestrian Canada

Equestrian Canada (EC) is Canada’s national governing body for horse sport. EC establishes rules for national jumping competitions in the country.

This organization also nominates Canadian national teams for international jumping championships, including the Olympics.

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Show Jumping Competition

Show jumping competitions are relatively straightforward for spectators to understand. National and international competitions have similar formats, but international events have stricter regulations.

Rules

Jumper classes test the horse and rider’s ability to navigate a set course of jumps within an allotted time. Riders win the class based on the number of penalties, or faults, they accumulate on the course. The combination with the lowest number of penalty points wins. [3]

Faults

Show jumping faults include:

  • Time faults
  • Knockdowns
  • Refusals

Exceeding the allotted time results in time faults. Riders typically get one penalty point for every second above the allowed time. Different faults have specific penalty scores.

Failing to clear an obstacle on the course adds faults to their score. If a horse knocks down a rail, the combination incurs four faults. Knocking down multiple rails at a single obstacle has the same penalty as a single rail.

Combinations also earn four faults if the horse refuses to jump an obstacle.

Eliminations

Multiple refusals, jumping the wrong obstacle, and falling off result in elimination. Riders can also be eliminated for dangerous riding or equipment that violate the rules.

Jump Off

Completing the course under the allotted time without faults results in a clear round. Two-round jumper classes proceed to a jump off to determine a winner if multiple combinations jump clear in the first round.

Jump off rounds typically have shorter, raised courses. If combinations tie for faults again, the fastest time in the jump off wins.

Speed round jumper classes don’t have a jump off. Combinations must ride fast and jump clear in a single round to increase their chances of a high placing.

Jumper Course

Most show jumping courses consist of 10 to 16 obstacles. The height of show jumping obstacles varies depending on the level of competition. Fence height and technical difficulty increase as combinations move up the levels.

Course Walk

Riders have the opportunity to walk the course before the start of the competition. During the course walk, riders measure distances between fences and plan the lines they will ride between jumps.

The course may have flowers or other objects in the arena that can spook the horse and influence how athletes plan their rides. Show jumping riders also consider the course’s suitability for their horse’s strengths and weaknesses.

Show Jumping Classes

Jumping competitions categorize classes based on fence height and rider classification. Riders compete in classes that match their skill level. Fence heights can range from 0.60 meters to 1.60 meters.

Youth Classes

Youth riders can compete against their peers in youth jumper classes. Athletes in youth classes can also qualify for championships in their specific age group.

  • Children: Ages 12-14, fences up to 1.25m
  • Pre-Junior: Ages 14-16, fences up to 1.30m
  • Junior: Ages 14-18, fences up to 1.40m
  • Young Rider: Ages 16-21, fences up to 1.50m

Youth jumper riders can also compete in junior divisions of different heights to match varying skill levels and horse experience.

Novice/Introductory Classes

Some competitions offer classes for novice horses and riders new to the sport. These classes have the lowest fence heights and simplest courses.

Amateur Classes

All riders, including professionals, can enter open classes. Jumper competitions also offer divisions for amateur riders who compete as a hobby.

Junior and amateur sections previously had high, medium, and low designations. The USEF and USHJA replaced this language with fence height ranges to help riders enter appropriate classes.

Speed/Stakes Classes

Speeds and stakes classes have fences set at a moderate height for the level to encourage a fast-paced competition. These classes don’t have a jump off, so riders aim to complete a clear round in the fastest time possible.

Derby Classes

Derby classes incorporate natural obstacles in the jumper course. These obstacles simulate jumps seen on cross-country courses. Some competitions offer jumper derby classes, but this class type is more prevalent in hunter shows.

Puissance Classes

Puissance is a high jump class held at some show jumping competitions. Horses and riders jump four to six obstacles with starting heights of 1.70m to 1.80m.

Instead of competing against the clock, riders compete to clear the highest jumps. There are only two obstacles in the jump-off rounds, which are raised between each round for a maximum of five rounds.

Grand Prix

Grand Prix classes are the highest level of show jumping competition. This level features the highest fences and the most challenging courses. Jumping competitions at international championships and the Olympic Games are held at the Grand Prix level.

FEI Jumping Star Ratings

International jumping competitions organized by the FEI are called CSIs, which stands for Concours de Saut International. CSIO events include a team competition.

FEI Grand Prix classes at international competitions have different star ratings based on jump height and the prize money available.

FEI Star Rating Max Jump Height Prize Money
CSI 1* 1.40m up to $51,424 USD
CSI 2* 1.45m $55,425 – 153,999 USD
CSI 3* 1.50m $154,000 – 258,499 USD
CSI 4* 1.60m $258,500 – 516,999 USD
CSI 5* 1.60m+ over $517,000 USD

Show Jumping Tables

Show jumping tables refer to the different formats or sets of rules for show jumping competitions. These formats are classified into different tables according to how the competition is conducted, scored, and what penalties are applied for certain faults.

Jumper classes use the following table classification as a standardized format established by the FEI:

Table II, 2(a)

All horses and riders compete in the first round in table II, 2(a) class format. After every rider has completed the first round, combinations with a clear round return for a jump off on a shorter version of the course. The jump off order is the same as the first round.

The rider with the least faults and fastest time wins. This format is typically seen in Grand Prix jumper classes.

Table II, 2(b)

The table II, 2(b) format also includes a jump off. But unlike the 2(a) format, riders who jump clear stay in the arena after completing the first course to start their jump off round. Jumper classics and regular division rounds use this format.

Table II, 2(c)

Also known as a power and speed format, table II, 2(c) course format splits one course into two phases. Riders aim to stay clear during the first power phase. If they do, they continue the course and finish the speed phase.

The speed phase is similar to a jump off but takes place on one continuous course. Some regular division rounds use this format.

Table II

Table II course formats are standard in schooling jumper shows. This format consists of a single round with no jump off. All clear rounds receive an equal placing, so multiple riders can win the class.

Show Jumping Obstacles

Show jumping uses fences with poles or planks that fall if a horse doesn’t clear it. Poles and planks are also called rails. Adjustable standards on either side suspend the rails. Jumper courses feature a variety of jumps to test the athletic and technical abilities of horses and riders.

Crossrail

Crossrails are basic obstacles suitable for beginner riders and horses. More advanced riders may use cross-rails for training and warming up. This fence uses two poles crossed in an X shape, guiding the horse over the center point of the jump.

Vertical

A vertical, or upright, is a simple obstacle consisting of one set of poles or planks stacked on a single pair of standards. These jumps test the horse’s ability to clear a straightforward obstacle at a specific height. Planks make verticals appear more solid.

Oxer

An oxer, or spread, consists of two or more sets of rails on separate pairs of standards. The width between the fences in an oxer can vary depending on the jumping competition level.

Different types of oxers include:

  • Ascending: An oxer with a lower front rail and higher back rail
  • Parallel: An oxer higher than it is wide with an even front and back rail
  • Square: A parallel oxer with an equal height and width
  • Swedish: An oxer with slanted front and back poles that form an X
  • Hogsback: An oxer with three rails and the tallest pole in the center
  • Triple Bar: An oxer with three rails that increase in height from front to back

Wall

Wall jumps resemble solid brick, which can be intimidating for the horse. However, these obstacles are made of lightweight materials that fall easily for safety. Like rails, knocked-down walls result in faults.

Water Jump

Water jumps have shallow trays of water that challenge horses to jump a wider distance over a shorter jump. Riders incur faults if the horse doesn’t clear the tray and a foot lands in the water.

Liverpool

A Liverpool jump is a vertical obstacle with a water element. Although not as wide as a water jump, horses must clear the water element and the jump without knocking any rails.

Combination

Combinations are an element of a jumper course that features multiple fences in a row. A double has two jumps, while a triple has three. These obstacles are challenging for horses and riders because they only permit one or two strides between each jump.

Training for Show Jumping Horses

Show jumpers don’t train their horses by repeatedly jumping higher and higher obstacles daily. Jumper horses are athletes who need a solid fitness foundation and systematic training program to advance their jumping abilities while preserving their health and avoiding injury.

Effective show jumping training motivates the horse to want to perform for their riders. Work with a trainer you trust to develop an individualized training program for your horse that helps them stay happy and healthy while they are learning to job you want them to do.

Flatwork

Repetitive jumping can strain the horse’s musculoskeletal system, so most riders don’t spend much time jumping big fences at home. [5] Jumpers use flatwork to develop the rideability and adjustability needed to complete challenging courses.

Jumping horses must respond quickly to small aids on a jumper course so riders can maintain their line and control stride length between obstacles. Flatwork exercises for show jumpers often incorporate dressage training principles to condition the horse’s body gymnastically (i.e. to develop strength and coordination) and train use of the aids.

Flatwork exercises that use Cavaletti and ground poles help train coordination and timing without straining the horse’s body.

Fitness

Show jumping horses need speed, power, and endurance to clear tall obstacles and complete courses quickly. Studies show that systemized training programs incorporating fitness work increase exercise test performance in jumping horses. [6]

Riders can use hacking, hill work, and interval training to increase cardiovascular fitness in their jumper horses. Providing adequate recovery time between intense training sessions gives your horse’s body a chance to adapt and limits the risk of injury. [5]

Jumping Exercises

Although you can overdo jumping, horses still need sufficient practice jumping over fences at home to perform well in the competition arena. Trainers slowly raise fence height in training as horses progress to build their horse’s confidence and athletic ability.

Riders can practice riding lines through jump courses and complete jumping exercises designed to test their technical ability. These exercises may include grids, bounce jumps, serpentines, or placing poles.

Show Jumping Tack

Jumping tack and equipment helps horses and riders perform their best in the competition. The best tack for your jumping horse is well-fitting and well-maintained. If you compete, you must ensure your equipment complies with USEF and FEI rules.

Jumping Saddle

Jumping saddles are close-contact saddles with a shallow seat and forward flap. They provide a close-contact feel and allow riders to maintain a balanced position over a jump. Jumpers ride with shorter stirrups to stay off their horse’s back and over the center of gravity.

Bridle

Show jumper bridles typically aren’t as adorned and fashionable as dressage bridles. Plain brown leather is traditional. However, jumpers can use a greater variety of nosebands and bits than dressage riders during competition.

Common nosebands on jumper bridles include figure eight, cavesson, flash, and dropped. The FEI permits various bits, including snaffles, pelhams, and kimberwicks. Wire and chain bits are not allowed.

Horse Leg Protection

Horses can wear leg protection during show jumping competitions if their boots conform to USEF and FEI guidelines. Boots protect the horse’s legs from impact from their hooves or knocked rails.

Tendon boots protect the tendons and ligaments but typically have an open front, so horses are aware of knocked poles. Fetlock boots are commonly used for the hind legs during jumping.

Rider Attire

A helmet is the most important piece of equipment for jumper riders. Even the most advanced rider can fall during training and competition. Equestrian sports are a leading cause of sports-related head injuries, and research shows helmets reduce injury risk by 40% to 50%. [7]

Jumper riders typically wear knee patch breeches, which provide grip where their knees contact the saddle. Jumpers don’t need extra grip from full-seat breeches on their seats.

Tall boots for jumping are softer than dressage boots. The increased flexibility allows more movement in the rider’s joints over a jump.

Gloves are optional in jumper competition, but many riders prefer to wear them for extra grip and protection.

Competition Turnout

In competition, jumper riders wear white breeches, a short show coat, and a show shirt with a collar. Female riders typically wear stock ties, while men wear regular ties.

Most horses wear white saddle pads in competition. Some jumpers compete with their horse’s mane braided for a professional look, while others leave it unbraided. Jumpers aren’t judged based on looks, but a well-groomed horse shows respect for the competition.

Show Jumping Horses

Some horses enjoy jumping more than others. While most horses have the athletic ability to jump over small obstacles, horses that compete at the sport’s top level are bred explicitly for jumping talent.

Even the most talented jumper horses need good care and training to meet their potential. Horses of all breeds need proper management and nutrition to be at their best, no matter their job.

Jumper Horse Breeds

Like other international equestrian sports, show jumping is dominated by warmblood breeds. Many of these breeds have breeding directions that promote producing horses for the top levels of show jumping.

The World Breeding Federation of Sport Horses, or WBFSH, ranks studbooks based on the FEI rankings of the top six horses from each studbook in dressage, jumping, and eventing.

2023 WBFSH Studbooks Rankings for Jumping:

Managing Jumper Horses

Prioritizing your horse’s mental and physical health is essential for achieving top performance on the jumper course. Competition horses often have an intense lifestyle, but even top jumper horses still need time to be horses.

Studies show limiting stall confinement and increasing turnout time can decrease stress and increase willingness to perform in competition horses. [8] If your jumper horse has limited turnout, spend extra time hand walking, grazing, and getting your horse out of their stall.

Good veterinary care and farrier maintenance is critical for keeping jumpers sound. Jumpers often need extra support due to the increased stress on their bodies. Work with a team of qualified professionals to develop a proactive maintenance plan for your horse.

Feeding Jumper Horses

Jumping horses expend lots of energy clearing tall obstacles and performing at high speed. But energy isn’t the only consideration for feeding jumpers.

Performance horses also have higher protein requirements to support muscle development. Plus, stress from intense competition schedules can increase the risk of digestive problems, such as gastric ulcers.

A balanced, forage-based diet supports digestive health and ensures your jumper horse gets the nutrition they need. Some jumping horses may need additional protein and energy sources.

The best diet for your jumping horse depends on their breed, age, competition schedule, training program, and health history. If you aren’t sure your jumping horse is getting all the nutrition they need, consider consulting with an equine nutritionist for a diet review.

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