World Cup Win­ners

Top rid­ers and train­ers dis­cuss the types of horses who have won this pres­ti­gious in­door jump­ing event in the past.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Nancy Jaf­fer

Top rid­ers and train­ers take a look back at mem­o­rable horses that have won the pres­ti­gious event as the FEI World Cup™ Fi­nals Om­aha 2017 is pre­par­ing to un­fold on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

It’s like no other jump­ing cham­pi­onship. At the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jump­ing Fi­nal, March 29–April 2, in Om­aha, Ne­braska, fans will see three de­mand­ing com­pe­ti­tions, each build­ing to­ward the next. The only break is be­tween days two and three, so those try­ing for the world in­door jump­ing hon­ors can catch their breath briefly.

In con­trast to other multi-day ti­tle meets—such as the Pan Amer­i­can Games, the World Equestrian Games or the Olympics, where ev­ery­one starts the com­pe­ti­tion for the in­di­vid­ual medals on zero penal­ties— rid­ers add to their scores through­out the World Cup™ pro­ceed­ings. The one who stands at the top level of the podium, rais­ing the tro­phy in tri­umph, will have done so car­ry­ing a to­tal num­ber of penal­ties ac­cu­mu­lated through­out the week­end.

“At the Olympics, you can have a bad day as long as you make it to the fi­nals,” ob­served Les­lie Howard, the win­ner of the 1986 World Cup™ Fi­nal on McLain.

But not at the World Cup™. So it takes a horse of spe­cial char­ac­ter and other traits, as well as ex­cep­tional ath­letic ability, to win a FEI World Cup™ Jump­ing Fi­nal when ev­ery fence counts.

“If you don’t do well on the first night, you have no shot. Even if you have a big, scopey horse who can go clear the other nights, you’re not go­ing to catch up,” said for­mer U.S. Show Jump­ing Coach Ge­orge Mor­ris.

Some­one who isn’t in the top group of four or five in the first day’s de­mand­ing speed class over grand prix fences likely doesn’t have the chance for a come­back in the sec­ond day’s timed first jump-off class or the fi­nal day’s two-rounder.

It has been done, most no­tably by Michael Matz, who was 11th dur­ing the first leg on the great Jet Run in the third World Cup™ in 1981, then went on to claim the prize. But of­ten the win­ner on the first day is the one who goes on to take the ti­tle. That’s the way it hap­pened for Me­lanie Smith Tay­lor with Ca­lypso in 1982, Kather­ine Burd­sall Heller with The Nat­u­ral in 1987 and in 2012 for Rich Fellers with Flex­i­ble, who was the first U.S. win­ner of the ti­tle in 25 years.

Care­ful Jumpers with Stamina

As Ge­orge pointed out, “catty, in­door-type horses” have the ad­van­tage in the speed leg. “Most of them are Thor­ough­bred types, care­ful,” usu­ally a dif­fer­ent kind of horse than could win out­door scope tests such as Aachen or Cal­gary, com­mented Ge­orge, who worked with a num­ber of World Cup™ Fi­nals win­ners, among them Kather­ine, Me­lanie, Les­lie and Mered­ith Michaels-Beer­baum.

Some rid­ers com­pete on one horse in the speed class, then switch to an­other for

the next two.

As Les­lie noted, be­ing able to change mounts, for those who have the horsepower, “does really make it a very dif­fer­ent event” from other cham­pi­onships.

But Mered­ith had no need to do that with her “so ex­cep­tional” Shut­ter­fly, who won three World Cup™ Fi­nals and was sec­ond in an­other.

One of his as­sets was “the fact that he had stamina; he was not a horse who would get tired. The World Cup™ Fi­nal has a lot of rounds in a short amount of time, [it’s] in­tense jump­ing,” said the vet­eran of many Ger­man teams.

In what she called her “most per­fect” World Cup™ vic­tory in Las Ve­gas eight years ago, Mered­ith had the crowd go­ing wild as she left out a stride to a dou­ble on an in­side turn, yet she was able to add a stride in a line where she needed to as she won the speed seg­ment.

“He was so ag­ile, he could put lit­tle strides in and jump from al­most no im­pul­sion. He was able to turn quick and jump from what looked ba­si­cally like a stand­still,” Mered­ith re­called.

She noted that the rel­a­tively small ring in Las Ve­gas there­fore suited him well (he won there in both 2005 and 2009), but as she men­tioned, “he could come back the next day and not lose his cool, not get flat and jump a big track clear. And then once again in the jump-off, he showed his speed and turn­ing ability. For the Fi­nal on Sun­day, he al­ways had enough left in the tank be­cause he had end­less en­ergy and stamina and could do the two rounds without even break­ing a sweat.”

When the Fi­nal rolls around, there is al­ways talk about the im­por­tance of hav­ing an “in­door horse” as op­posed to an “out­door horse.”

Me­lanie doesn’t use those terms. “I think a great horse is a great horse, and they can show in any venue. But that’s from my ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said, while not- ing she doesn’t com­pete any­more.

“How is rid­ing in­doors dif­fer­ent from a tight jump-off course any­where? It’s be­ing able to land and im­me­di­ately fo­cus on the next jump and be able to jump quickly. It suits cer­tain horses; it suits great horses,” she de­clared, though she did con­cede that a big, gan­gly horse might not be at his best in­doors.

Sound Body and Sound Mind

What else is re­quired to win the Longines FEI World Cup™ Fi­nal?

“It al­ways takes a sound horse when you have a cham­pi­onship for any pe­riod of days. Phys­i­cal sore­ness af­fects the horse men­tally,” Me­lanie said.

In ad­di­tion, she men­tioned, a lot of horses may not be com­fort­able in­doors

How is rid­ing in­doors dif­fer­ent from a tight jump-off course any­where? It’s be­ing able to land and im­me­di­ately fo­cus on the next jump and be able to jump quickly. It suits cer­tain horses; it suits great horses.”—Me­lanie Smith Tay­lor

Con­sis­tency is a big thing in those kinds of cham­pi­onships. They’ve got to come out on the first day and be ready to take the pres­sure.”—Kather­ine Burd­sall Heller

with the crowd gen­er­ally closer to them than it is out­doors. With Ca­lypso, how­ever, it was just the op­po­site.

“The louder the crowd, the more he rose to the oc­ca­sion. It would lift him up, he be­came more of a fighter. They have that de­sire to win. You want your horse to win as badly as you do,” Me­lanie con­tin­ued. For a tena­cious rider, “You want your horse to feel that tenac­ity. Horses have to be born with heart. Heart is what gives them com­pet­i­tive spirit and the de­sire to be care­ful.”

As Rich noted, “The char­ac­ter of any ath­lete, human or equine, is so im­por­tant.” Speak­ing of Flex­i­ble, who has bounced back from sev­eral se­ri­ous in­juries, he cited the stal­lion’s “unique char­ac­ter. He’s a sen­si­tive horse, but he’s tough at the same time. That gives him, at the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the course, a lit­tle more fight than maybe a more mild-man­nered horse.”

The Nat­u­ral al­ways rose to the im­por­tant oc­ca­sion, such as the Fi­nal that he won in Paris. “He could sense when it was a big day or a big event,” Kather­ine rec­ol­lected.

“He was very sen­si­tive, but he was also pretty level-headed. Con­sis­tency is a big thing in those kinds of cham­pi­onships. They’ve got to come out on the first day and be ready to take the pres­sure.”

Even go­ing in­doors, when he had been com­pet­ing out­doors, didn’t faze him. “He was pretty adapt­able,” Kather­ine said, cit­ing an­other trait that is im­por­tant for suc­cess in the Fi­nal.

Strat­egy also plays a role in win­ning, as Rich men­tioned. “When I get to the World Cup™ Fi­nal, I try to make a plan that I feel is com­pet­i­tive and, at the same time, very pos­si­bly [would] yield a clear round—and that really comes into play when speed is in­volved. You have to know your horse and how much you can ask for just to stay within that com­fort zone for that horse to end up with a clear. If you take too many risks and have one down, it takes a big toll on your end re­sult.”

Like Ca­lypso, Flex­i­ble does well with the close­ness of the crowd at an in­door venue. Rich re­called that when a tent went up for “in­door” com­pe­ti­tion at the HITS cir­cuit in Ther­mal, Cal­i­for­nia, a few years back, “the first time he went in that tent, he was lit like a fire­cracker. He was jump­ing out of his jeans. The big­ger the

crowd and the closer they are, the more fired up he is.”

Evolution of the World Cup

Like ev­ery­thing else, the World Cup™ has changed with the times since its in­cep­tion in 1979, noted Les­lie, who is also an Olympic team gold and sil­ver medal­ist.

“I think that these days the ma­te­rial [used to build cour­ses] is dif­fer­ent; it’s lighter, and in the old days, you didn’t have break­away cups.”

Con­trast­ing what things were like for her vic­tory in 1986, as op­posed to the last time she com­peted in a Fi­nal in 2014, Les­lie said, “I think the heights were about the same. Gothen­burg that year [1986] was huge, but it wasn’t as ‘ care­ful.’ The horses to­day have evolved. They are as scopey and more care­ful. I think a lot of that has to do with the break­away cups, the cups be­ing so shal­low and the rails be­ing lighter.”

Ever since Bert de NŽmethy de­signed the 1984 Olympic cour­ses, jumper routes have be­come more tech­ni­cal, said Les­lie, cit­ing that as the beginning of mod­ern course de­sign.

“I think there are more good course de­sign­ers now,” she added, not­ing that dur­ing much of the 1980s, there were only a hand­ful of really good course de­sign­ers, a num­ber which has more than tripled since then. With ed­u­ca­tion and rais­ing re­quire­ments for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, the FEI (In­ter­na­tional Equestrian Fed­er­a­tion) has en­sured “that the knowl­edge and level of course de­sign­ing has got­ten to quite a high stan­dard,” she ob­served.

48

Michael Matz and Jet Run were able to claim the ti­tle in 1981, though they be­gan the event in 11th place af­ter the first leg.

LEFT: “He was so ag­ile, he could put lit­tle strides in and jump from al­most no im­pul­sion. He was able to turn quick and jump from what looked ba­si­cally like a stand­still,” Mered­ith said of her three­time cham­pion Shut­ter­fly.

ABOVE: Me­lanie Smith Tay­lor de­scribed her 1982 World Cup™ cham­pion Ca­lypso as a tena­cious fighter who had heart and a com­pet­i­tive de­sire to win.

Kather­ine Burd­sall Heller re­calls how The Nat­u­ral, who won the Fi­nal in 1987, would rise to the oc­ca­sion dur­ing im­por­tant shows. “He could sense when it was a big day or a big event,” she said.

Flex­i­ble, who won in 2012 with Rich Fellers, is a tough but sen­si­tive stal­lion who does well at in­door shows. “The big­ger the crowd and the closer they are, the more fired up he is,” said Rich.

ABOVE: Jump­ing in­doors can be tough for some horses but not for Shut­ter­fly (pic­tured dur­ing his win in 2009), who picked up two World Cup™ vic­to­ries in the rel­a­tively small coli­seum in Las Ve­gas.

LEFT: Les­lie Howard and McLain won the 1986 World Cup™.

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