Olympic gold medalist Will Simpson expects that his wife and fellow Grand Prix rider Nicki Simpson, and hopefully their daughter Sophie, will be competing in international show jumping competitions many years from now. With the 2012 London Olympics in his sights, he's not quitting anytime soon, but it's the long-term future of the sport that's inspired him to be a key player in the North American Riders Group. Formed three years ago, the NARG hopes to bring about many changes in the sport. The idea is to raise its profile and degree of professionalism to the likes of tennis or golf, in the process supporting consistent international success for the U.S.
Many of the changes the NARG is working on will affect jumping riders at all levels. The hope is that improvements at the top end will trickle down through all ranks. Most of NARG's movers and shakers are East Coasters and Will wants West Coasters to get informed and involved. To that end, NARG hopes to have an open forum this month, likely at a Southern California show venue (check with www.narg.org for specifics). The Del Mar National was the highest ranked California show, at 6th, in the NARG's Top 25 Horse Show List in 2010, the debut of what they hope will be a valuable tool in improving show quality. Will encourages all to attend the meeting, from current and aspiring international competitors to beginners. "You never know where your next great idea will come from," he says.
"There is a lot of history involved in this sport, and it takes a long time to make changes," says Will. "What happens sometimes is that people start working toward changes, but then get out because they feel like there's not enough time. With me still riding and my wife and daughter, I'm in it for a long time and I'd like to help the sport as much as I can."
The NARG was formed to allow professional riders and trainers to "use their collective strength to make show jumping in North America the best in the world," per its mission statement. Better competitions are the key to that goal. The Top 25 Horse Show list is the most visible of the organization's efforts to reach that goal, but they are also working for change in some of the sport's structural foundations. NARG is attempting to influence the many-year effort to revise or eliminate the USEF's "mileage rule," they've proposed, for the third year, that show jumping prize money at all levels correspond with the height and difficulty of the course involved; and they are developing ways to inspire more owners to take pride in owning a horse with potential to represent the States internationally. The organization also sticks up for its members, as it did during the disqualification of McLain Ward's horse at last year's World Cup Finals, a decision the FEI later determined was wrong.
Released earlier this year, the Top 25 List was created from detailed ratings of 50 competitions in North America. Volunteers with first-hand exposure to some of the world's top shows rated competitions in eight categories: footing; stabling; jumps and courses; financial aspects, including prize money and cost to compete; ceremonies; technical aspects; marketing and general. The results are available in a concise and colorfully written wrap-up of each of the top 25 show's strengths and weaknesses. It's great reading for anybody interested in competitions we've heard about but may not have been able to attend,
and to get a broader perspective on those we are familiar with.
The 2010 list's top five are: Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada; the Syracuse Invitational in New York (unfortunately now discontinued); the Hampton Classic in Long Island, NY; the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida; and Xalalpa in Veracruz, Mexico. After the Del Mar National in the sixth spot, California shows to make the top 25 included Blenheim in San Juan Capistrano, #16; HITS Desert Circuit in Thermal, #22; Showpark at #23; and the Los Angeles National at #25.
Del Mar National manager Dale Harvey says he's pleased his show ranked tops in California, but says improving on this year's overall 77% score is a priority. In that way, the List is doing exactly what the NARG hoped it would. "Most of the show managers we are working with consider it an asset," explains Will. "It's something they can take back to their show's stakeholders and say, 'Look, this is what people are saying.'"
Dale says he's already used Del Mar's report in that way, taking the comments and evaluations from this credible organization to his superiors at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. "It's a little bit of a confirmation of what I'm already telling them."
Upon release of the Top 25 List, NARG's Murray Kessler noted that none of the shows below the top five earned more than Del Mar's 77% total score, considerably off the winner Spruce Meadows' 92%. Therein lies the need for the List as a tool to improve competition quality. Efforts to connect the mileage rule/date protection rules to upholding show standards like those measured in the Top 25 have long been discussed, but the NARG got tired of waiting for that to happen and developed the List as an alternative. "It's a great thing they are doing," comments Dale. "It's meaningful and helpful because they focus a lot on the positive, but are also not afraid to tell it like it is. It's not unlike something I tried to do about 15 years ago, in a series of articles, but I was a lot less tactful and it was quite controversial!"
From the exhibitor's vantage point, the List is a great tool for determining where to allot show budget. Dale expects Del Mar's good standing may attract more competitors in the future, but he's not settling for a green ribbon next time.
The NARG is already at work on this year's top 25. Recruiting volunteers to measure competitions is one of the huge undertaking's biggest challenges. Executive director Jen Markee encourages those who have some experience with shows that host international level competition to contact her about the process.
While the Top 25 List is the most tangible of NARG's accomplishments, the group is making good progress on many fronts. "We are pecking away and making slow but sure progress," says Will. As a longtime leader of the West Coast Active Riders, Will expects that NARG and WCAR will develop a synergistic relationship.
For more information on the North American Riders Group, visit www.narg.org or call