Man and horse have been jumping fences since the Ancient Olympic Games of 680 BC.
But what makes showjumping still so special today?
As the Longines Global Champions Tour, the world’s richest showjumping competition, kicks off this week in Mexico City, here’s a closer look at why the sport makes for such a thrilling spectacle.
It’s the ultimate team sport
Anyone who has ever sat on a horse and tried to make it go forward or jump a fence will know it requires cross-species collaboration.
In this increasingly urbanized world, horse riding is one of those rare sports that allows us to connect with nature.
A horse is a flight animal with a huge pair of lungs and massive heart. Its instincts are to run away from danger as fast as it can the minute it spots it.
So it can take years of human and horse working together before they form the perfect partnership. For a horse to do what the rider wants, the rider has to gain its trust. And that takes a huge amount of skill, understanding, communication and above all, patience.
Men and women are equal
Equestrian competitions have been held since the Ancient Olympic Games in 680BC, according to the International Federation for Equestrian Sport (FEI.) It was brought back to the Olympic family in 1912, when showjumping, dressage and eventing were added to the program of the Stockholm Games.
They remain there to this day and are one of the very few professional sports where there is complete gender equality.
Men and women compete as a team with their horse, so unlike most other professional sports, there are no differences in prize money or billing for either sex.
Australian showjumper Edwina Tops-Alexander, a two-time winner of the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) crown, believes female riders have an edge over the men.
“As a rule, we give our affection more and horses thrive on that; they know when you get on or if you are mad or unhappy,” Tops-Alexander, a three-time Olympian who was the first rider to win more than one million euros on the LGCT, said on her website in 2015.
“So there are a lot of advantages for women. I don’t see it as me competing against men. I see it as horses competing against each other.”
Without equestrian sports, there would be fewer horses
The relationship between humans and horses can be traced back to as far as 6,000BC, when the animals were first domesticated, according to the Encyclopedia Brittannica.
There is research to suggest horses were first used by an Indo-European tribe living on the plains north of a mountain range close to the Black and Caspian seas.
Ever since, the horse has occupied a special place in human history, as it worked on the field, transported passengers or goods in carriages, tracked cattle or even fought in wars. With the advent of the automobile at the turn of the last century, horse-drawn carriages were no longer the main source of transportation and horse populations rapidly dwindled worldwide.
But with mechanization, the modern sports horse emerged as recreational riding became more popular. Warmblood studbooks developed across Europe such as the Dutch Warmblood, Germany’s Hannoverian and Holsteiner studbooks and France’s Selle Francais. Their main aim: to breed sports horses.
Today’s top showjumpers can all be traced back to their agricultural ancestors who were crossed with thoroughbreds and Arabians to turn them into the super athletes they are today.
It takes place in glamorous places
With Berlin and London added this season, the 2017 Longines Global Champions Tour and Global Champions League will showcase the sport in 15 cities, 12 countries and three continents over a period of eight months.
Invented by former Dutch Olympic champion Jan Tops, the competition is now in its 12th season.
Its formula — to offer competition between the world’s top riders and horses in some of the most beautiful locations on earth — has proved to be hugely successful with a prize money pot of more than $19 million last year.
After competing at 2,000 meters above sea level in Mexico City, the riders and horses will move to the golden sands of Miami Beach, Florida. And after competing in Shanghai, the LGCT will touch down in Europe, where stops include Madrid, Hamburg, Cannes and Monaco on the French Riviera, Paris, Chantilly, Estoril in Portugal and Berlin.
Showjumping fans in London won’t have to travel far because the LGCT will be staged at the historic Royal Hospital Chelsea, the site of the Chelsea Flower Show, close to the banks of the River Thames, close to the city’s West End and Knightsbridge.
Other stops include Valkenswaard in the Netherlands and the Stadio dei Marmi in Rome before the Tour reaches its grand finale at the state-of-the-art Al Shaqab Equestrian Facility in Doha, Qatar in November.
It’s a who’s who of the rich and famous
Horse riding can be an expensive sport when you compete at the highest level. Some of the horses are worth multiple millions of dollars, and showjumping competitions have traditionally attracted the rich and famous both as owners and competitors.
The daughters of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, rock star Bruce Springsteen and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates have all competed against each other.
But the top riders often don’t come from privileged backgrounds. Take Sweden’s Rolf-Göran Bengtsson, the winner of the Longines Global Champions Tour crown last season, who was a mechanic for six years before becoming a professional rider.