What the heck is show jumping?

Downing student and U21 international show jumper CLARK GLASGOW tells us what the heck show jumping is.

cambridge riding Clark Glasgow dressage equestrian international Oxford Riding show jumping Varsity what the heck

When most people think about horses and sport, their mind generally turn to a couple of things: Horse racing, The Grand National, or else that odd thing you only ever see on TV during an Olympics where people try to make their horses dance (it’s called dressage, and I don’t get it either).

At least, these are the initial obstacles I have to clear when trying to explain to people what I do: I am a show jumper, and funnily enough, I do none of the things above. Show jumping began as a training exercise for the military to ensure that riders were skilled enough to clear obstacles in battle. Rather than making the horse jump the dangerous obstacles that are normally strewn across the battlefield, the cavalry officers trained their horses over poles that could be knocked down without injury. As the Calvary started to be phased out from the military by the First World War, the spectacle side of these displays began to grow.

Glasgow competing in the Nations Cup.

At the first ever Horse of the Year Show, held at London Olympia in 1907, show jumping was used as a display of Calvary horsemanship, more as a sideshow than a competition in and of itself. At the same time, show jumping started to catch on in the agricultural areas, where farmers’ sons (and the odd daughter) and gentry would pit their skills against each other in “lepping” competitions at shows and fairs. Show jumping has maintained its link with the farming community to this day, and still plays a big part of the county show scene.

Me last week

The modern sport is now truly global, hence its inclusion in the Olympic equestrian disciplines from 1912 to current. Though competition rules vary, the basic aim of the game is to clear all obstacles without knocking any of the jumps down, which incurs penalties. In the case of more than one penalty-free round, the clock serves as the tie-breaker. So, tactically, competitors must balance the risk of a knockdown with completing the course in the quickest possible time.

Unlike any other Olympic sport, equestrian competitions allow men and women to compete as equals, and women regularly beat their male counterparts. The precision and experience that are required take many years to master. John Whitaker, one of the top British riders of all time, is still in contention for the next Olympics at the age of 61, while Ian Millar, a Canadian great, is trying to make it to his 11th straight Olympic Games in Rio where he will be 69.


The Cambridge University Equestrian Team has 8 riders, forming two teams which compete in BUCS leagues. We have half-blue status, with a couple of riders managing an extraordinary full blue for representing Great Britain. University equestrian competitions occur in the combined disciplines of dressage and show jumping, taking place on randomly drawn, neutral horses, which puts the emphasis on the skill of the rider above all else.

The 2013 Varsity winning ‘A’ Team

At the moment, both CUET A and B teams are leading their respective leagues, which is even more impressive when you consider that our competitors include dedicated Equine Colleges. Our Varsity Match is (like every other University team), the ultimate goal every year, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the winning side each of my last two years. The aftermath of my first year’s Varsity resulted in a hearing by an Oxford Sport Arbitration Committee and coverage in newspapers such as the Daily Mail.

I hope this has given a glimpse into a sport that rarely makes the news headlines, and that next time you’re channel-surfing and stumble across some show jumping on Eurosport, you might even get a better appreciation of what’s going on.

The Equestrian Varsity Match is set to take place on the 7th of March where the team are hoping to take their 10th win in 11 years.