Drawing by Lauren Davis.
Drawing by Lauren Davis.

It is 6 p.m. and I’m sitting with hundreds of fellow equine fanatics in a stadium flanked for miles on either side by farmhouses, wooden fence lines and flat, sandy fields speckled with horses. Many around me wear baseball caps to keep the sinking Florida sun out of their faces; a few had the foresight to bring a blanket for the inevitable temperature drop later tonight, when the stadium will be lit by giant electric flood lights. Squinting, I look down at the jumping course–from this distance, a series of bright lines and angular shapes, like the bars in a pinball machine. I use my finger to trace out the pattern of obstacles one last time.

From the far right corner, a dark form canters into view. The crowd’s chattering fades away into silence. Perfectly groomed, the horse gleams. Its neck is arched, accentuated by a neatly braided mane, which has been sectioned off into small notches according to tradition in the formal competition setting. His long tail billows out behind him, each hair a tiny strand of silk. But this is no beauty pageant. The ridges of muscle on the animal’s powerful hindquarters, neck, and shoulders ripple as the rider sits light and balanced on his back. They take one strategic lap, weaving among the tall colorful obstacles and allowing the horse to acclimatize. Any distraction, by a stray sound or the sight of a flapping flag, will not be an option.

The Great American $1 Million Grand Prix is a show jumping competition at the highest possible level—one of the focal points in the US circuit, where many past and future Olympians vie for the cash prizes and prestige that are the life blood of a professional rider. With the athletic ability of the horses leveling the playing field, show jumping is one of the rare sports in which men and women, teenagers and 60-year-olds all compete against each other. The prize money is split across the top ten competitors, with the winner receiving close to $350,000—one of the biggest financial rewards possible in the sport.

Grassy knolls close in each edge of the rectangular, football pitch-sized jumping arena, giving spectators an elevated viewpoint. Firm but spongy, the ground of the arena is an expensive layer of rubber-sand material that has been packed, raked and sprinkled with water to make it ideal terrain for jumping. Too solid, and the horses—elegant half-ton athletes who are surprisingly light on their four-hooved feet—might injure their tendons upon landing. Too soft, and they won’t get enough purchase to propel themselves over the jumps.

The jumps, at this level, are astoundingly high. The top poles are above my eye level, making the 3’9 fences I jump in my own competitions—a height by no means considered low—look like child’s play. Towering verticals, jumps with no width but immense height, are interspersed with intimidating oxers—“spread” fences consisting of two verticals placed close together to add the dimension of width, requiring a precise arc of jump to clear both poles. There is also one truly enormous “triple bar,” a spread fence with three elements of steadily increasing heights, which reaches the maximum width of any equestrian sport in the world, just under 7’. The rounded wooden poles at the top of each jump have their ends balanced precariously on curved plastic shelves, making it easy for them to be rolled out of place by the tiniest nudge.

The course, a series of 16 separate jumps that must be cleared in a predetermined order, is uniquely built and arranged for every competition. No two courses are the same. Each dislodged pole incurs four faults, and one fault comes for every second exceeding the time allowed for the entire course. Only a handful of horses will “go clear”–completing the course with neither jumping nor time faults—to proceed into the second round, or “jump-off.”

Adorned with baskets of bright flowers, palm trees, and splashes of colored paint, the obstacles are themselves works of art. Tall wooden flamingos perch in the corners of the ring (a nod to the Florida locale) and a makeshift pond with more fake birds in the center of the arena also adds to the atmosphere. The largest fence on the course is America-themed with giant, bright white star-shaped boards beneath three lines of red and blue poles. Together they stack to make the jump a full, maximum-allowed height of 1.65m, or 5’7”.

 A professional course designer spent months planning the exact dimensions of each obstacle and the distances between each jump to challenge the physical ability, bravery and skill of horse and rider. The flamboyant jump designs not only provide great photo ops, but also add a “spook factor” to the course. The bright colors and odd shapes can distract even the most well trained horses and cause a stray hoof to dangle here or there–enough to leave them out of the running.

The electronic buzzer rings. With a barely visible tap of his heels, a gentle tug on the reins, and the ease of someone who has done this a thousand times before, the rider expertly gathers his horse together. This first competitor is no stranger to the Grand Prix ring. A 49-year-old ex-Olympic Champion, Peter Wylde is a familiar and highly respected face among show jumpers. He balances his tall body smoothly in the saddle, and sets the rhythm of the horse’s strides, which will be crucial for maintaining accuracy and speed.

As in any equestrian sport, Wylde’s own ability is only one of many factors that influence his performance. The specific horse beneath him will largely determine his result, depending upon its own age, competition experience, athletic ability, personality and even mood. The best mounts, at the peak of their careers, usually around age 11, will sell for up to $4 million to the right buyer. They are living, breathing bars of gold that hold both monetary and emotional value, easily lost due to injury or age. They are the living ingredients that make this sport so deeply exhilarating, ethically challenging, and potentially heartbreaking.

Both Wylde and his horse are outfitted in the standard equipment: the former, a navy jacket, white collared shirt, leather boots, breeches and state-of-the-art black helmet; the latter, a custom made leather bridle and saddle, and a plate fitted under his ribcage to prevent his hooves from bruising his body when he pulls up his knees while jumping. All horses also wear “boots” of their own, made of light, strong plastic on their lower legs to protect their bones and muscles.

The horse’s ears point forward as Wylde directs him towards the first jump. From 30 feet away, Wylde suddenly encourages the horse forward as he “sees a stride:” expertly assessing the distance between his horse and the jump, and the number of horse-sized steps it will take to reach the ideal takeoff point. The horse raises his head, locks on to the jump and springs off of the ground like a rubber ball. He snaps his forelegs up to his chest and tucks them in, lowering his neck over the top of the jump before kicking up his heels, almost joyously, to give the pole that extra few inches of clearance. In a flash, Wylde too leans forward over the horse’s neck, mirroring the arc of the jump and interfering as little as possible, before quickly sitting up once more as both touch ground on the other side. The striding to the second jump is a “short” eight strides–the horse must now sit back and cover less ground per stride in order to fit in the correct distance and get the ideal takeoff point.

The horses don’t get a chance to practice the course beforehand, but the riders can “walk the course” on foot. Every rider knows how many of their two-legged steps corresponds to a single horse’s stride–typically, four large steps per stride, plus two steps take off and landing at each jump. A “long” stride occurs when additional steps are added; a “short” stride when a step is left out. By varying the distances, the hardest courses require maximum flexibility and adaptability.

Wylde is clear until fence 6, when his horse clips the front pole of an oxer. They clear another eight obstacles well, but knock down another rail at fence 15. His final score is thus 8 jumping faults, and 0 time faults. The woman sitting in front of me has a pen and a crumpled list of the 52 competitors; she jots down the number of faults for each round as they progress. Next to me, a recent riding acquaintance and expert in equine breeding leans in and murmurs in my ear the bloodlines and breeds of each horse as they canter into the ring–whether it’s a slow moving but powerfully jumping Dutch Warmblood or a more energetic but easily distractible German Hanoverian.

Directly across from us, on the opposite side of the arena, clinks of wine glasses and bursts of laughter echo faintly from the VIP patron’s tents, where well-dressed diners—mainly corporate sponsors and their guests—begin the first course of a lavish meal. Their presence is a reminder of the insurance companies, banks, and luxury goods retailers necessary for the sport to exist. They supply prize money, have their names branded on the jumps, and put together the syndicates that buy horses and pay for their upkeep. A few horses are owned by single individuals, but it is a costly endeavor. Riders themselves rarely own their mounts.

As dusk turns to evening, tonight’s course is proving exceptionally difficult. By 8:30, when all the horses and riders have jumped, only five have managed to avoid any faults and earned a spot in the jump-off. The jump-off consists of only eight obstacles, but the speed will be faster, the turns tighter, and the risks taken greater than those of the first round. Always a crowd pleaser, this final stage is the most fun and nerve-wracking to watch. Inches and milliseconds will now count more than ever.

The five horses who make it into the jump-off today are mostly mares—notoriously tricky females, who are more spirited to ride than their male counterparts but also more careful when jumping. The most talented horses are also known for being the most quirky—Shutterfly, the world’s most successful show jumping horse, who won over $3 million throughout his career, was incredibly noise-sensitive. His rider constructed a special sound-proof barn purely to keep him as calm and content as possible.

The first horse into the jump-off is Willow, a lanky grey with a fiery temperament and a fast gallop. Her rider, Kent Farrington, a young up-and-comer, is immensely instinctual and fluid as a rider. He was born with a talent that I could never match, no matter how long or hard I trained. All bets are off now, as he kicks Willow into a higher gear, skimming over the jumps and whipping around the turns. The competition can now be tracked entirely by the collective “oohs” and gasps of the crowd, as everyone’s breath begins to align with the movement of the horse and rider in the ring. We dare not breathe as the horse springs from the ground, and then exhale audibly if hooves hit sand and the wooden poles stay in place.

Willow has one pole at the last fence, but a speedy time. The next two also have one pole down. The second to last competitor, Andre Thieme of Germany, riding the tentative but highly athletic dark brown mare, Contanga 3, puts in an exquisite round. He leaves all the rails up and is within the time limit. Now it’s up to the final competitors, Ashlee Bond Clarke and her mare Chela LS, who together won the previous $1 million Grand Prix in California earlier this year, to try for a clear round faster than Thieme’s. The win is within their grasp. They start out strong, soaring and turning in harmony, but at the second to last jump, Clarke rushes and misjudges the distance. She urges the horse forward, but the takeoff point they reach is physically impossible. Chela LS slides to a stop and bumps the poles with her chest, unable to jump. The buzzer rings, and it’s all over. Even the best can have their off days.

As the crowds begin to leave the arena, I overhear various chatterings of dismay—“such a shame about Kent! Willow has been going so well this season and deserves a win”—along with snippets of gossip about the riders themselves—affairs, pregnancies, and rumors of underhand tactics, or questionable politics over sponsorship money. Riding is one of the most ragtag sports there is. Only in this sport can a 15-year-old prodigy, who won her first Grand Prix at 12 years old, compete directly against an ex-Olympian in his late sixties. Andre Thieme will now fly home to Germany with a nice wad of cash in his pocket, but his place at the top of the rankings is far from secure. Another day, another course, and another exciting competition lie just around the corner.