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Adding More Competitive Spice to Show Jumping

How do you add a new twist to a staid and traditional sport like show jumping? Just add speed and a team battle for international boasting rights.

The Riders Masters Cup, one of the events at the Longines Masters of New York starting this week at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, pits the best American show jumpers against their European rivals in head-to-head matchups.

“The format keeps both teams in the hunt right to the very end of the competition in most scenarios,” said McLain Ward, a three-time Olympic medalist and member of the American team.

“That keeps it exciting and keeps the intensity level high,” he said, making for great entertainment.

The results do not count toward world rankings, but the riders enjoy the unusual format, said Robert Ridland, the chef d’équipe of the United States team. “And it’s really fun.”

It’s on a world stage, and “your country is on the line, so in that sense, it’s important,” he said, but “I think it’s more about bragging rights.”

The Masters are held from Thursday to Sunday and have long included the Longines Grand Prix and the Longines Speed Challenge. About 80 show jumpers will be competing over the four days. The team competition, which was added to the Masters in 2017, is on Saturday, only the second time it’s been held in New York. Five of the top riders from the United States will compete against a team from Europe, in a format loosely based on golf’s Ryder Cup.

“Everybody knows about the Ryder Cup from golf: It’s a battle between Europe and America,” said Christophe Ameeuw, founder of the Riders Masters Cup. “Who are the best equestrians today? It’s Europe and America.”

A random draw before the competition decides the head-to-head matchups for the first round, in which each horse and rider jumps a course of 1.5-meter fences (nearly five feet) that can be as wide as they are high. The faster of the two riders wins that duel, but a rider and horse who knock down a rail or refuse to jump a fence could lose the duel. The teams score 10 points per win for the first round.

The two coaches then determine which European rider will be matched against which American rider for the second and final round. Each fallen rail increases a rider’s time by three seconds, meaning that round two has a greater emphasis on quickness and agility than round one.

“It brings the speed element to the forefront of the competition,” which makes for an exciting experience for the spectators, Ridland said.

The competitors usually use one of their “speed” horses, Ward said. He wants a horse that is “very good against the clock and naturally fast.”

Of course, going faster means cutting corners more tightly, angling fences and sometimes leaving a stride out between two fences. All of these moves will give the rider a faster time, but make it more likely that the horse will drop a rail or refuse.

Each matchup in the second round is worth double points, so even if one team loses all five matches in the first round (as the United States did last year), a couple of wins in the second round can even the fight.

The event is built on the idea of speed, said Harrie Smolders, a Dutch rider.

“You need a fast horse, but one that normally jumps a little bit bigger,” he said. “You have to bring one of your best horses.”

Last year’s battle in New York wasn’t decided until the last fence of the last round, when Smolders beat Ward’s time, handing Europe the win.

It’s exciting when it’s decided who wins or loses in the last split second of the competition, Smolders said. The Americans have yet to win the event, but the competition has been close every time.

“All three of the previous Riders Cups have gone down to the last pairing,” Ridland said. “We’ve always had a shot.”

Usually, the coach picks 10 potential riders in advance, then narrows the team to the final five competitors. In what he said was a strategic move, Ridland chose to name this year’s final American team early: Beezie Madden, Ward, Devin Ryan, Laura Chapot and Lillie Keenan.

“It’s not the grand prix, it’s not the most important event of the week, but I think the riders let their hair down a little bit and have a little fun with it,” Ward said.

Philippe Guerdat, the coach of the European team, said he would name his finalists closer to the competition. As the former coach of the French national show jumping team, Guerdat is familiar with all of the European riders and their horses. “We’ll look at how the horses are jumping that week,” Guerdat said.

The Masters week at the coliseum will also include music, art, shopping and other performances, including a college riding competition and dog agility.

An equestrian himself, Ameeuw is passionate about increasing the fan base for show jumping. People probably think “it’s is a little bit boring,” he said. But he hopes that spectators, whether or not they love horses, will come to an event and “discover a beautiful, fantastic sport.”

He compared the experience to attending Grand Slam tennis tournaments. When you go to the United States Open, even if you’re not a big tennis fan, there are many other things to do and enjoy, he said.

But for the die-hard show-jumping disciples, there is no shortage of top competition, culminating with the grand prix on Sunday.

Ward won that class last year riding Clinta, his 12-year-old gray Oldenburg mare. But this year she is recovering from an injury, so he said he hoped to ride Tradition De La Roque, a 12-year-old black Selle Français, owned by Kessler Show Stables.

New York is the third stop in the Longines Masters series after Paris in December and Hong Kong in February. Ward, who lives in Brewster, N.Y., said he liked having the team competition in New York.

“My hope is that it keeps growing in popularity,” he said, “and is something that can be a great event for many years to come.”

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