Remember the era not so long ago when the traditional equestrian powers dominated Nations Cup team show jumping, with the emphasis on Europe and just a few countries—notably the U.S. and Canada, or sometimes Brazil – in the Western Hemisphere, along with a few in the Middle East? Things have changed, as illustrated by the microcosm of the $290,000 Longines FEI Nations Cup competition at the Palm Beach Masters show in Wellington, Fla., last weekend.

Demonstrating that a stunning 2018 victory which earned Dublin’s Aga Kahn Cup last year was not a one-off, the Mexican team emerged as the runaway winner at the Masters. And who was second at the Deeridge Farm venue? Israel, which barely scratched together a squad for that country’s international show jumping championship team debut at the FEI World Equestrian Games last year. Now it has a larger group of outstanding riders to work with, as competitors from various countries are switching their allegiance to the Star of David.

The home team, the U.S., was expected to be strong at the Masters with half its gold medal-winning WEG squad riding (albeit with different horses than in Tryon, N.C.) but it did no better than third on the grass field at Deeridge. And Ireland, so often a factor, finished a distant fourth over the course that was, ironically, put together by Irishman Alan Wade.

Citing the performances of Mexico and Israel, Irish chef d’equpe Michael Blake noted, “These nations that people think aren’t there; they’re all there now. They’re all well-prepared, they’re all well-horsed, they all have good coaching. There’s nine or ten strong nations now, not just two or three anymore. It’s not just the European nations.”

U.S. team rider Beezie Madden agreed.

“The sport is getting much more worldwide. They can all field a team now and have a good day,” she said. Beezie also made a point of noting about Mexico, “They always have had some great horse/rider combinations, and now they’re putting enough together for a team.”

The Masters competition, which drew six teams (Colombia finished last) was the only Nations Cup held in the U.S. that counts as a qualifier for the Cup finals in Barcelona this September, where one berth for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be available. The Nations Cup league for North America, Central America and the Caribbean has two more qualifiers for Barcelona; one in Mexico and one in British Columbia.

But even more important is this summer’s Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, which is also a qualifier for Tokyo. Mexico, Brazil and Canada (fifth in the Nations Cup at the Masters) are the key countries with a shot at earning a ticket for Japan at the Pan Ams. As the WEG winner, the U.S. already is qualified for Tokyo, along with the five other top finishers from the WEG, all of which except Australia were from Western Europe.

Mexico, coached by Stany van Paesschen of Belgium, is determined to make it to the Olympics. It hasn’t won an Olympic team medal since its 1980 bronze in Moscow. The top show jumping countries, however, boycotted Moscow that year, going to the Alternate Olympics instead.

The FEI (international equestrian federation) works hard to make show jumping more global, because that is important to the International Olympic Committee. There always has been a threat that the IOC will drop the equestrian disciplines, where teams once were more limited geographically than track and field, boxing, swimming or other major sports.

These days, equestrian is showing “more flags,” as the FEI puts it, and that was most effectively demonstrated at the Masters.

~ Nancy Jaffer