Earlier this month, The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair announced that as part of its 100th anniversary celebration it would be offering $1 million in prize money and that it had received a CSI5*-W ranking from the FEI. These two exciting announcements have been overshadowed, however, by the additional news that the 3’ 18-35 and 3’ 36+ hunter divisions would be combined into one division, and a new 3’3″ Junior/Amateur hunter division and a 1.3m Junior/Amateur Jumper Division would be added.

Hunterland Hailstorm

The most contentious of the changes was that the 3′ Adult Amateur division was no longer going to be split into 18-35 and 36+. The division was first split by ages at The Royal in 2002 because of the number of entries in each category. Back then, the younger division often had over 40 competitors, but that has shrunk to 20-25 over the last four years. It is worth noting that this special accommodation is not an official designation and is not part of Equestrian Canada’s rulebook. The change, announced just weeks before the start of the show season, means that where there were two 3ft divisions with 16 entries each, there is now one division at 3ft with 22 entries and a 3’3″ division with 16 entries.

“Either you will see fewer do the three-foot division or you will see a greater level of competition among those that qualify,” noted Kristjan Good, who has several competitive clients in the division. “I don’t know which way it’ll go; you’ll need the year to see how it works out. Some people may push and do more shows or some may move out of that division all together. Either way, the winners will always win.”

The Royal will be making use of the points accrued in Equestrian Canada’s National Rankings, which were introduced last May, instead of the previously used provincial points. As points are calculated based on the prize money offered at a horse show and the number of entries in a class, the larger horse shows with more prize money have an advantage. The national points will also offer riders greater freedom in selecting which competitions they want to attend without being restricted to staying in their own jurisdiction to qualify. (Click here for a review of how spots are allocated.)

“For those on a budget, you don’t have to do eighteen horse shows,” pointed out Keean White, the president and CEO of Angelstone Events, which hosts shows at two major Ontario venues. “You can pick the nine biggest shows and if you do well you have as much chance to qualify as anyone and you can do it on a budget, too.”

In addition, to ensure that national championships are more balanced with rider representation from across the entire country, The Royal’s geographic quotas have been updated. Fewer entries will be specifically allocated to riders from Ontario, allowing for greater representation from eastern and central/western Canada. However, if a region does not fulfill its quota, the next eligible athlete/horse on the EC National Rankings, regardless of region, will be invited. Historically, The Royal has struggled to attract many riders from outside Ontario to make the expensive trip, so riders in the province, which has so many more to draw from, typically fill the gap.

“The changes offer a lot of positives,” said White. “The system is going to benefit the people winning at the biggest shows. The Royal is the national championship, so you want the best riders in Canada to qualify. I don’t think the adult division collapse is an issue, as some of them will move up to the new 3’3” option.”

Collapsing the Adult Amateur division has made room in The Royal’s busy horse show schedule for the 3’3″ Junior/Amateur division. This addition reflects the surge of interest in the higher level that was seen last year after The Royal announced it would not take place, so collecting points was not necessary. While some riders opted to save their horses and moved down from the 3’6″ divisions, others used the opportunity to move up without the risk of losing their coveted chance to compete at The Royal.

“The top-end hunters in the amateur owner divisions have fallen off at the top in recent years,” noted Willa Gauthier, co-chair of The Royal’s Horse Show Committee, about the strategy of adding the new division. “We want to strengthen that competition and so we had to make changes to rebuild the hunters so they remain at the top of the game. We need to see 3’6″ and 4′ hunters coming back and have long felt that a stepping-stone like the 3’3″ division is helpful for people to make that step.”

Some critics of the change agree with Gauthier about the lack of participants at the higher level and so would have executed the change differently. Rather than collapsing the strong Adult Amateur division on such short notice, they note that the Amateur Owners and the Junior Hunters (both 3’6″ divisions) have low entries and could have been run together.

“We believe it is important to keep the junior hunters, which are a core division, on its own because it’s a feeder division and a stepping-stone. These junior riders work towards the Jump Canada and CET medal, then they move to the upper ranks and team selection,” commented Gauthier. “Our goal is to strengthen the hunters and to create a pathway for movement beyond three feet.”

Junior Jumper Joy

With fewer opportunities for amateur jumpers to compete at The Royal, the addition of the 1.3m Junior/Amateur jumper division has been well received. The division further supports The Royal’s goal of providing opportunities for riders to continue to progress while filling the significant gap between the 1.2m Junior Jumpers and the 1.4m Junior/Amateur division. It will also encourage riders to better develop their skills at each level before advancing prematurely.

In their effort to continue to support the growth of the sport, The Royal will continue to evolve and adopt more internationally recognized formats. The FEI Jumping North American Youth Championship, for example, offers riders 12-14 year of age competition up to 1.25m, 14-16-year-olds compete up to 1.3m, 14-18 compete up to 1.4m, and 16-21-year-olds up to 1.5m. EC and The Royal would need to work together to develop a plan to build that depth of Canadian talent to support those divisions, but it would provide a clear path that would help to develop future team members.

“We are trying to align with what is being done internationally in the jumpers,” confirmed Gauthier. “We have changes that have been put in place so that our divisions are in sync with those beyond our borders.”