competitive rider show jumping

What Is Show Jumping? The Ultimate Guide for Beginner Equestrians

Show jumping is one of the most popular equestrian sports among spectators. It’s easy to follow, and it shows off horses’ amazing strength and agility. But as fun as it is to watch, it’s even more fun to compete in (we would know 😉). 

Show jumping is one of three equestrian sports in the Olympics. Well-trained jumpers that compete at this level make clearing each obstacle look easy, but clean jumps require a skilled rider and an athletic and courageous horse. Show jumping requires a lot of training, but tackling jumps is exciting and rewarding.

If you’re new to show jumping or interested in trying it, this beginner jumper’s guide includes everything you need to know before jumping in.

What is show jumping?

Show jumping is an English equestrian sport where a horse must cleanly cross a series of different jumps at a canter during a timed competition. Show Jumping exhibits a rider’s skill and a horse’s jumping ability. Each obstacle comes with unique challenges, as jumps vary in height, color, and complexity. Riders score penalties, or “faults” if the horse refuses to jump, knocks over an obstacle, or does not complete the course within the time limit. The horse and rider duo that most quickly completes the course without faults wins the competition.

To succeed at show jumping, your horse must be responsive to your aids, and you must know how to position the horse in the right place at the right time for a strong takeoff and clean jump. The height and width of the jumps, as well as the number of strides between each jump, pose the main challenges for show jumpers and their horses. But riders must also jump with impulsion (or power), stay collected and balanced on the course, and maintain a steady rhythm in a canter.

A brief history of show jumping

Compared to other equestrian disciplines, show jumping is fairly new. The tradition of training horses to jump did not take shape until the British Parliament passed the Enclosure Acts, which initiated the fencing-in of previously common land in the English countryside. As these fences went up, equestrians began training horses to jump over them.

Over time, these training practices developed into organized competitions, gaining momentum in the late 1800s. Show jumping made its Olympic debut in 1900, and by 1912, the Olympic show jumping rules had solidified into the competition format we know today.

Show jumpers vs. hunter jumpers

The main difference between show jumping and hunters is subjective scoring. Jumpers are judged on subjective criteria like faults and time, but hunters are judged from one to ten on criteria like turnout, cadence, rhythm, and overall appearance. Hunter jumping is all about equitation, and show jumping is about the rider’s ability to quickly complete a course without faults. Hunter courses are usually more straightforward compared to the high jumps found in show jumping.

What type of horse is best for show jumping?

Show jumpers constantly challenge themselves to jump at new heights and speeds, so their horses must have the adaptability and stamina to keep up. A show jumping horse should display good balance and jumping form, as well as the confidence, composure, and obedience required for training. 

Best show jumping horse breeds

Any healthy horse can jump, but show jumping at high levels requires a horse bred specifically for jumping. Warmbloods are the most popular breed in the sport, but the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH) ranks studbooks based on the six best-performing horses in each one. Here are the top ten as of April 2024:

  1. Belgian Warmblood
  2. Zangersheide
  3. Selle Francais
  4. Holsteiner
  5. Oldenburg
  6. Hanoverian
  7. Dutch Warmblood
  8. Westphalian
  9. Irish Sport Horse
  10. Swedish Warmblood

A horse’s breed does make a difference in its potential–that’s just genetics! But no matter the breed of the horse, show jumping horses require plenty of training and care to be able to perform at their best.

How much does a show jumping horse cost?

The cost of a show jumping horse varies greatly by age, breed, and quality, but you can expect to pay anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a horse bred for show jumping. Keep in mind that additional expenses may arise if the horse is located far away or requires significant training or veterinary care.

How high can horses jump?

While the average horse can jump about three feet, a show jumping horse can typically jump five to seven feet. But the highest jump ever recorded was a whopping eight feet and 1.25 inches.

Do horses like jumping?

Based on what we’ve seen, some horses like jumping, and some do not. If a horse demonstrates enthusiasm when jumping or jumps on their own, we can assume they enjoy it. Most of the time, horses trained to jump with positive reinforcement enjoy jumping because they associate it with something good.

Types of horse jumps

Show jumping courses include a variety of jumps that vary in difficulty depending on their height and width, the angle at which they’re placed, and how far apart they are from other jumps. The obstacles are made from colorfully painted poles, planks, fences, and walls. Though they may appear sturdy, the obstacles are surprisingly lightweight and easy for a horse to knock over. Here are the most common jumps you’ll encounter in the show jumping arena:

1. Cavaletti: small jumps used to train horses and riders in striding, balance, and timing.

Cavaletti horse jump

2. Vertical: a jump made of poles or planks stacked directly on top of each other.

Vertical horse jump

3. Oxer: one wide jump consisting of one vertical lined closely behind another vertical.

Oxer horse jump

4. Crossrail: an “x”-shaped jump reserved for entry-level riders so the horse can easily find the center point.

Crossrail horse jump

5. Swedish oxer: an oxer jump where the front and back poles are positioned diagonally in opposite directions to form an “x” shape.

Swedish oxer horse jump

6. Liverpool: a jump with a pool of water underneath.

Liverpool horse jump

7. Triple bar: a distance jump with three poles of different heights lined in ascending order so the jump progressively gets taller.

Triple bar horse jump

8. Wall: a jump that looks like a solid wall but is light enough to be knocked over if it’s not cleared.

Wall horse jump

9. Open water: a wide pool of water that increases in depth as levels advance. Open water jumps are only seen at top-level competitions such as the Olympics.

Open water horse jump

10. Bounce: two jumps placed closely together, meant to be jumped separately without any strides in between.

Bounce horse jump

As you and your horse advance in show jumping levels, you’ll encounter jumps stacked closely in a “combination”. In a combination, two or three jumps are placed one right after the other, and the horse must jump with only one or two strides between each. If the horse does not complete each jump in a combination successfully, he’ll have to repeat the entire combination.

Course designers can make courses technically challenging by using oxers and verticals within combinations. For example, they may place a triple combination with 18 feet from an oxer at Jump A to a vertical at Jump B, and with 21 feet from Jump B to another oxer at Jump C. The rider must guide the horse strategically to clear this combination.

Show jumping levels

Show jumping levels range from youth and novice classes to Grand Prix level competitions. Show jumping competitions at the international level are governed by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).

Grand Prix show jumping

As the highest level of show jumping, Grand Prix classes feature the highest jumps and most difficult courses. Prestigious competitions such as the Olympics and the FEI World Equestrian Games are held at the Grand Prix level.

How high is Grand Prix show jumping?

Grand Prix show jumping consists of ten to 16 jumps as high as five feet and three inches and as wide as six feet and seven inches.

Olympic show jumping

Olympic show jumping is held at the Grand Prix level, but athletes are held to even higher standards. Olympic show jumpers must also perform in several rounds over multiple days, and the courses often include a wide water jump.

Traditionally, show jumping has been a component of the Olympic pentathlon, which also includes fencing, swimming, running, and shooting. However, after the 2024 Olympic Games, show jumping will be replaced with a riding obstacle course.

How high is Olympic show jumping?

The Olympic jumps can be up to five feet and five inches high, making the Olympics the most competitive show jumping competition. The pentathlon, however, only requires four-foot jumps since it primarily evaluates the well-roundedness of the athletes.

Show jumping rules

For the most part, show jumping is easy to follow. But like any sport, there’s more to it than meets the eye. There is an incredible amount of skill, strategy, and planning involved in show jumping. When you understand all that goes into it, watching the incredible show jumpers becomes even more exciting.

Competition structure

Most show jumping arenas have between 12 and 15 obstacles, and each jump is numbered in order. The horse is expected to complete all of the obstacles within the “time allowed” or “optimum time.” Jumps typically don’t exceed five feet and three inches and are placed within 40 feet of each other, unless they are part of a combination. The rider’s goal is to guide the horse to the center of each obstacle with precision and good timing so the horse crosses without any faults (a “clear round”).

Most show jumping competitions consist of two rounds. All riders compete in the first round which is judged on faults alone. Riders that clear the first round move on to the second round often called a “jump-off,” which is held on a shorter and heightened course. The winner is the horse and rider with the fewest faults scored, or in the case of tied faults, the fastest to complete the course.

Walking the course

On the day of a show jumping competition, riders first walk the course to memorize the jumps and count the number of strides between each so they can guide their horses accurately. Jumps are set at a certain stride, but each horse has a different stride length. Walking the course helps the rider know where to make adjustments in stride during the event. Since venturing off-course is penalized with elimination, memorizing the course is critical. 

During the event, all the riders must focus all of their attention on helping horses conquer each jump at a fast pace. At advanced levels, course designers make the jumps and the layout technically challenging. Some riders walk the course three times or more until they know it confidently. 

Scoring faults

In order to win a show jumping competition, riders must avoid faults. The penalties given can include four faults, eight faults, or elimination based on the type of fault and number of offenses. There are five main types of faults:

  • Knockdown fault: Each time the horse knocks down an obstacle, four faults are given.
  • Refusal fault: The first time a horse refuses to jump an obstacle, four faults are given. If he refuses the same obstacle on the second try, the pair is eliminated.
  • Falling fault: The first time the rider falls, eight faults are given. If the rider falls again or the horse falls, the pair is eliminated.
  • Time fault: If the course is not completed within the time limit, the pair is eliminated.
  • Run-out fault: When a horse ventures off the course, the pair is eliminated.

The penalties given for faults may vary based on the competition level. For example, at the beginner and novice levels, four faults are given for the first refusal, eight faults are given for the second refusal, and the third refusal results in elimination.

How to get started show jumping

Learning to jump with your horse requires careful training, so finding an expert show jumping instructor is the first place to start. The elements learned in dressage training are foundational to show jumping, so if you’re a new equestrian, you may benefit from dressage lessons before or alongside your show jumping training. You both must learn to jump confidently and securely because you could hurt yourself or your horse if you approach a jump with hesitation.

Your instructor will first teach you how to develop a secure seat or a confident and relaxed position in the saddle. Before learning to jump over obstacles, your horse will be trained to walk, trot, and canter over poles on the ground to get used to the strides and pacing. As you progress, your instructor will introduce training with poles raised off the ground so your horse can learn to leap over them with greater impulsion. You will also learn proper positioning in the saddle and on the reins in order to move with your horse as he stretches out his neck to jump.

Learn more: 4 Ground Pole Exercises That Will Help You Win In The Show Ring

How to become a professional show jumper

If you’re interested in making a career out of show jumping, you will need several years of experience riding a variety of horses. Of course, you will also need determination and confidence in your ability to go pro. But most importantly, you’ll need to maintain a professional appearance in the way you speak, dress, and ride. 

Here are a few practical steps you can take to prepare yourself to become a professional show jumper:

  1. Train and exercise regularly. It takes between 20 and 30 hours of training a week to compete at a professional level. You will also need to maintain your fitness to prevent injury and compete successfully.
  2. Become an apprentice or home rider. Apprenticeships provide formal structured training and usually include pay. Home riders take on responsibilities such as exercising horses and competing green horses, making it a great opportunity to practice competing with different horses.
  3. Network with other equestrians. Talk to trainers, riders, owners, and professionals about your goals. The equestrian community is tightly knit, so others will likely be willing to help provide the advice and resources you need to become a professional show jumper.
  4. Further your education. Participate in professional development opportunities when possible, and consider pursuing a degree in equine studies. Not only will this grow your knowledge about horses and riding them, but it also adds credibility to your resume.
  5. Compete on a variety of horses. The ability to jump with a variety of horses, not just the one you’ve ridden for years, demonstrates great horsemanship. Compete in shows with horses of different breeds and ages, and keep film from these competitions.
  6. Seek sponsorship. Professional show jumping is not always the most financially rewarding career. Look for sponsors and other funding sources that can help you cover competition costs and the cost of taking care of competition horses.

Steal the show with quality horse jumping tack and apparel

Thinking of taking up show jumping? The Farm House has all the show jumping tack and attire you need to get started. Here’s what you’ll need.

Show jumping tack for your horse:

  • Close-contact saddle: Also known as a jumping saddle, a close-contact saddle provides a greater range of mobility and makes it easier to use your legs to give aids to your horse.
  • Saddle pad or half pad: These help absorb the shock when landing a jump.
  • Breastplate or running martingale: These are used to control the horse’s movement.
  • Jumping girth: Girths help keep the saddle in place.
  • English bridle: Bridles help the rider communicate with the horse.
  • Snaffle bit: Snaffle bits are gentle on the horse’s mouth and assist in communicating with the horse.
  • Reins: The reins attach to the bridle and are used to give commands to help the rider steer, control, and balance the horse.
  • Bell boots or fetlock boots: Leg protection is important for show jumping horses. Bell boots are great for horses that tend to knock their back feet into their front feet, while fetlock boots are used to protect the back legs from obstacles.

Learn more: Show Jumping Tack: The Complete Tack List

Show jumping apparel for you:

  • Riding helmet: Show jumpers are required to wear an ASTM/SEO-certified riding helmet.
  • Show jacket: Jumpers can wear any color show coat.
  • Show shirt: White, collared show shirts are required for show jumping.
  • Stock tie: Stock ties are a traditional part of jumper attire.
  • Safety air vest: Horse riding vests are not required, but they can help prevent serious injuries from you falling off your horse.
  • Breeches: Show jumpers should wear white or tan knee patch breeches.
  • Tall boots: Find a pair of durable tall riding boots you can wear for schooling and competitions.
  • Gloves: Gloves protect your hands on the reins, and they look classy, too.
  • Stirrup irons: Stirrup irons help you balance on the horse. They should help absorb shock and have good traction to keep your feet in place.
  • Spurs: Spurs are optional, but they provide an additional way for you to communicate with your horse if they aren’t responding to your leg aids.

For tips on the best equipment and apparel for horse shows, read our guide on finding the perfect horse show coat and fit, or choose from our list of 10 of the best English jumping saddles.

There’s a lot to learn before your first show jumping competition. These show season tips will help prepare you and your horse for the big day:

As always, our team of experienced riders are here to help. If you have any questions on what you need for your next horse show, give us a call at 864-457-3357.

You might also like:

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.