Ask any horseman what the key factor to a winning show jumping round is, and the answer is guaranteed to be the horse. Without the right horse, even the most talented rider in the world couldn’t turn in a truly winning round. Over the decades that horse and rider have tackled obstacles in the name of sport, some truly amazing equines have graced the venerable arenas and stadiums of the world.
Snowbound is a shining example of a horse not born into the illustrious world of show jumping. Originally a racehorse who was shuttled around various California tracks, he was retrained as a hunter in the 1960’s. Eventually, the talented jumper was loaned to USET rider Bill Steinkraus, who guided him to many wins. With Steinkraus aboard, Snowbound jumped clean in numerous Nation’s Cups across the globe, and lead the US to countless wins. The bay gelding constantly jumped double clears in competition, and clinched Olympic gold at the 1968 Olympics. Unfortunately, tendon issues that had called for an end to his racing career constantly threatened to return, so Snowbound was showed sparingly. Nevertheless, whenever he went out to battle over the winding, colorful courses, he always delivered. The gritty gelding will always be remembered for his sheer power and ability, and he and Steinkraus are remembered as one of the most talented teams to grace the USET.
Another horse of the ‘60’s, Snowman, was a nation-wide celebrity of sorts, with his own fan club and numerous television appearances. However, unlike other famous jumpers, who were foaled at picturesque European barns, Snowman began his career as a lowly plowhorse, and was headed to a slaughterhouse when he caught Harry deLeyer’s eye. deLeyer plucked the gray gelding off a slaughter trailer for $80 in 1956, and the rest is history. Snowman was trained as a jumper and burst into the national show scene by becoming champion at The National Horse Show in 1958, winning numerous stakes and open jumper classes. Although he was a talented jumper, he calmly toted beginners around on his back, which only contributed to his immense likeability. A famous photograph depicts him clearing another horse halted in the middle of an oxer, illustrating his courage and scope. Above all, Snoman’s story is one of second chances and tenacity, and he serves as an inspiration to the face of show jumping even today.
Gem Twist is a name well known to any show jumping enthusiast of the ‘90’s. The gorgeous gray, owned by Michael Gordon, carried numerous riders throughout his career, including Greg Best, Leslie Howard, and Laura Chapot. Gem Twist not only won Olympic silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but remains the only horse to be voted the American Grandprix Association Horse of the Year three times. In his career, Gem Twist won over $800,000 in grand prixs across the world. At the 1990 World Equestrian Games, he was named the “World’s Best Horse”, a fitting title for this flying gray wonder.
Another former racehorse, Touch of Class (pictured above), became an icon for horsemen across the nation. The bay mare was the first ever non-human to take the USOC Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year award after claiming two gold medals 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. With Joe Fargis in the irons, the little mare jumped the first double clear rounds in Olympic show jumping history, and added numerous Nation’s Cup wins to her achievements. Touch of Class competed succeussfully throughout the 80’s, and then continued on to a successful breeding career, where her legacy lives on through her talented progeny.
The great chestnut Big Ben is a horse very dear to Canadians, as he and rider Ian Millar represented their nation proudly through the Olympics, Pan-Am games, World Cup competition, and of course, Spruce Meadows. On their home turf at Spruce, the team won the Spruce Meadows Derby an astonishing six times. Big Ben also claimed the Master Grand Prix at Spruce, and was one of only two equines to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. The chestnut was named Canadian Champion in 1990, and his numerous wins and tremendous jumping ability made him a Canadian legend. Today, a statue of the great horse and his rider presides over a quaint park in Perth, Ontario.
As far as jumping sires go, Cor de la Bryere dominates the breeding aspect of show jumping. The striking dark bay stallion with his signature round bascule and snappy knees essentially revolutionized the modern sporthorse industry. His progeny can be found in show rings across the globe, usually pinned with shimmering blue rosettes. Especially influential to the Holsteiner breed, he was paired repeatedly with certain mares that continuously produced outstanding foals. With forty-nine approved sons and over five hundred registered daughters sired by the stallion, he is sure to leave a lasting impression on the breeding industry for quite some time.
No show jumping anthology can go without mentioning the legendary Huaso, a stringy Chilean horse foaled in 1933. A failure in multiple other equestrian disciplines, the horse was eventually training in show jumping under the command of Captain Alberto Larraguibel Morales. After an army officer saw the horse bolt and leap a two meter wall, Huaso’s fate was sealed, and he was trained to high jump. On February 5, 1949, the gritty horse and his courageous rider charged a towering obstacle that topped out at 2.47 meters, or over eight feet. On the first attempt, Huaso misjudged the take off and refused; on the second, he rubbed the top rail, but on the third try, he cleared the jump magnificently, setting a world record that still stands today. He is thus immortalized as the horse who took flight, and his legendary leap is unchallenged to this day.
From day one, Milton was destined to be a show jumper. Foaled from the finest breeding stock of the day, his owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley, had high hopes for the gray gelding. Piloted by the great John Whitaker, Milton won over one million pounds in prize money, and claimed three gold medals in various European championships. Additionally, Milton won the FEI World Cup Final in 1990, as well as 1991 final. The careful, scopey, gelding rarely touched a pole, and his enthusiasm for jumping was clear to all who witnessed his rounds. Milton served as a shining example of an equine who truly reveled in his career, and was simply adored by Whitaker.
Perhaps the most recognizable show jumper to make the list of great horses is Nautical, a gleaming Palomino forever immortalized in the Disney documentary, The Horse With the Flying Tail. Originally trained as a cow horse, the fiery little palomino bore a western brand on his jaw, spent his early years under strenuous work, and even showed signs of abuse. Nautical was initially called Injun Joe, a somewhat demeaning moniker, and proved to be somewhat of a rogue, as he repeatedly jumped out of his corrals. Eventually, the little palomino was bound for the slaughterhouse, and like Snowman, was saved and retrained as a top-notch jumper. Piloted by the effervescent Hugh Wiley, Nautical rose to the top of the show jumping world, capturing gold at the 1959 Pan-Am games. The pair also enjoyed a successful run on the Olympic Show Jumping squad, and had good showings at the European Championships. Nautical will always be remembered for his expressive jumping style and universal likeability.
These jumping “greats” are what shape the face of our sport and provide an image for future generations of riders and equines to live up to. They have paved the way for upcoming competitors with their tenacity, courage, and incredible scope and power, and will live on as venerable examples of equine perfection for decades to come.