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Rider and horse are tested to their limits in show-jumping courses

Britain's Michael Whitaker riding horse JB's Hot Stuff placed third in the Federation Equestre Internationale's World Cup jumping competition during the Gothenburg Horse Show on Feb 25.

New York

SHOW-jumping tests the abilities of two athletes: the rider and the horse. To the untrained eye, the course may look like a random assortment of jumps, but it is a carefully designed puzzle that has been set for them by the invisible but essential hand of the course designer.

With each jump, "the course designer is asking questions, and then it is up to the rider to find the answers," said Stephan Ellenbruch, chairman of the Federation Equestre Internationale's Jumping Committee and a former course designer who will be judging world-class show jumpers this week at the Masters of New York at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

The show is the final leg of the Masters Series, a set of three international shows - the first two events were in Paris late last year and Hong Kong in February. Riders can receive bonus prize money if they win the grand prix class at three consecutive Masters shows, and one class, the Speed Challenge, uses the same course at each of the three shows.

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To answer the course designer's questions in the most efficient way and gain a competitive edge, each rider must figure out a precise plan to navigate the jumps. In show jumping, the rider is judged based on speed and accuracy and often competes for prizes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The prize money for the grand prix event, one of the highest level classes of the weekend bouts at the Masters, is US$382,800.

"The goal with the riders is to give them a challenge so they can test their own ability and also their cooperation with the horses," said Louis Konickx, whose course creations will be on display at the Masters, and who has designed courses for many top competitions, including championships and world cups, internationally.

Riders do not know the course they will ride until they arrive at the competition. Though they get a few moments to walk through on foot and create a plan for their ride before the competition begins, the first time they get to ride the pattern, and the first time their horses see it, is when they enter the arena. "When you're walking the course, you're trying to come up with the fastest plan possible," said Beezie Madden, a four-time Olympic medalist who won the show-jumping final at the FEI World Cup in Paris on April 15 and will be competing in the Masters on her horse Darry Lou, a 10-year-old chestnut stallion.

"It's a lot like lines in skiing - you want to have basically the shortest distance between all the fences," she said. To get those shorter distances, however, riders like Ms Madden must take risks, cutting tight turns and increasing speeds, which could lead to penalties if poles get knocked down or a horse refuses a jump. Riders like Ms Madden have seen their ambitions crushed by a single tap of their horse's foot. The mark of a good course, Ms Madden said, is when faults happen at all different fences in the course. "It's not a good course if there's one particular problem that is difficult for every horse; there should be diversity in the course and parts of the course that suit each horse," she said.

To satisfy the needs of the riders, horses and spectators, the designer must be inventive, coming up with new combinations that will push both horses and riders to, but not beyond, their limits. Part of it is entertainment: a good course designer must craft something thrilling enough to capture the audience's attention.

To design a challenging course, the designer arranges a series of jumps of a variety of heights, widths and designs that the horse and rider must navigate in a specific order. The FEI, the governing body of the sport, allows jumps in grand prix events at five-star, or top level, competitions to reach a height of 1.6 metres for the top level competitors.

Mr Konickx sees himself similar to a movie director when he is creating a course, working to introduce dramatic elements throughout and building tension, eventually reaching a climax by the end.

Within the course is a complex understanding of the physics of horse and rider: A single gallop stride for the average horse covers about 12 feet of ground, with takeoff and landing each accounting for about half a stride.

Course designers space the jumps at odd distances from one another, forcing the riders to shorten or lengthen their horses' strides accordingly, adding another degree of difficulty. This tests the agility of the horses as well as the rider's ability to make choices about how they set up their horse for a clean approach, takeoff and landing.

In a well-designed course, about 20 to 25 per cent of riders have clean rides, according to Mr Ellenbruch, while the rest accrue faults or are disqualified if they exceed the time limit, jump the course out of order, their horse refuses a jump more than once or if they fall off their horse.

"It is very easy to build a nice course where everybody goes clear, but that's not necessarily the idea," said Mr Ellenbruch, who as a judge works closely with the course designer to ensure that horses and riders are safe and that the course adheres to the rules.

The competition ultimately rests on the ability of the designer to set a challenge that requires the horse and rider to be completely in sync. When a course designer successfully walks that tightrope, the result is a thrilling competition that excites spectators and showcases the horse-rider teams.

"It is always satisfying when you see a class and the course suits them," Mr Konickx said, especially "when they get more confident and proud and you helped bring them to that level". NYTIMES